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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

Ladlefuls Of Space-Time

Losing her memory didn't make Emily Eifler lose her sense of identity.

Emily Eifler leads a beautiful life. Every morning, she wakes up in San Francisco’s Twin Peaks next to her husband of 12 years, thanks to the caterwauling alarm of their alarm clock cat, who rigorously needs petting at dawn. She lives in a tiny, picturesque little house, with a bright and fragrant garden, where she sits, stroking her other cat. As she does so, she eats toast, butter, and honey, while reading comics — fantasy comics like Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine are her favorite. When she’s done, she practices her yoga, and maybe does some dancing on the patio. Then she goes to work.

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“I just draw on my head.”

A tatterdemalion of bright textures and clashing colors, Emily bikes to her lab in SoHo. She makes for a morning-brightening sight: her head is half shaved, she wears rainbow wool dresses and silk scarves over leopard print leggings, and her eyebrows are often smeared with streaks of literal magic marker. “I don’t mess with lipstick or foundation, no mascara or traditional applications of eyeliner. No contouring or cover up or highlighter,” Emily says. “I just draw on my head.”

It works. She looks like an awesome video game character, which is sort of appropriate, because Emily is a respected VR researcher, who spends her professional days working on the problem of how people perceive and integrate into the virtual world.

For almost a year, Emily has been posting a spherical 360-degree-video on her personal blog every day. These spherical videos are specifically important to Emily. She lovingly describes them as “little ladlefuls of space-time,” a way for her to externalize a moment into a virtual room she can explore at a later time. “My videos are a way for me to construct memories,” Emily says. That’s important for her. She can’t form memories like other people can. Whether it takes weeks, months or years, Emily’s chronic amnesia always sweeps them away.

On her 10th birthday, Emily’s family and friends went to a local hotel pool for a swim party. Invisible amongst the squealing and splashing–except, perhaps, in the flickering of the candles on her birthday cake–a carbon monoxide and chlorine gas leak unevenly filled the area. Everyone was poisoned, but Emily and her mother, a doctor, were affected worst. Emily’s mother experienced stroke-like side effects that practically paralyzed her with a crippling migraine for the next eight years. As for Emily, she developed what she calls “a grab bag of neurological issues, from Alice in Wonderland syndrome to post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Like her mother, Emily gets chronic migraines, which she treats with magnesium supplements and medical marijuana. (“It’s a miracle drug,” she says. “They say too much pot makes you a slacker, but I only have a full-time job because of medical marijuana.”) She suffers from periodic and debilitating trembling attacks, where her entire body feels set to shake itself apart. Her body’s ability to accurately tell where it is in space, called proprioception, is also severely limited, causing significant balance issues and forcing Emily to walk with a cane. But this condition actually makes Emily uniquely suited to tackling how a person is supposed to physically sense where they are within a virtual world when they can see and hear it, but not feel it. Non-virtually, that’s a problem Emily’s been dealing with ever since she was 10.

Curiously, what many people might find the most horrifying side effect of Emily’s brain injury is the one which bothers her the least: after a few months, she forgets almost everything. “I can’t really remember anything after the age of thirteen,” she says. If what happened was particularly meaningful, Emily will remember the fact of it afterwards, but not the details, or any of the first-person narrative. For example, Emily says that she knows that she once went to China on a trip, but she has no memory of anything that happened there. She doesn’t remember what she wanted to be when she was growing up, or why she went to college.

I miss my brother, even though he died a long time ago. I don’t know what I miss about him, but I do.

Sometimes, not being able to remember is as tragic as people, largely informed by movies like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, might expect. Years ago, Emily’s older brother Ryan died. Emily knows this, it’s a fact, but she can’t remember what Ryan’s face looked like, what happened on the day he died, or really almost anything about him. It’s just not there. The only thing that is there is sadness. “I still cry about it sometimes,” Emily says. “I miss my brother, even though he died a long time ago. I don’t know what I miss about him, but I do. Trauma is sticky. Those emotions are still stored in my body; my body still recognizes the welling of my heart.”

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Beautiful with a fashion sense all her own.

But there’s also moments of great beauty in constant forgetting. Emily’s husband, Steve, who remembers things in “Technicolor detail,” is someone she says she is “constantly falling in love with” all over again. Because she can’t remember their life together, he lovingly describes it to her in newsletters, meant just for her. Through Steve, Emily is able to experience, again and again, the moments of passion, friendship, silliness, and tenderness that have intertwined them: their first date, their first kiss, the day they moved in together, the day they adopted their cats, and so on. Steve just never gets old for Emily. “Yesterday, he was in the living room, reheating food, while doing a silly dance and some weird voice,” she says. “I just sat there, thinking: he’s awesome, I love him so much. But I know I’m not going to remember this, which makes me enjoy it so much more in the moment. I can’t be nostalgic in the future. I have to be nostalgic for right now.”

I can’t be nostalgic in the future. I have to be nostalgic for right now.

One thing does concern Emily about her future. She and Steve have started talking about adding a baby to their happy household of buttered toast and cats. “We both want to have kids, but what does that mean? I’m going to forget their whole lives.” But ultimately, Emily and Steve don’t think it has to be a deal breaker. Even without a long-term memory, they know that Emily can be a good mother… the same way she is a great wife, a caring lover, a hilarious friend, a talented artist, a dutiful daughter, a respected professional, and more.

“When people first meet me, they’re so aghast that I don’t have a first-person narrative memory,” says Emily. “They think that if it disappeared, they’d disappear with it. But I’m still the same person: I didn’t lose my identity just because I lost my memory.” After all, everyone forgets. Emily just knows better than the rest of us that being good at remembering doesn’t have much to do with the kind of person you ultimately are.