So You Want to Write A Book About Autism

How not to be this guy about it.

So you think you’d like to write a book about autism. Maybe you’re already writing a book about autism. And, like most aspiring authors, you’d like your book about autism to get published somewhere.  How do you make that happen?

First, the cold, hard truth: whether or not you get published (as opposed to self-publish) isn’t entirely within your control.  The publishers you pitch your book to will have final say over whether or not they accept it for publication, and even then, you may not like the terms they offer.

In this post, I’m going to give you one of the most important pieces of advice you will ever hear as an aspiring author.  This advice comes straight from the mouth of an editor and partner at a small press that hears from a lot of people who have written books about autism.  But I’m not just talking about what we’re looking for.  This is advice that will help you get accepted anywhere you pitch your book.

Here it is: you need to understand the genre in which you’re writing.  To start, you’ll need to be able to answer these questions:

  • What kind of book about autism did you write?
  • What other books about autism are most like your book about autism?
  • Who reads books like your book about autism?
  • How are books like your book about autism used, talked about, and treated by the media?

You don’t need to be an expert on the myriad subtypes of books about autism.  You do need to be reasonably familiar with what’s already out there, and with how your book expands, builds on, supports, or refutes the books about autism that are most like your book.

Why?  Because when you understand how your book fits in to the “big picture,” you can explain it to an editor in your query letter or pitch.  When you explain it well, you answer the editor’s biggest questions: How is publishing this going to help us? and How much work is it going to be to publish this?

I have no idea what kind of book about autism I wrote.  What kind of question is that?

“Books about autism” is a big umbrella.  Here’s a list of the most popular subtypes in the category.

1.  “I am autistic and I wrote about it.”

  • Books that are most like this book: The memoirs of Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, and Donna Williams.  Tito Mukhopadhyay’s books and Dawn Prince-Hughes’s Songs of the Gorilla Nation also fall in this category.
  • Who reads books like this book: Late-diagnosed autistic people, non-autistic parents of autistic people, people wishing to goggle at a zoo spectacle and feel self-important for doing so.
  • How books like this book are treated: Mostly, like self-narrating zoo exhibits, although there are a few interesting (and obscure) academic articles that consider them more closely.
  • Chances a publisher will take this book: Moderate to poor.  This book was groundbreaking when Temple Grandin wrote it thirty years ago.  Today, not so much.

2.  “I/we am/are autistic and there are important things you need to understand about autism.”

  • Books that are most like this book: Sparrow Rose Jones’s The ABCs of Autism Acceptance, Cynthia Kim’s Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Life, AWN’s What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew: A Girls Anthology,  Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump.
  • Who reads books like this book: Autistic children and adults; non-autistic parents and professionals who are interested in hearing firsthand accounts of autistic life.
  • How books like this book are treated: These books get much less media attention than “I am autistic and I wrote about it” books, as a rule, unless the author(s) can be reduced to self-narrating zoo exhibits.  Within a/Autistic circles, however, they may enjoy considerable attention and praise.
  • Chances a publisher will take this book:  Pretty good, if you choose a publisher who has already released one or more books of this subtype and you can explain how this book differs from the other major titles of its subtype. 

3.  “I examine or explore autism through an academic, philosophical, or essentially non-fiction lens.”

  • Books that are most like this book: Anne McGuire’s War on Autism, Jordynn Jack’s Autism and Gender, Sonya Freeman Loftis’s Imagining Autism, Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, Majia Homer Nadesan’s Autism and Representation, Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars, John Donvan and Caryn Zucker’s In A Different Key: The Story of Autism.
  • Who reads books like this: Autistic adults (and some children), researchers of all kinds, some particularly motivated non-autistic parents and professionals.
  • How books like this book are treated: The more academic and in-depth the approach, the less popular attention the book gets, although it may sell well in its circles.  The more journalistic and “human interest” the approach, the more popular attention the book gets, and it may sell extremely well.
  • Chances a publisher will take this book: Extremely good, if the book covers an area that has not been addressed previously and it is pitched to the right publisher.  Remember that academic publishing is an entirely different world from commercial publishing, with different timelines and rules.

4.  “I examine or explore autism through a storytelling, poetic, or similarly creative lens.”

  • Books that are most like this book: Michael S. Monje Jr.’s Imaginary Friends (also Nothing is Right and Defiant) and also The US Book, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (probably), Tito Mukhopadhyay’s poetry.
  • Who reads books like this: Autistic kids and adults (depending on the book), some non-autistic recreational readers.
  • How books like this book are treated: Like “I am autistic and I wrote about it” books, these books tend to sell more copies if they reduce autism to a curiosity, spectacle, or self-narrating zoo exhibit.  Books in this genre that portray autism more realistically, however, enjoy a small but intensely loyal following among autistic and neurodivergent readers.
  • Chances a publisher will take this book: Very good, especially if you have nailed the genre in other respects.  (For instance, if you are writing science fiction, make sure you can explain how the book works within the sci-fi genre, as well as how it works as an artistic exploration of some aspect of autism.)

5.  “I am not autistic but I know someone who is and I wrote about it.”

  • Books that are most like this book: Ralph James Savarese’s Reasonable People, Josh Greenfeld’s A Child Called Noah, Clara Claiborne Park’s The Siege and later books.  Several books in the nonfiction and fiction categories, including  Neurotribes, In a Different Key, (maybe) Carthage, and Barry Prizant’s Uniquely Human, fall into this category as well,
  • Who reads books like this: Non-autistic parents and curious others; anyone looking for a zoo exhibit to goggle at.
  • How books like this are treated: Generally, as narrated zoo exhibits.  This is true even though the books’ actual treatment of autism varies wildly (hint: the ones that include the words of the actual autistic person, like Reasonable People, tend to take a much more humane view than those that do not).
  • Chances a publisher will take this book: Unfortunately, much higher than the chances that the same publisher will take an autistic person’s book, unless you choose a publisher who specifically seeks out autistic voices – and sometimes not even then.

6.  “LOL autism.”

  • Books that are most like this book: Clay and Gail Morton’s Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap: NT is Okay!, Kathy Hoopmann’s All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome.
  • Who reads books like this: Autistic kids and adults, non-autistic friends and family members of autistic people.
  • How books like this are treated: While the mainstream media has no idea how to treat these books, they’re generally well-loved by audiences, especially if they turn existing stereotypes on their heads effectively.
  • Chances a publisher will take this book:  Lower than they should be, but still pretty good, especially if you can demonstrate a command of good satire.

So now what?

When you query publishers, or pitch your book, refer to the genre and subtype (not necessarily in the terms listed here).  Mention one or two already-existing books it resembles, and then immediately indicate why your book is different.  For instance, you might write, “While my book is in the tradition of autism memoirs like those of Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince-Hughes, its honest exploration of the gritty realities of growing up an undiagnosed autistic in the projects – including the two prison terms that entailed – makes it stand out.”

As an editor who publishes stuff by autistic people about autism (among other things), my heart would do a little happy dance if that sentence appeared in a query letter.  In three lines, you’ve told me (a) that you know what’s already out there, (b) that you probably have a good idea of who your readers are, and (c) you’re willing to fill a giant gaping hole in available autism memoirs.  Heck yes, I want to read your manuscript!

There’s a lot more to a good query, of course, including the publisher to whom you pitch your manuscript, and I’ll get into that in later posts.  For now, keep in mind that the publisher most likely to take your book is one who has published books in the same subcategory before and seen them sell well.  Your job is to explain (in three sentences or less – editors strongly dislike rambling) how your book both looks like those books and is sufficiently different that readers who read those previous books will still want to read yours.

Is it a tough thing to do?  Well, yes.  Query letters stump even the most accomplished writers.  But hey, you wrote a book.  You can do this – if you know how your book relates to what’s already been written.

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About Autistic Academic 14 Articles
Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press, a freelance writer, and human to two spoiled cats.  Her first novel, Nantais, will be released by NeuroQueer Books in 2017.  She's already busy writing its sequel.