What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing?
I learned how big the LGBTQ + community is within the autism community. I’ve been to a lot of autism events that have a lot of LGBTQ + people, but I didn’t think, “That’s one thing.” But if you look at the data, there are more autistic people who identify as LGBTQ + than among the neurotypes.
Another thing was that the surge in autism diagnoses wasn’t just caused by changes in the DSM [“The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” a book used in the medical field to classify conditions] in the 1980s, but also because the Americans With Disabilities Act 1990 classified autism as a disability, and that meant schools had to report how many students they looked after. This gave rise to the broader thesis of my book, because it said that people like me – I was born in 1990 – have resources because conscious decisions were made in public order. It made me realize that it made my life a lot better. From the 7th grade on I went to a private school, but before that to public schools, and I was given accommodation that would otherwise not have been available. And at the university I got tutoring and I got disability services. These were the result of the ADA. Our lives are often determined by things that are beyond our control. People like to talk about personal responsibility and personal choices, but my ability to determine my destiny was based on those conscious public policy choices that had not been made before.
How is the book you wrote different from the book you wanted to write?
At first I set out to be much more ambitious. I wanted to focus internationally, to report about the whole world. But because of the time constraints and then the pandemic, things changed.
My impulse is always to report. With all due respect – because I have a lot of friends who have written great memoirs on autism – I felt my story was compelling, but it’s not the full story. Although I wrote a book that has a lot of my personal life in it, in general I am a very private person and I feel like there are certain things that I don’t like to share. And there are also things that I don’t think point to the whole autistic experience. I wanted to be as holistic as possible.
Which creative person (not a writer) influenced you and your work?
If you read the chapter titles in the book, many of them are from songs. When I was growing up I wanted to be a musician, so I am just as inspired by Black Sabbath as I am by journalists like Steve Silberman or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Rebecca Traister. I’m as influenced by Bob Dylan’s lyrics or NWA as I am by Woodward and Bernstein. When I have a deadline, I tend to listen to aggressive music: The Ramones, Metallica, the Misfits, Public Enemy. When I wrote “We’re Not Broken,” listening to jazz music was the thing that really got me going. John Coltrane sponsored the last three chapters of the book.