Welcome to our monthly discussion! As it’s Autism Awareness Month, we’ve decided to take the opportunity to discuss neurodiversity in writing.
Neurodiversity means recognising and respecting neurological differences. This covers a range of labels from Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyscalculia, the Autistic Spectrum, and Tourette Syndrome. We are also including discussion of neurological issues such as Depression, Anxiety and PTSD.
Elise: Hi everyone! Thanks for stopping by. Let’s have a chat about novels with neurodiverse characters in to start with. Are you aware of any such novels? Or have you read any that you’d recommend?
Cassandra: I recommend Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes over the more well-known The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. That’s because “Algernon” powerfully demonstrates the implications of trying to make someone with such neural oddities exceed their mental capacities. It might not all be rosy.
Another is Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall. Filer neatly disorganises the life of the schizophrenic protagonist. You feel like you’re thrown into a kaleidoscope of many-splendored things.
As a techie myself, I recall Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and its sequels). She has Asperger’s, and when you read the events she experiences, it feels like you’re zooming in to her mind, her way of thinking.
Allie: A couple of books that come to mind are The Perks of Being a Wallflower (PTSD, Anxiety, Depression) and the Silver Linings Playbook (Bipolar).
Renee: Anne McCaffrey’s Talent series has mention of how many people who were seen as mentally ill actually had parapsychic talent. It’s not a main theme, but the idea of looking for skill and assets in a place where others see lack persists throughout the series. As this is relatively far from reality, I don’t know that it speaks to neurodiversity in a meaningful way, but it is a good way in a book club or other such forum to segue to a more nuanced conversation around mental illness.
The Blackthorn and Grim series by Juliet Marillier brings the issues of PTSD to the fore in one of the main characters. The issue persists throughout the series, and Grim is shown struggling and succeeding despite the limits and hardships his mental illness places on him. I think it is a powerful and thought-provoking depiction, and adds a nice layer to an already varied story. Alternatively, in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, “madness” is brought about by using tainted magic (often times unwillingly or accidentally at first). The main character does become “crazy”, but is able to resolve his mental illness to save the world. However, as other people learn magic, there are some that are killed outright once they manifest signs of madness. It’s an interesting read, but one that definitely shows poor understanding and handling of mental illness, and how societal thoughts and norms can impact even imaginary perceptions.
Corinne: To be honest, I can’t really think of many books. And I think that, in and of itself, should be a statement. I’m a rather voracious reader, but the only one that comes to mind is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, about a girl who is born with Down Syndrome. Why aren’t there more books with neurodiverse characters? Is it because we’re not entertaining enough?
Natalie: I always find it hard to think of anything when I get this question, but Renae pointed out the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy which I read (most of) last month and that addresses PTSD. I can’t think of any other recent reads were any characters weren’t neurotypical.
Katelyn: Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a character on the spectrum. At least…that I can remember. Some of that’s due to genre because I mostly read fantasy and sci-fi novels, but I think it’s just rare in general.
I did once try to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, but I quit after two pages because I couldn’t connect with the main character.
Oh wait, another one just came to me: Bones! I used to love that show and while it’s never stated Dr. Brennen has Aspergers, I could see a lot of myself in her, both in my interests and the “Aspie” things I do. She’s basically who I wanted to be when I grew up.
Elise: It seems then, that despite the fact there are a few books out there with neurodiverse characters, it’s still relatively uncommon. Have you ever written about neurodiverse characters yourselves?
Cassandra: Alyson Cheung in Don’t Offend A Girl In Love (Just-Us League Anthology #3). She is highly obsessed over things that shouldn’t matter. In particular, the protagonist Prosper Ng is her love interest, but he doesn’t love her back. In fact, he’s annoyed by her. She will return. Stay tuned!
Allie: The main character in my novel struggles with anxiety from childhood trauma. In the draft I’m working on right now, I’m trying to emphasize her anxiety more. She has a panic attack in front of hundreds of people in the beginning, and I’ve received positive feedback about that scene, but by the end readers assume she’s overcome her anxiety and don’t understand why she still struggles with her self-worth. After being told that she’ll never be queen, she kind of latches onto that as fact and can’t believe other opinions about her because she’s held onto this one idea for so long. I’m working on making that more prevalent for readers to understand.
Renee: You know, until this month, I hadn’t really thought about it. But now it will be part of my character development, and hopefully add more layers and nuance to my stories. I want to say that reading the testimonies of other JL authors in the earlier blog post this month really educated me, and inspired me to address the lack of representation in my own writing.
Corinne: One of my Just-Us League Anthology #1 characters (not saying any names–you’ll have to read the story for yourself and guess which one) is on the autism spectrum. The character in question has Asperger Syndrome. I know that that character is realistic because I also have Asperger’s, and I wrote that character with a lot of my own and my Aspie friends’ mannerisms. Of course, no one, not even my own mother, noticed that the character in question was on the spectrum, but I think that’s also a statement in and of itself. A lot of mental disabilities and social disabilities can be invisible; you don’t know if someone has autism or PTSD or anxiety just by looking at them from the outside. Not everyone thinks and acts the way you do, which is why I’d like neurodiversity to be a bigger issue in popular media.
Natalie: In my WIP series I have a main character who’s dyslexic, which means I need to have it critiqued A LOT by people affected by dyslexia to ensure I’m not misunderstanding anything during my research on the subject. Another character suffers from confidence-triggered anxiety which leads to a whole host of other issues.
Katelyn: Yes! How could I not? *laughs* Oddly, making Zach (my main character from my YA fantasy series) an Aspie was completely accidental. It was only when I came on Scrib and started getting my work critiqued that people brought it to my attention that he was often behaving in very Aspie-like ways. It only clicked for me after that that I’d created an Aspie character because I was just writing what I knew! To me, his behavior and thought process was normal, so I had no idea he was appearing that way to them!
Elise: Interesting stuff, folks! Stay tuned for part two of this discussion where we’ll be looking at neurodiverse stereotypes in fiction and discussing if it helps or harms the representation of these conditions.