Neurodiversity, Activism, and Uncommon Sense: An Interview with Adam Mardero
Adam Mardero’s Uncommon Sense (Latitude 46 Publishing) is a brave new book that delves into the labels and misunderstandings that arise from being on the autism spectrum. In this memoir, Adam untangles the myths and stigma of those on the spectrum and chronicles the life-long journey he’s faced since he was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of nine. Through the perspective of his geek world, Adam shares the challenges faced after being labeled and how he found his voice as an activist for neurodiverse young people. Below, we chat with Adam about how a conversation about feminism helped lead him to his work as a neurodiversity activist, the challenges of writing a memoir, and how sci-fi encouraged his active imagination from a young age.
All Lit Up: What was the scariest thing about finishing your memoir?Adam Mardero: Honestly? The scariest thing about this whole process has been inadvertently upsetting a friend, family member, or acquaintance with something I wrote. Life is messy after all, and while I strove really hard to be fair and understanding to the people I wrote about in my story, I also knew I had to be honest and vulnerable, and sometimes that meant tackling hard truths. The tricky thing about writing a memoir versus other kinds of stories I’ve written is that your characters can in fact tell you off if they don’t like what you said. When I killed off my alien main character in a sci-fi novella I wrote in high school, for example, I didn’t have his voice in my head berating me for the decision. Memoir isn’t quite so clean!I promise I meant no disrespect to anyone I wrote about in Uncommon Sense! In fact I have nothing but love and appreciation for those who had an impact on my life journey.ALU: Was it hard to put down so much personal information about yourself? What advice would you give an author struggling with writing about something personal?AM: Oh boy, yeah. There are things I’ve done in my life that I’m not proud of, and things that have happened involving people I love that shaped me but were perhaps regretted by everyone who was there. Actually, there were a few sections of the book I considered not including at all originally because I was afraid of sharing too much personal information, but I quickly realized that human journeys are far from perfect and compelling books/characters/narratives often involve such moments of intense vulnerability. My original draft of Uncommon Sense (which will NEVER see the light of day if I have my way) was far too clinical and detached, and it was only once I started opening up and exploring my psyche that the book came together. That’s the biggest advice I’d give anyone who wants to write about something personal; be cognizant of the balance between sharing and oversharing…but also don’t be afraid to be honest, raw, and vulnerable. It’s through sharing our stories that we build understanding and bring people together…and I think there’s power in owning that. ALU: What do you hope readers will learn about in your book?AM: I think the biggest thing I hope readers take away from my book is that the neurodivergent experience (specifically, the autistic and ADHD one as that’s my own vantage point) is an inherently human one. People have such internalized and stereotypical biases around what it means to be autistic: you have to be a boy, into trains or trucks, fixated on schedules and rules, and so on. At the worst end, there’s also the assumption of a complete lack of ability to succeed in the world. It’s extremely ableist and also highly inaccurate. Girls are also autistic. Nonbinary people are too. And even for males? The way autism presents is highly individualistic and varied.Basically, it’s a spectrum for a reason…a non-linear one at that…and a lot more people are probably on it than is commonly realized. If anyone reads my book and thinks to themself, “huh…I didn’t realize that was an autistic thing. Maybe I/my child/family member am/is autistic too!” then I think I’ll have succeeded. ALU: When did you first understand autism?AM: So I realize that my book makes this sound like a linear progression from a starting point—and to a certain degree it was—but it was also a bit more complex. I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact moment when I first started to understand autism, though I do stand by the speech writing competition I took part in in grade seven as being as good a point as any to highlight. I heard the term Asperger’s floating around at home quite a bit as a kid—I knew on some level it made me different—but until I researched and wrote that speech, I didn’t really fully understand how. And even then, when I did? The prevailing mindset of the ’90s/early 2000s was that Asperger’s and autism were highly related but also distinct. The same but different. The journey to realizing that they were in fact one neurotype with a plethora of unique presentations was a whole other thing that kind of happened subconsciously in the background for me as I learned and grew. With a hefty dose of stubborn denial along the way, too, of course.I guess what I’m saying is, autism is an inextricable part of me…and so the journey to first really understanding it was sort of a life long one too. My comprehension of it evolved as I did. ALU: Has the publication/completion of Uncommon Sense been a cathartic experience for you?AM: So many times throughout the writing process, I’d sit down to work on a chapter or section, write something emotional and powerful because at first glance it just sounded good and came to me. Then I’d read it over and think “wait—is that true? Was that really how I felt?” And often, after some brief self reflection, the answer proved to be yes and my jaw dropped.Writing Uncommon Sense helped me process my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined before. It also helped me retroactively assign meaning to moments that seemed random when I first experienced them. Through it all, I came to understand myself better. It was the best therapy I’ve ever been paid to do! ALU: The intersection between feminism and autism/mental health in the book is quite authentic. Can you talk about this in some way, about that feeling of understanding and empathy?AM: Thank you! I’m really glad you appreciated that discussion in my book. I think, for me, being introduced to feminism and mental health advocacy capped out another life-long journey of mine. If you ever ask my mom, she’ll tell you—Adam has always been preoccupied by fairness and a need to be equitable to everyone. It goes way WAY back, and has always formed a core part of who I am. Needless to say, I’ve ALWAYS hated would-you-rather-type questions because of it! (laughs).When I got to high school and learned about politics for the first time (from both my extremely politically inclined grandma, and what was taught in civics class), I was immediately drawn to leftism and threw my support in with the NDP. I envisioned myself as a member of a union as an adult, fighting for the fair and equitable treatment of my fellow workers.Yeah…I guess on some level I’ve always had the heart of a social justice warrior, though I hate how that term has been twisted by the right online. It was feminism though, and the discovery of the very concept of identity itself being political that really made me question everything I’d been taught/read about my own neurodivergent brain. The internet rabbit hole I fell down after being introduced to feminism is what ultimately led me to neurodiversity, because it was the moment that I realized I not only could use my own status as an autistic person to advocate for change, but that I also had a right to exist exactly as I was instead of trying to force myself to fit into an arbitrarily designed box. After a lifetime of internalizing ableist messages to the contrary, that was a powerful moment for me.ALU: Can you talk about your activism as it relates to autism?AM: Activism is an interesting thing for me. I’ve always been drawn to human rights causes and I’ve always been a political person. That I can trace all the way back to high school. But neurodiversity activism in particular for me started in my upper years of university. I had become more and more comfortable with my own neurodivergence throughout my time at Laurentian, though never to the point where I really wanted to announce it or make anything of it to the world. That started to change in my fourth and fifth years respectively, when between a conversation about feminism I had with a dear friend, and the things we discussed in teacher’s college, I began to realize that I had a potentially unique perspective to share with the world. This conviction just deepened when I went down the online rabbit hole and started learning from other autistic advocates. Weirdly enough, this book is actually what got me started as an advocate and blogger online though, because I’d started tossing around the idea of writing the book that was then called ‘Differently Wired’ back in 2012 but had no idea where to even start so I figured reading others’ blogs and starting my own would be the best way to process my experiences on the spectrum and how they shaped me. I was also passionate about using my writing in such a way to reach others. One thing led to another and eventually “Differently Wired” became my online activist identity.I guess the long and the short of it is though, that I’ve always cared about leaving the world a little better than how I found it, and when I came to terms with my own marginalized identity as a neurodivergent person, it spurred me to want to write more about it in the hopes of helping others because I knew this was a voice that needed to be heard. This book and my career in neurodiversity advocacy were born at the same time, and so in a way, I suppose Uncommon Sense is the culmination of my journey so far.ALU: Do you think your book could help parents who have children struggling with autism? AM: I’m really hopeful it does, but perhaps not in the way that the mainstream narrative around autism would hope. I don’t want to cure autism, nor do I want to encourage that as a goal. Far from it in fact! What I hope is that, after reading my book, parents of newly diagnosed kids (and others) realize that there is in fact nothing wrong with their kid exactly as they are. That’s not to say their struggles aren’t real or are somehow invalid, just that it’s okay to help with the struggles while also embracing the gifts and strengths. Neurodiversity isn’t clear cut—it can be both a disability and a strength—but one thing it also is beyond any reasonable doubt, is a part of someone’s identity. Helping people work through their challenges shouldn’t mean demonizing the entire way their brain works. Especially when you consider that so much of disability is socially constructed. To borrow a metaphor used by a friend the other night, when you’re the only cat in a society of dogs, of course you feel disabled. But you aren’t broken—you’re a cat. And you probably get along quite well among other cats! I hope my book helps parents of autistic kids by helping them realize this. ALU: How did science fiction help you as a young person?AM: I’ve always had an extremely active imagination, and properties like Star Trek and Star Wars have forever stimulated and encouraged it. I was sucked in for a lot of reasons; wonder at the limitless vastness of the cosmos, dreams of one day exploring other worlds and meeting infinitely diverse life forms, fantasies of epic adventures as a Jedi Knight or commanding a Federation starship as a member of Starfleet, and so on. Science fiction was at once an escape, and an inspiration to me. It taught me many valuable lessons about life (and Jean Luc Picard will forever be Space Dad because of his wonderfully moralizing speeches in The Next Generation!).It went beyond simply watching/reading/playing science fiction stories though—my best friend Mitch and I even crafted our own Dungeons and Dragons-style roleplay and used it to build our own sci fi universe. We called it Explorer Chronicles and had…I think…six series and twelve seasons’ worth of episodic content for it that we wrote collectively between 2001 and 2007? I keep telling him we should do something with it too! More than anything though, science fiction has always given me hope for a better, more egalitarian and tolerant future. As a kid, Star Trek‘s values of peace, acceptance, celebration of difference, and embracing the power of science and reason always spoke to me. They still do. ALU: Who are some of your favourite authors?AM: I have such eclectic taste in books and authors: Timothy Zahn (author of the classic Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy books and several others); John Elder Robinson (his book Be Different was one of the first books I read by a fellow autistic person about his experiences and it directly inspired me); Steve Silberman (reading Neurotribes was a moment of awakening for me as an autistic adult); Art Spiegelman (as someone who loves history, I read Maus in high school and found it a very poignant and powerful narrative about human rights, generational trauma, and the Holocaust. I also thought the use of the graphic novel medium lent it lots of creativity!); Claudia Gray (she wrote some fantastic YA Star Wars novels after Disney bought the franchise, and through her book Lost Stars has become one of my favourite writers for her ability to explore the complexities of morality in a war through the lens of the Star Wars universe); Margaret Atwood (This one is a bit of a cheat because I haven’t actually read any of her books but I love The Handmaid’s Tale TV series, have mad respect for her as an author, and fully intend to read the copy of the book I bought off a friend at their yard sale recently!)ALU: If you could talk to yourself as a child now from adulthood, what would you say?AM: This is going to sound super hackneyed and cliche, but one main thing comes to mind:”It gets better.”Middle school was an extremely hard time for me. I was getting bullied incessantly and I remember at one point all the adults in my life told me that things would get better as I got older, but I never believed them. Well, they were right, and even though kid me would probably perceive adult me as just one more grown up sharing a contrived platitude, it has proven to be true….also? I’d want to tell him that technology in the year 2021 is so cool, and that he’d eventually have a PADD-like device (iPad), a pocket computer that can access the sum total of all human knowledge (iPhone), and an AI assistant in his apartment that he could talk to and ask to turn lights on/off, play music, or even tell him jokes!I never cared as a kid if my future home was big or small, but I always wanted it to be high tech. I think kid me would really appreciate the fact that we essentially live in the sci fi future we dreamed about in the ’90s.ALU: Do you see any improvements over the last 15 years in regard to mental health stigma?AM: Absolutely! We’ve made so much progress in such a short amount of time. In 2006, when I graduated from high school and started university, things like autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and so on were known about but still spoken of in more hushed tones. And when they were discussed? It was often the clinical perspectives that were highlighted. Over the last decade, that’s thankfully begun to change, and I think we owe it not only to my fellow neurodiversity advocates online, but also to the internet in general and how it has democratized the sharing of perspectives and experiences. So many people have used it as a way to share their own stories of battling depression, embracing neurodiversity, and so on, and it’s changed the mainstream conversation in fundamental ways. I have a loved one with Dissociative Identity Disorder and PTSD, for example, who spent their entire life feeling shame and disgust towards themselves because of it. I wish this person used the internet, because I’d love to show them several youtube channels, tiktok videos, and online communities that now exist and are dedicated to educating about the topic. The same is true of countless other areas of mental health.We’ve come so far, and I’m so proud as both an advocate and someone with first hand experience. But we still have farther yet to go. ALU: What are you planning on next in terms of writing?AM: No, all joking aside, I actually do have a few ideas, though I haven’t decided on anything concrete just yet. I definitely want to write a follow-up to Uncommon Sense that focuses on neurodivergent adulthood and elaborates on my ADHD journey (since I didn’t officially get that co-diagnosis until August of 2019). I’d also really like to get back to writing science fiction at some point too. The sci fi novella I mentioned writing in high school? It’s merely one of a seven-book saga I’ve plotted out in my head, and the last thing I want is to pull a George R.R. Martin and never release any of them! …now if only I could overcome my writer’s block and focus issues and actually write them. (Gotta love the neurodivergent brain!)
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Sudbury, Ontario author Adam Mardero founded the blog Differently Wired to educate and advocate for neurodiversity. He holds a Master”s Degree in History and a Bachelor of Education. Since coming to terms with being neurodivergent, he’s dedicated his life to helping further the causes of Autism and neurodiversity acceptance. Uncommon Sense: An Autistic Journey is his first book.