Good Different: Writing to Discover My Diagnosis, a guest post by Meg Eden Kuyatt
I’ve been trying to write about my autism for years, even before I was formally diagnosed. In college, it became clear to me that I was different. I read a book with an autistic-coded protagonist and marveled—There are others who feel like this? I began taking classes and reading books to learn more about autism. I volunteered as an aide for autistic kids at my church, and realized these kids made sense to me. Their behaviors varied from mine, but I felt I could understand why they acted the way they did, while teachers remained “baffled.” I created my own major, taking an interdisciplinary approach to the brain and mind, culminating in a thesis that took the form of novel from the perspective of an autistic girl. The novel was therapeutic to write as I mined my memories for how I saw the world as a child, and I received great encouragement on the project from mentors and writing contests. Two things should’ve been clear to me at this point: that I was autistic and that I was destined to be a children’s book author. However, I continued to resist writing middle grade for eight more years and went back and forth on identifying as autistic until I received my formal diagnosis in 2020.
My debut middle grade novel-in-verse GOOD DIFFERENT built off ideas in that original thesis. I was still interested in a female autistic perspective, and how it looked like to navigate school and family. I kept mining that old draft, knowing it wasn’t the exact story I wanted to tell yet, but that there was a glimmer there. I just needed a plot.
But as COVID hit, all of my sensitivities as an autistic person went into overdrive. I felt so exhausted and overwhelmed from simple grocery trips, and after a particularly difficult one, I found myself coping the way I often do: through writing poems. As I wrote, I unearthed a memory of a girl in elementary school who began braiding my hair without my consent. I wrote about how confused I felt, but as I wrote, the memory morphed until suddenly, I was no longer writing about myself but a character. That morphing happened when the speaker of the poem suddenly hit the girl who was braiding her hair. I was shocked—where did that come from? What led to that moment? I knew I had to write more to find out.
As I continued to write, I found myself finally putting into words sensations I had bottled up for most of my life, sure that I was “the only one” bothered, that everyone just “put up” with sensory challenges, and that I needed to just “get over it.” No one ever explicitly told me this in my life. I just had never seen anyone struggle with the same things I did. The people I saw struggle in my life had diagnosed physical illnesses. They were pains other people understood as “real.” Feeling nauseous, or feeling like I was being metaphorically stabbed by loud sounds, weren’t exactly things you go to the emergency room for, and therefore, it seemed like something I needed to just “put up” with, that it wasn’t a “real problem.”
But it was during this drafting process that I decided to finally seek out a formal autism diagnosis. As I began seeing a therapist and began to take diagnostic tests, I was terrified of being told that I was “normal.” I had heard so many horror stories online of how hard it is to get diagnosed as a woman, that since autism often presents differently in women than white boys (the standard from which autistic diagnosis criteria have derived from), our concerns can easily be dismissed as being overly “sensitive,” or we can be misdiagnosed with completely different conditions. I was terrified: if I was told I was “normal,” how was I supposed to explain how the smallest things caused such tremendous pain, or how the things “normal” adults could do seemed so overwhelmingly impossible to me? I was terrified that without an autism diagnosis, it would mean that my difficulties were invented in my head, and that I was just weak and childish, and had to learn how to better “put up” with the realities of adulthood.
So when my therapist told me I was diagnosed as on the autism spectrum, I sobbed with joy and relief. There was something. Not wrong, but something that could explain why I was the way I was. I wasn’t just making it up. It not only validated the story I was telling with Selah, but also gave her a name. Up to this point, I had just tried to write about the sensory issues I find difficult in my daily life. I didn’t give it a name, as I wasn’t sure I was autistic and didn’t want to cause harm to the community if I was wrong. But with the diagnosis, I not only had closure for myself but Selah as well. She had a name for how she was, and that name was empowering, because it was a tool she could use for communicating her needs.
In GOOD DIFFERENT, Selah learns that she has permission to communicate her needs and to ask for accommodations. This is a lesson I am still constantly learning. When the music is too loud in Zumba and I forget earplugs, I’m terrified to ask for the instructor to turn it down. I’m afraid of not being heard. I’m afraid of disrupting the experience of the other dancers. A part of me still feels like I need to “put up” with the music, that loud sounds aren’t a “real” problem as they only seem to affect me. After all, no one else in Zumba is asking for the music to turn down. But as scary as it is, I am trying to practice asking for accommodations. I ask my husband to go to Wegman’s for me, since the sensory experience can be overwhelming. I practice writing to process my thoughts and using that writing to take action to communicate with those around me. It’s still hard, but I’m learning myself and my limits better. The more I communicate, the more I realize how I’m uniquely wired, and how to best maintain my operating system.
I hope that kids reading GOOD DIFFERENT can learn these lessons quicker than I did. I hope they can see themselves and see that their difficulties are valid. Sensory pain is not something anyone should have to just “get over.” But also, I hope they can see real ways they can ask for accommodations and communicate their needs. They may encounter people who don’t understand, or who invalidate their concerns. But there are also many, many more people out there who are fantastic allies, and who might even be going through the same thing. Even if being autistic can be difficult, there are also so many beautiful parts of the experience—and so many ways we can fly. I hope that readers are encouraged by Selah’s story, and in the process can better understand themselves as well as those around them.
Meet the author
Meg Eden Kuyatt is a 2020 Pitch Wars mentee, and teaches creative writing at colleges and writing centers. She is the author of the 2021 Towson Prize for Literature winning poetry collection “Drowning in the Floating World” (Press 53, 2020) and children’s novels, most recently “Good Different,” a JLG Gold Standard selection (Scholastic, 2023). Find her online at https://linktr.ee/medenauthor.
Facebook: Meg Eden Writes Poems
About Good Different
A extraordinary novel-in-verse for fans of Starfish and A Kind of Spark about a neurodivergent girl who comes to understand and celebrate her difference.
Selah knows her rules for being normal.
She always, always sticks to them. This means keeping her feelings locked tightly inside, despite the way they build up inside her as each school day goes on, so that she has to run to the bathroom and hide in the stall until she can calm down. So that she has to tear off her normal-person mask the second she gets home from school, and listen to her favorite pop song on repeat, trying to recharge. Selah feels like a dragon stuck in a world of humans, but she knows how to hide it.
Until the day she explodes and hits a fellow student.
Selah’s friends pull away from her, her school threatens expulsion, and her comfortable, familiar world starts to crumble.
But as Selah starts to figure out more about who she is, she comes to understand that different doesn’t mean damaged. Can she get her school to understand that, too, before it’s too late?
This is a moving and unputdownable story about learning to celebrate the things that make us different. Good Different is the perfect next read for fans of Counting by 7s or Jasmine Warga.
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/04/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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