Fictional Characters on the Autism Spectrum with author Cassandra Dunn | EDB ep.29


In this episode, Harold Reitman, M.D. speaks with Cassandra Dunn, author of “The Art of Adapting.” Cassandra discusses her book, growing up with an uncle on the spectrum, and why she decided to have a main character in her book have Asperger’s syndrome.

For more about Cassandra, visit: www.CassandraDunn.com

Also, check out the blogs Cassandra has contributed to this site: differentbrains.com/transcending-labels-cassandra-dunn/

The Art of Adapting” can be purchased here: http://goo.gl/XXwW6Q

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HAROLD REITMAN, M.D. (HR):

Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman and today we have the author from out in the Bay Area, out there in California, Cassandra Dunn, who wrote The Art of Adapting published by Touchstone Simon and Schuster. Hello Cassandra, how are you?

CASSANDRA DUNN (CD):

I’m great how are you?

HR:

Thank you so much for being with us!

CD:

Thank you for having me.

HR:

Well how long have you been writing?

CD:

Well I’ve been writing my whole life but publishing for a shorter amount of time. I’ve been writing short stories since I was about eight, but I didn’t get really serious about trying to do a novel until after my daughters were in school and I had a little more time to write.

HR:

Nice. How many kids do you have?

CD:

I have two girls.

HR:

And how old are they now?

CD:

They’re nine and eleven.

HR:

And what are they interested in?

CD:

Well they’re both avid readers which makes me proud and they’re both gymnasts and learning, one’s learning to play the piano. Busy kids.

HR:

Alright. Now tell us about The Art of Adapting.

CD:

Well I had an uncle who had Asperger’s Syndrome and so I always knew that at some point I wanted to write something to do with it just because it was an interest of mine and I noticed that once my kids got into school, that their school is the District School for kids on the spectrum and so they began interacting with kids that had Asperger’s and autism throughout their school day and I got to know some parents of young children that had autism and Asperger’s and I started feeling like it was an important story to tell from the perspective of having known an adult who had it, somebody who wasn’t just figuring out how to navigate all these things and I could see the pressures that parents felt you know to mainstream their kids and help get them get settled as quickly as possible and I kind of thought that it might help balance some of that to talk a little bit about what it looks like in an adult from even a child’s perspective to grow up around it and sort of accept it as just another part of someone’s personality.

HR:

Now let’s step back a bit to when you were growing up. So where did you grow up?

CD:

I was born in El Cerrito right next to Berkeley in California.

HR:

And you had an uncle who was the basis for this character?

CD:

He was the inspiration; the character is a very different person. He changed a lot once I started actually creating the book but he definitely was the reason that I felt compelled to write about somebody who had had Asperger’s Syndrome.

HR:

Was he your favorite uncle?

CD:

He was, I didn’t have that many uncles but he was the one that I saw the most which wasn’t really that much, he was a private person, very quiet, kind of kept to himself but he would show up at all of our family gatherings if we had Christmases and stuff and kind of stand in the background and he was just always an interesting character to me, a very very sweet guy, really really smart, had deep interests and he would learn a lot about a new topic if it seemed interesting to him and he just seemed to have a wealth of information and I think as an aspiring writer, I liked that in somebody who really had deep interests and a lot to say about some particular topic.

HR:

Well I think what’s great about your book is that it incorporates him as an individual forgetting his label, the fictionalized version of your uncle is just a very interesting character, a regular member of society and not really focused on the label per se. What kind of feedback have you gotten from the community relative to that?

CD:

I’ve been really pleased with the feedback I’ve gotten. It’s been almost entirely positive as far as the character of Matt went and it’s been a really pleasant surprise. I was prepared for some people not feeling like I adequately represented their experience with autism or Asperger’s and it hasn’t really been the case and almost all of the feedback just has been you know gratitude for having a positive depiction of it out there, which I think we need more of.

HR:

What made you write the Art of Adapting?

CD:

That’s a good question. I knew that I wanted to try writing a novel and I had written one before that, sort of a practice book and had done well in some contests with that. But the idea with this character with Asperger’s was in my mind and I just had a feeling that writing something that meant so much to me personally would probably be a better book so I put my effort into doing that and that turned out to be the right choice. That was the one that got me an agent and got me a book deal. So I think that it was just having a really strong personal connection to the subject matter and really feeling like I had a story worth telling.

HR:

Were other characters inspired by real life situations and you know the story line?

CD:

Yeah I’m sure that there’s a piece of me in pretty much every character in the book. But one of the fun things for me about fiction is to kind of take a departure from what is my normal everyday life you know to kind of create an environment that isn’t sort of stuck in the same stuff I’m dealing with. I was going through a divorce at the same time that I wrote the book and so the idea of not being in a position of this, having to reassess our family and set up our new home but also sort of the fear of that but also the power of being able to choose how she wanted her new family to look. I think that was definitely part of my feeling of trying to feel like, in the end this is going to be a good thing for all of us, but I also felt like it gave a really good opportunity to introduce a character like Matt and give him his own space and a new family to kind of grow and to see how he would affect other people from their perspective as well from his.

HR:

And I’m so glad that Donna Levin introduced us, another author out in the Bay Area.

CD:

Yes, that was very nice of her to do. She did a lovely review of it and I really appreciate that she took the time.

HR:

Yeah and she’s a good author herself. She is. What is your next project?

CD:

Well two manuscripts that I’m going back and forth on with my agent so they’re both still, I have complete drafts but we’re working on the revisions and it keeps changing as I’m revising. The second book is kind of hard I put everything I had into that first one and I felt like the second one would come real easy, but it’s actually just the same thing, starting over with a blank slate and trying to find the piece of it that’s so passionate to me that that’s the story I have to tell. I’m still looking for that.

HR:

Have you thought about doing any screenwriting?

CD:

I actually did some screenwriting in college and kept doing a little bit for fun afterwards, I’ve never shown them to anybody but I do like the format it’s a very stripped down way of writing, just action and dialogue. I do think sometimes that I would like to go back to it just to see, now that I’ve learned so much more as a writer about story and about plotting and about pacing, I think it would be fun to go back to that at some point.

HR:

Now do you associate with other writers, do you brainstorm with other writers?

CD:

Yeah I have a writing group and we exchange chapters when we’re struggling with something and I also work as a freelance editor so I take on projects of other writers, helping them get their books ready to be put out into the world and proving — I’ve met so many authors that I always wanted to know other authors have them on some pedestal it would be cool if I could ever know them but now I have a whole bunch of them as friends and they’re just normal people like me, and it’s a great community, it’s really nice how supportive all of these authors are of each other, and we don’t treat each other like competition, we all want each other to succeed and just to help get the best work out there.

HR:

Now how did you get your agent? How did that come about?

CD:

I did a bunch of research of agents that were looking for that were currently building lists and looking for new authors particularly in women’s fiction and I made a list of — I broke them into groups of 5 agents and I was going to query 5 agents every week until I finally got some feedback and my agent actually was in my first group that I sent it to. That process, after many many years of trying and not making any ground once I finally broke through that process went pretty quickly.

HR:

You know I was told by my friend Dr. Lori Butts who is President of the Florida Psychology Association that my Aspertools book was actually a relationship book and that it can be informative for any kind of relationships, not just Asperger’s, autism and neurodiversity. What do you feel you learned from your uncle in terms of relating to people and relationships? The uncle who inspired the character in your book.

CD:

Yeah with my uncle I felt like this was part of something I tried to put in The Art of Adapting that in the end my relationship with him wasn’t about me learning or him having to adapt and learn to be a certain way in our family or in our society to make other people more comfortable with who he was I felt like the ultimate lesson was in all of us learning to accept him for who he was and I really wanted to make that a big theme in The Art of Adapting that it isn’t just about Matt learning to integrate to this new family, it’s really about all of them learning to accept him for who is he regardless of label, regardless of whether he has habits that help comfort him but really have no impact on them, and I think that there’s something to be said for, especially the teenaged characters that are in the book, being able to see somebody who can just embrace who he is and love himself regardless of his differences. I felt like that can be an important lesson for someone who is still trying to figure out who they were and how they fit into their own little society to see that there is great power and just accepting who you are not having to conform or having to adapt all the time to what other people need you to be so that they can feel more comfortable with themselves. So that definitely was something that I felt with my uncle over time with him I came to admire how — I mean I don’t know if he could have adapted if he had to, but it also ended up not being an issue once we accepted who he was and that he had these little quirks and habits that helped him feel comfortable with himself, it stopped being an issue, whether or not we did things the same way and it just became a nice way to learn something about a new and interesting person who had a different way of seeing the world, that has a way of opening up our eyes to different ways of looking at our own lives, I think.

HR:

Very well said, and I would say parenthetically that it’s just such a great service you’re doing to mainstream and put in just as being another human being on this planet someone instead of making it all about the label, no it’s all about that individual and I think that our literature, our movies, our entertainment, our TV, our web, we need to get more of that because after all if you start adding up all of the different neurodiversities, the so-called “neuro-typical” are probably in the minority really.

CD:

I think it’s true, and I wanted to put that in the book to that you know Abby has her little food habits and everybody can find some kind of piece of Matt’s personality that they have as well, right? If you want to label him and set him aside you can call him different, but if you really look at it we all have our own quirks and our own things that we do to make things comfortable too, so are the differences that great? I don’t think so.

HR:

We’re talking with Cassandra Dunn the author of The Art of Adapting, tell us the first thing you ever wrote if you can remember?

CD:

I do remember, actually. I was 8 years old and we had an assignment in class to finish a story. We wrote a paragraph as a class and our assignment was to take it home for homework. We were supposed to add one more paragraph and I wrote I think about 8 more pages and that was the first time that I ever let myself just let my imagination go and put something down on paper and created this whole other world and these characters went on adventures. I was a pretty quiet kid. I liked reading, I kind of kept to myself. I had a few close friends but I didn’t have like a big social group. And it felt like a really nice, comfortable outlet for me, something to do on my own and that I could show people if I wanted to it was a way to socially interact at the same time as getting that private time for myself and I had the bug from then on. I spent a lot of time writing, not a lot of time showing it to other people until I was an adult, but I definitely felt like that was a really good creative outlet for me.

HR:

Now your stories have appeared in a million different things, I’m just going to mention some of them: All Things Girl, Midwest Literary Magazines, Bearing North, Literary House Review, The MacGuffin, 322 Review, — well there’s just a whole bunch of them. So you’ve been very productive for quite a while.

CD:

Yeah I’ve tried to be methodical as well. I knew that if I wanted to get an agent I needed to have a history of some publication. I really like the — I like writing short stories and I felt like it was a really good way to practice the craft and dig into character and seeing so I spent a lot of time creating short stories and getting them out into the world and trying to build a portfolio so that when I did have a novel that was ready to go I would be ready.

HR:

Yeah well I salute you. I think it’s great what you’re doing and I think in terms of mainstreaming someone with Asperger’s on the autism spectrum, or any kind of unique ability or challenge, I accidentally when I made The Square Root of 2 starring Darby Stanchfield of Scandal who is out in the left coast as well, that I was not aware that my daughter had Asperger’s and autism in addition to her other stuff and as a result, it’s not mentioned once throughout The Square Root of 2 and yet, Darby, by studying my daughter directly was able to give a very nuanced performance as just somebody who’s brain is a little bit different. She just thinks about things a little bit differently as your uncle did.

CD:

Yeah.

HR:

So what kind of careers you think your children will end up in? You think they’ll be writers also?

CD:

I have no idea. They’re both good writers, but I can’t tell if they’re going to gravitate towards it, because it’s something that’s just a normal part of our everyday life, or if they’ll gravitate away from it because of that. I think at this point they should just be kids and explore it all and stay open to it. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer and there’s something good about that when you’re already in your lane from 8 years old but there’s something hard about it too. Nothing else will do. So, I’m not sure if I want them to settle quite so young but, they’re very bright, curious girls and I feel pretty confident they will find their way.

HR:

Well that’s great. They’ve got a great mom.

CD:

Well thank you.

HR:

How do people find out more about you and The Art of Adapting?

CD:

Well there’s some stuff on my website it’s www.cassandradunn.com and every time I publish a new article or any stories or anything that goes out, I put a link on there for it. Aside from that they can start with reading the book and get in touch with me and let me know what they think.

HR:

And who are the publishers of The Art of Adapting?

CD:

It’s Touchstone which is an imprint of Simon and Schuster.

HR:

Great. Okay, and they can get in touch with you through your website?

CD:

Yeah there’s a contacts bar right on my website so if anybody wants to get in touch they can do it that way.

HR:

Okay, great. Well Cassandra, it’s been great speaking with you, thanks for being with us, regards to everyone out there in California and keep up the great work you’re doing and we’re gonna look forward to your next work, and we look forward to having you again sometime Cassandra.

CD:

I would love that. It’s very nice meeting you.

HR:

Very nice meeting you. Thank you very much Cassandra.

CD:

Thank you.

 

This video is owned by Different Brains Inc, kindly donated by it’s original producer PCE Media LLC.

Author Image
Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, “The Square Root of 2” (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s “Scandal”), and is the author of the book “Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity” from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”
Author Image

Harold Reitman, M.D.

Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, "The Square Root of 2" (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC's "Scandal"), and is the author of the book "Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity" from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”

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