Posts

Profiles

How “The Autistic Academic” Got Her Sci-Fi Writing Groove Back

In both the real world and through the pages of her fiction, Dani Alexis Ryskamp is looking to overthrow people's preconceptions of what it means to be autistic.

When Dani Alexis Ryskamp was nine years old, she read through all of her dad’s old undergraduate psychology textbooks in an effort to figure out what was “wrong” with her. “I knew I was different from other kids the moment I set foot in kindergarten,” Dani told Folks, “and my mother, my teachers, and my peers all made it very clear that ‘different’ was wrong.”

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, posing for an impromptu selfie.

Throughout childhood, Dani had no friends and was viciously bullied at school. She spent most of her time alone, reading fantasy novels, like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time quintet and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake; taking dance lessons; and running around on her mother’s forty-acre farm in rural Barry County, Michigan. Her mother’s advice for dealing with bullies—to be excessively ‘nice’ to them, in hopes that they’d respond in kind—was almost as misguided as her teacher’s: “‘Well, the other kids wouldn’t do this stuff if you’d try to be more like them,’” Dani remembers being told. “But it didn’t seem to matter how hard I tried. There was something they understood that I didn’t.”

All of this left her feeling “crazy, broken, worthless, fucked up.” Panic attacks and dissociative episodes afflicted her regularly. The world felt like a sensory onslaught. Motor function wasn’t always predictable, and she felt helpless in any social situation that didn’t let her rely on a script.  At age seven, she made her first suicide plan.

Dani’s precocious textbook-reading did more harm than good. The 1970s-era, 101-level psychology textbooks “convinced me that what I had was schizophrenia and that the only treatment was to be locked up and loaded down with tranquilizers,” she says. “It became my life’s mission to hide that I was ‘crazy.’”

It didn’t seem to matter how hard I tried. There was something they understood that I didn’t.

In an escapist fifth-grade fantasy, Dani designed her dream house: A four-room log cabin, far away from the world of bullies, where she would spend her days writing science fiction, communicating with her editors and publishers via phone and fax. “I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I knew where books came from,” Dani says.

But working from home wasn’t yet mainstream in the early 1990s, and so every adult in Dani’s life—except for her dad—dismissed her solitary-writer-in-a-cabin life plan as ridiculous. “By the time I’d left for college, the idea of being a working writer had been pretty well beaten out of me,” Dani says. As a college freshman, she discovered she hated her chosen major—mortuary science—and went on to get a B.A. in English before going to law school (“The same naysayers who talked me out of being a professional writer convinced me there were no jobs to be had with a Ph.D. in English, either”). All the while, she suffered from the same inexplicable sense of being “crazy, broken, worthless, fucked up.” Working in insurance defense left her physically and mentally ill; she burned out after a year.

It wasn’t until 2009, when Dani was 26, that she finally got the answers she’d been seeking as a kid reading her dad’s psychology textbooks. After burning out at the law firm, she visited a psychiatrist. In just a few hours, she was diagnosed with autism.

“In hindsight, I already knew that I was autistic: I’d been dating an autistic man for about six years, and I’d done enough reading that I could see myself in the literature,” Dani says. “The diagnosis came as a massive relief to me. Autism is called ‘pervasive’ for a reason: it affects every thought, every perception, every process. It says a lot about how sick I was at the time, physically and mentally, that I needed a psychiatrist to say the word before I realized that I’d kind of already figured that one out.”

All through her childhood, Dani had assumed she’d grow out of being different: “That I’d wake up one morning and I’d just understand what was going on socially, lights and noises and textures wouldn’t hurt, and my body would do what I wanted it to do whenever I wanted it,” she says. “It wasn’t until my diagnosis that I realized that I wasn’t going to ‘grow out of’ it, and it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t.”

Not everyone was as relieved by the diagnosis as Dani was, though. “My mother’s response to the news was to say, ‘Do you think I did this to you?’” Dani remembers. “I confess that I laughed at her – by then, my dad and I had already decided I got it from him. (He has not gotten a diagnosis because he doesn’t see the point.)”

It wasn’t until my diagnosis that I realized that I wasn’t going to ‘grow out of’ [autism], and it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t.

Later, Dani made the painful discovery that she’d been evaluated by a psychiatrist as a two-year-old, because her dad and babysitter had seen early signs of atypical processing—but her mother had buried that information during a rocky divorce from her father. “My mother still hasn’t accepted my diagnosis,” Dani says, “and that drove a wedge between us I doubt she’ll ever be able to mend. Because that diagnosis saved my life, and to hear her continue to treat it and me as a tragedy is heartbreaking.”

Ryskamp edits the Spoon Knife series of anthologies for Autonomous Press.

The diagnosis saved Dani’s life, in part, by paving the way for her transition from a soul-deadening insurance job to pursuing her childhood dream of being a writer. “The most valuable part of being autistic, for me, is that it’s given me an understanding and command of language that I’ve never seen in anyone who wasn’t neurodivergent in some way,” Dani says. “I wouldn’t be as good at what I do, or enjoy it as much, without that ability.”

She immediately enrolled in an M.A. in English at the University of Michigan. There, she met Athena Michaels-Dillon, the Production Coordinator of Autonomous Press, an independent publisher with the tagline “Weird Books for Weird People”: In other words, books about neurodivergence, queerness, and the various ways they can intersect. Titles include The ABCs of Autism Acceptance and The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children.

Autonomous Press seeks to foster better understandings of autism and other forms of neurodivergence, and “to help neurodivergent people find community and an outlet for expression—to continue to establish our voices as real human voices worth listening to, by putting them in print,” Dani says. Because when it comes to societal approaches to neurodivergence, “pretty much everything urgently needs to change. Autistic and neurodivergent people are still searching for crumbs when it comes to basic rights.”

To put things in perspective, when Dani was born, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) didn’t exist. “We’ve gotten only marginally closer to accepting the idea that disabled people have a right to exist in public, even if the laws meant to familiarize us with that idea have no real teeth,” Dani says. “The mere fact of a mental or emotional health diagnosis is enough to jeopardize many people’s jobs, their right to raise their own children, their access to education, and their right to live independently.”

We’ve gotten only marginally closer to accepting the idea that disabled people have a right to exist in public, even if the laws meant to familiarize us with that idea have no real teeth…

In Autonomous Press and its main imprint, NeuroQueer Books, Dani found a group of likeminded people—the publisher’s partnership is currently all autistic—as well as a job that allowed her to use her legal expertise, writing skills, and lived experience as an autistic woman in a world built for neurotypical brains. Now, Dani is the resident attorney at Autonomous Press; her job is about about one-third lawyering and two-thirds editing. She’s co-edited NeuroQueer’s Spoon Knife series, an annual anthology of writing by neurodivergent authors; has a chapter in the upcoming NeuroQueer Handbook; and is currently working with veteran autistic activist Kassiane Sibley to turn her long-running blog into a book.

Dani blogs herself, passionately and prolifically, under the moniker “The Autistic Academic,” about everything from “Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women” to “The Autistic Adult’s Guide to Getting Hired.” Her work fiercely champions disability rights and debunks insidious myths about autism. Misunderstandings abound, of course; in Dani’s experience, the most common is the notion “that autistic people are somehow tragically unreachable or tragically deprived of the joys of a ‘normal’ human life – that we’re locked in, that we can’t understand other people’s reasoning or emotions, that we have no real feelings about anything around us,” she says. “I have yet to meet a single autistic person who actually experiences any of those things.”

Another pervasive misunderstanding is that autistic people can be categorized as either “high-functioning” or “low-functioning”—reductive terms that Dani finds unhelpful and insensitive. “‘High-functioning,’ of course, is most often taken to mean ‘almost a normal person,’ while ‘low-functioning’ often appears as a synonym for ‘burden’ or ‘tragedy case,’” she says. “Yet every autistic person I know varies wildly in their ‘functioning’ in various areas, even from day to day.  Some of us, myself included, have been described as both high-and low-functioning, sometimes by the same doctor in the same document.”

Autism is a state of constant flux.

Dani, for example, has three college degrees, but she can’t live alone because the steps involved in making food are too difficult for her to follow unassisted. She and husband spend time working out my scripts for various events and tasks before she does them. “Autism is a state of constant flux,” she says. “Describing our personal support needs is far more useful that dismissing us as ‘high-functioning’ or ‘low-functioning.’”

A sci-fi themed selfie: Ryskamp posing in a Star Trek doctor’s uninform.

Later this year, Dani will publish her first science-fiction novel, Nantais. It’s set on a post-apocalyptic earth, all but destroyed by global warming and rapacious overconsumption. The rich have fled for Mars or the Kuiper Belt (on the other side of Neptune), while a few massive, corrupt corporations control the earth’s remaining resources. Disaster strikes on the Jemison, a research vessel working for a corporation called Interstellar Science: The captain’s son has been kidnapped, the computer core is slowly freezing up, and their only hope is an alien woman who has to have her memory wiped if she wants to live.

“I’m wildly excited about it,” Dani says of Nantais. “This is a universe that has existed in my head in some form since about 1992, so I’m thrilled to be able to put it into print.” And so, some two decades after designing her dream cabin, Dani has showed up the naysayers: She works as a solitary writer, communicating with editors, publishers, and other writers remotely, just as she planned as a fifth-grader.

 

Profiles Uncategorized

Changing Ideas About Autism In The Developing World

Mary Amoah and her beautiful daughter Renata are challenging preconceptions about what it means to be normal in the African nation of Ghana.

Mary Amoah once thought witchcraft was behind her daughter Renata’s silence and odd behavior.

The Ghanaian mother said she did what any other mother like her would do – she prayed, she tried different ways to lift the ‘curse,’ and then she attempted to deny there was a problem.

Renata Kuffour was fine as a baby, as a toddler she started speaking a few words, but then, just before she was three, they disappeared. Mary, a teacher of 13 years, started to worry. She left her job and started trying to find out what was wrong with her daughter.

“She would hardly look at us. She had very poor eye contact she would want to play by herself, running in circles or spinning items…she would stare at her hand constantly,” Mary recalls, speaking from the family home in Accra, the capital city of the African nation of Ghana.

Renata wasn’t potty-trained,  so she couldn’t go to school. Mary took her to different hospitals but was always told her daughter just had delayed development.

Renata and her mother share a smile of understanding.

Renata and her mother share a smile of understanding.

She wouldn’t sleep, instead she would stay up singing. “That actually made me believe it was actually something to do with witchcraft,” Mary says. “Why would a child talk to herself, sing to herself, if she didn’t want to interact? Sometimes she might recite prayers but not really connecting with you, those things made me believe that it was probably something to do with spiritual forces.”

Acting on this belief, a desperate Mary took the advice of a woman who told her she could help her child by going to a market at the end of the day and collecting food scraps to cook for her. The woman told her doing this would mean Renata’s spiritual destiny would be safe, essentially lifting a curse off her.

“I am educated,” Mary says.”[But] I believed all these things and did [them].”

Why would a child talk to herself, sing to herself, if she didn’t want to interact?

It wasn’t until a friend visiting from the United States suggested Renata had autism that Mary realized what was happening with her five-year-old. She joined 52 different groups on Facebook to learn about the condition, which often results in delayed development and impaired social interaction. She also began to speak to other mothers with autistic children. It opened Mary’s eyes. In Ghana, she realized there was a vast population of undiagnosed autistic children, just like her daughter. 

It wasn’t easy being told her only daughter might not be able to work, that she may need help for the rest of her life, Mary recalls. But, unlike many other families in Ghana where those with disabilities are hidden or rejected, Mary decided to take action. She wanted her daughter to be able to be helped and accepted by Ghana’s conservative society.

In order to support her daughter and other children like her, nine years ago, Mary started working at a support center in Accra for children with speech and language difficulties, like Renata.

The center supports children with a range of speech or communication issues, taking in children with disabilities like autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy or hearing impairments, for example.

Renata plays with her mother, Mary.

Renata plays with her mother, Mary.

As the center coordinator, Mary and her colleagues advocate to bring parents together to encourage them, and let them know that as difficult as things may be “it’s not a dead-end situation”.

This was a lesson she learned in the USA, when she was offered a place on a program for parents of autistic children at the Autism Treatment Center of AmericaWhile she got a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts center in 2013,  friends and family rallied together to pay for her airline ticket. The program taught her autism isn’t a ‘dead-end’ diagnosis, and that the parent is an autistic child’s best resource. She also met other parents in the same boat who she can still call on for  support and advice.

Coming back from the program she was inspired to take on its messages, and share them with other parents. “If the parent understands the condition, they are in a better condition to support their kids,” says Mary.

With all the support, love and work with Renata, now 13, she can sit quietly and follow her parent’s simple directions.

Mary calls her over for a kiss, and she obliges, then goes back to her seat. It’s her favorite spot, because the foam has compressed where she has sat over the years, allowing her to literally leave her mark on the space. 

Every now and then, Renata — now a beautiful teenager with big eyes and a warm smile —  will start humming, and that hum will build into a song. She will laugh, bounce in her seat, and then get up to wander into the next room, or spin around in a circle.

Mary watches on, smiling. “If she’s happy, I’m happy,” she says.

Renata and her family.

Renata and her family.

In most ways, Renata’s family embodies what Mary and the center advocate to those who have children with communication difficulties: the whole family is involved and responsible for her.

Mary’s husband, Benjamin Kuffour, is a teacher at a boarding school in Accra. The family lives in a large house on the school campus. The lanes are lined with trees and the family has their own large, tranquil backyard.

Renata’s older brothers, Charles, 18 and Emmanuel, 16, will take her on daily walks, while the family takes turns taking her to church. They also support her in her specialized diet -gluten and casein- free. She was put on the diet in 2013 and since then it has helped with Renata’s concentration and stabilizing her moods, she now sleeps well and is a lot calmer, Mary says.

Like many teenagers, Renata can be a fussy eater, Mary says. But she eats a lot of rice, vegetables, soup, chicken, and fish. She’s even starting to like fruits. “Once she sees every member of the family eating the same thing, she is motivated to try it,” says Mary.

Renata likes to run in circles, which can make people dizzy to watch. Still, the family likes to join in occasionally. “As long as it makes her happy, and she is not injuring herself, that’s fine with us,” Mary says.

Renata's family portrait, amongst the other women of her family.

Renata’s family portrait, amongst the other women of her family.

When she was younger, she didn’t like wearing clothes, which meant they could not take her out. But the family worked hard to get her used to clothing. She went through a stage of only wanting to wear tight things, so Mary dressed her in swimsuits. With sensory therapy–in other words, getting Renata used to things touching her body–she now wears glittery sandals and bold, African prints.

It’s important to Mary to dress her well, because it’s a way to project that her daughter is a person, not a disability.

“There was never a point where we saw her as a lesser person among us,” Mary says. “We have always cherished Renata, and supported her in any way we can.”

Aside from helping Renata with her day-to-day needs, Mary is focused on educating people on autism, where the condition has considerable stigma. Because she is not physically disabled, people struggle to understand why Renata is the way she is.

“That was one of the most challenging things we had to deal with,” Mary explains. “In Ghana, I think people are more used to ‘traditional’ disabilities. But when they have a child with autism and there is nothing to show on the outside, people don’t see it as a disability.”

In July, Mary took Renata to a playground, where Renata showed how happy she was by running in circles. Pleased with Renata wanting to play, Mary went to join her, grabbing her hands and playing ring-around-the-rosey. “Everyone went silent,” Mary remembers. Mothers in Ghana just do not play with their teenage daughters like that.

Renata’s autistic, but that is not all there is to her.

She explained to the shocked parents looking at her that Renata was autistic. As they left, one of the mothers confided to Mary that she had a child like Renata, but that she couldn’t handle him. When she brought her other children out to play, she left her autistic child at home.

It’s this stigma, this sense of hopelessness, that leads Mary to tell anyone who will listen about her “beautiful, lovely” daughter. She documents Renata’s life and their journey together on an open Facebook page.

Renata’s autistic, but that is not all there is to her.