“I Found My Neurodivergent Safe Space, Where ‘Socially Awkward’ Is the Norm.”
“When I confessed that I was scared I’d be the weird kid, they cracked up. ‘No, you’re not the weird kid,’ they all told me. ‘I’m the weird kid.’ One swore that he spent his childhood wearing a cape. Another said he used to carry a dictionary around for reading — and personal protection.”
Peopling is hard. Peopling with strangers is harder. When you’re neurodivergent, every social situation can feel like a slow-moving catastrophe of missed cues and faux pas. As my husband and I stepped into the hotel for the Horror Writers Association’s annual StokerCon gathering, disaster seemed to loom. I faced three days of intense peopling. Surely, I would screw it up somehow.
We walked into a sea of black-clothed people in nametags. I immediately noticed my Twitter buddy Andrew Sullivan, an accomplished author recognizable by his tats. “Hi!” I said, touching his arm — then realizing he was rushing by with a group of other people. I swallowed a wince: Social faux pas number one accomplished, and I hadn’t even reached the registration table.
But Andrew gave me a genuine smile. “Hey, Eliza!” he said. “Good to see you! I’ll catch up in a bit.” He disappeared into the crowd. I blinked a few times. He hadn’t ignored me. My impulsive greeting wasn’t brushed off as strange. That was different. My husband and I found the conference’s check-in. I was the writer. He’d come along for moral support — I wasn’t walking the social gauntlet alone.
I shouldn’t have worried, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Finding My Neurodivergent Safe Space
I’d started writing Southern Gothic horror about a year earlier; while I’d interacted with plenty of other writers on Twitter, I didn’t know about the horror community’s strong commitment to supporting its marginalized members — including the neurodiverse ones. So often, we’re lost in the shuffle. While people may say they “support neurodiversity” — and most do — they’re unwilling to do the hard work of understanding us.
We have trouble with eye contact. We overshare. We burn out and need a break; we miss social cues, then miss more while we’re trying to cover our embarrassment. To people who don’t understand, we can read as rude, condescending, or worse. It’s excruciating for us and alienating for others.
The head of the Horror Writers Association, John Edward Lawson, understands this all too well. “As a person with CPTSD, severe depression, and ADHD, who is also a parent of someone on the autism spectrum, I am intimately familiar with the challenges faced when navigating a society engineered against your needs,” he says. “My belief as a leader is that you don’t boost your community by raising the ceiling, you do so by raising the floor; people who are forgotten, left out, or dismissed will contribute in groundbreaking ways when able to participate.”
I’d walked into the ultimate neurodivergent safe space.
This started to dawn on me when my cadre of Twitter buddies recognized me from across the bookroom — and shouted my name.
I hadn’t expected shouting, which is usually my first impulse and usually ends with a side-eye and a dismissal of over-enthusiasm.
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked after wending my way over. One more time, I stopped myself from wincing: Certainly, I’d said the wrong thing again. No one hugs people they just met.
“Um, I hope you give us a hug!” one of them replied.
I’d found my not-scary scary people.
Where the ‘Weird Kids’ Are
One woman had fire-engine-red hair, long on one side and buzzed on the other. One wore a fanny pack and carried emoji signs he threatened to deploy in place of facial expression. Some had wild tats, and some had none. They were lawyers and accountants, grocery-store clerks, and parents. Some were super-extra, and some were quiet. When I confessed that I was scared I’d be the weird kid, they cracked up. “No, you’re not the weird kid,” they all told me. “I’m the weird kid.” One swore that he spent his childhood wearing a cape. Another said he used to carry a dictionary around for reading — and personal protection.
“Personal protection?” I asked.
He told us about clocking his childhood tormentor with Merriam-Webster, and I might’ve fallen a little bit in love. Someone else might have called it “over-sharing,” but we were all “over-sharing.” No one cared. When a woman spent half an hour explaining her unabashed love for seaQuest, it wasn’t odd. Her passion was beautiful; we appreciated her energy and excitement with the same enthusiasm she handed us. Of course, we wanted her to tell us. Of course, it wasn’t weird. Did she like it? Only that mattered. The “cool” kids had stopped making our rules, and we were free.
But StokerCon went farther than simply tolerating our social quirks. The HWA planned carefully to accommodate its neurodiverse members. Though we had panels all day, people were vocal about becoming burnt out with too much peopling; they took breaks, and no one felt ashamed about it. StokerCon, as Lawson notes, included, “expanded virtual events and asynchronous workshops, a variety of event spaces such as the quiet rooms,” and diversity grants were awarded through the Horror Scholarships program. Lawson didn’t just plan on an institutional level, either. When I brought him a book to sign and realized, cringingly, that it was a signed edition, he laughed with me.
I wasn’t alone in feeling included. Cynthia Pelayo, who won a Bram Stoker Award that weekend for her poetry collection Crime Scene (Raw Dog Screaming Press), says, “I haven’t been as vocal about myself being neurodiverse, but I think it’s important to state that and to highlight that people like us exist who fall outside of the neurotypical range. All humans deserve respect, kindness, patience, and understanding, and as a neurodiverse person, respect, kindness, understanding, and patience from the writing community has been instrumental in my success.”
That writing community’s support goes further than StokerCon, too. Jennifer Barnes runs Raw Dog Screaming Press, which scooped two Bram Stoker Awards in 2022, one in 2021, and three in 2020. “I suspect there has always been a large contingent of neurodiverse writers and, as a press, we’ve always tried to be aware of that, especially in social situations,” she says. “So when we take pitches, we don’t worry about eye contact or how the pitch is given, and we understand that conferences can be overwhelming. This also extends to all author communication.”
I spent a lot of time talking to people that weekend. I also spent a lot of time simply being myself, and that was a kind of exhausting I’d never experienced in a large-group setting. “It’ll be hard to remember to act normal,” I told my husband as we drove away from StokerCon.
He threw me a look. “We were acting normal,” he said.
I smiled because he was right, and it was wonderful.
Socially Awkward Next Steps
- Read: “Life on Mars: While Peopling Is a Mystery to Me “
- Download: Social Anxiety Facts and Falsehoods
- Learn: Why Do I Say Stupid Things? Rein in Impulsive ADHD Speech
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