Hello all, and welcome to this week’s article for FanFiAddict’s series on Neurodivergence in Fiction. I cannot understate how appreciative I am for the overwhelming amount of support and enthusiasm I have seen for this series of mine; thank you! For the next several months we will be bringing you a guest post every Wednesday from a neurodivergent author. This will hopefully highlight some of the challenges that come with writing for a largely neurotypical audience, while also giving valuable insight to the craft itself and providing a window into the neurodivergent experience — at least through the lens of fiction.
For this week’s article, we are joined by ML Spencer, the author of the popular Dragon Mage. In her article, ML provides an unabashed look at her own experiences with Autism Spectrum Disorder and how she came to view her diagnosis as a superpower.
And, without further ado, the article.
I’ve lived on the autism spectrum my whole life, which is why I chose to create a main character who was just like me. I can’t speak for everyone with ASD, but I can tell you about my own experience with it, and why I value being on the spectrum more than any other aspect of my personality. I’ll be frank, life on the spectrum has been difficult, sometimes even tortuous, but it’s also been my greatest strength.
That dichotomy of the strengths and challenges of autism is something I’m trying to convey in my Rivenworld series, where I have cast a main character who, like me, has high-functioning ASD. There is no acting when I write Aram’s point of view, no imagining myself in someone else’s mind. At every plot point, I merely have to look inside myself and ask, “What would you do? How would this make you feel?” Aram is me, and I am Aram, just without all the magical bling.
I guess the easiest way for me to describe my experience with ASD is to talk about my childhood. My earliest memories were of being shunned. I’m not kidding you. Every day I dreaded going to daycare and then later kindergarten because I knew I would be isolated and alone. None of the other kids ever wanted to play with me, and I did not understand why. This deep, aching loneliness persisted as I embarked upon elementary school.
Already, social isolation was causing huge problems with my psyche. My self-esteem was nonexistent, and I would do anything to get anyone to play with me or even sit beside me on the school bus. Nobody wanted to associate with me because I was the child who was always crawling around on the blacktop of the playground pretending to be a lizard or galloping like a horse, lost in my imagination. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. All of the other kids pretended to be things when they played together, so why couldn’t I pretend too? Why did everyone think I was different? What was wrong with me?
Second grade came along, and I finally got a best friend. I also promptly lost that best friend because I decided to entertain them by reciting the entire screenplay of Battlestar Galactica, all two hours of it, from start to finish. Meanwhile, I was still that kid in class that no one wanted to sit next to. Nobody wanted me on their team, so I was never picked. I spent recess alone under a tree, building cities in the sand. In the afternoons I would play in my grandma’s orange grove, pretending that it was a fantasy land. I made detailed maps of it, creating kingdoms and histories and religions of the inhabitants of these imaginary lands.
I also started to rely on reading as an escape.
When I was in the third grade, I read the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and fell in love with fantasy. I began devouring fantasy novels and even writing my own stories, every spare minute of the day. It was all I ever wanted to do, and it consumed me.
At school, the social isolation worsened. By the time I was ten, I was getting beat up pretty consistently. There was one boy especially, Carl, who used to punch me in the stomach several times a week. He would take me off guard and slug me to the ground, no apologies. No one ever told the teacher, and neither could I, for fear of being even more resented. No one ever stepped in to help me.
It wasn’t until high school that I started acquiring friends. I guess I had learned by that point how to interact with people better, enough to be socially accepted. In college, I had a group of friends that I hung out with from time to time, but I was never popular. At parties, I was often alone, always the person standing in the corner. I always left early, exhausted and quivering with anxiety.
I was a very good student. I found that I could concentrate on one task single-mindedly, better than anyone else I knew. It allowed me to throw every waking moment into studying, and to be at the top of my class in almost every subject.
My junior year in college was when I decided to seriously pursue my dream of becoming a fantasy author. I embarked upon a survey of fantasy novels, gobbling them up, in a quest to study every aspect of fantasy. I became obsessed with writing, to the point where I didn’t want to do anything else. I abandoned studying for my classes and instead put all of my intense focus on writing. That obsession held throughout the rest of college, when I finally graduated after failing many classes that I no longer cared to study for. I had other, better things to do. I had novels to write.
Many people didn’t understand my obsessive pursuit of writing. All my life, my mother had tried to break me away from my subjects of interest and had not allowed me to indulge in them. It got so bad I would hide in the attic to write, and when I heard her coming up the stairs, I would scramble to hide what I was doing from her.
But as an adult, my mother wasn’t around anymore, and I indulged completely in my fascination with fantasy. I wrote my novel Darkmage in just forty days. It just poured out of me. I tried for a long time to market it to agents without success and finally gave up. I decided that my best wasn’t good enough, that I would never be signed and that my dream was unreachable. I put down my pen and threw all of my great focus into video games instead.
That’s the way I spent the next decade.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I pulled Darkmage back out of the dusty recesses of my hard drive and self-published it. But I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it languished on Amazon without selling. Finally, in 2016, I at last learned how to market my work, and I went on to write the other novels in The Rhenwars Saga.
And that’s when I got the idea for the split world of Dragon Mage. I began worldbuilding it years before I ever wrote Chapter One. I started researching history, anthropology, archaeology—everything that I thought I had to learn to make myself a better fantasy author, to add more richness and texture to the world and story. When I finally did settle down to write, I wrote all 100 chapters of Dragon Mage in just 102 writing days. Like Darkmage, it just poured out of me. I was finally writing a character who was like me, and I was utterly obsessed with him.
You see, a couple of years before, I found out that I have what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome, what is now known as high-functioning ASD. That revelation was the biggest epiphany I have ever experienced. Suddenly, every mystery of my life seemed to be solved in an instant. It explained everything, every moment of confusion, every aspect of my personality, and suddenly everything just all clicked into place. It was the most liberating and wonderful feeling, to finally have an explanation of what made me unique, why I was “different.”
Instead of getting discouraged, I owned it. If it wasn’t for ASD, I don’t think I would be the fantasy writer that I am today. I wouldn’t trade being on the spectrum for anything. Having ASD is, I believe, my superpower. That’s why I wanted to write a main character who could experience the same struggles that I experienced, and yet could also be a powerful hero. I wanted to convey to other people with high-functioning ASD that being on the spectrum doesn’t have to hold you back from your dreams. It can be your true strength, and it doesn’t have to be a weakness. It can even be your superpower, just like it has always been mine. That’s why I wrote Dragon Mage and poured my heart and soul into it.
About the Author
ML Spencer lives in Southern California with her three children and two cats. She has been obsessed with fantasy ever since the days of childhood bedtime stories. She grew up reading and writing fantasy fiction, playing MMORPG games, and living, as mom put it, “in her own worlds.” ML now spends each day working to bring those worlds into reality.