The North Notts Lit Fest hosted speaker Elle McNicoll – a Scottish, neurodivergent author – on September 18th to discuss neurodiversity representation in literature. McNicoll’s first novel, “A Kind of Spark”, with a young autistic girl as the main character, won ‘Overall Winner’ of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2021.

McNicoll spoke about how many neurodivergent children grow up hearing how they cannot do what others can, as they simply won’t succeed – they just cannot do it. She was told this herself about being an author and is now a successful one.

The most common form of neurodiversity representation in literature (children’s or otherwise) is through the lens of a neurotypical – someone who does not have a neurotype disability such as autism, ADHD, OCD, etc – main character who has a neurodivergent family member, friend, or neighbour. Focusing on the neurotypical’s struggles of living with a neurodivergent character and how they grow to accept them for who they are. It is not commonly from the perspective of a neurodivergent character and their own personal struggles through being disabled.

If the main character is neurodiverse, it tends to be portrayed either as a character who has superhero powers or is in the minority of neurodiverse individuals, who are intellectually gifted with a lack of social skills. There is very little based in the middle ground, where most people are, with average intelligence and social skills. This is slowly changing and there are more characters with better representation being seen in books, however, this change is very slow in its progression.

There is a tendency to listen to disabled adjacent voices (such as carers or parents) instead of disabled voices, especially within literature.

If you want to speak to a parent about neurodiversity, why not a neurodiverse parent?

If you want to write about a neurodiverse sibling, why not from their perspective instead of from another family members point of view? I can assure you, the experiences, the thought processes, and the emotions felt, are all very different.

Many teachers spoke up at the event about giving their students books with neurodiverse characters and receiving fantastic responses. Young students approaching them to start open conservations to gain a better understanding or to talk about their own personal struggles.

Increasing representation of neurodiversity in literature is so very important. Not just for those who are struggling and cannot identify why (many neurodiverse people do not get diagnosed until later in life – especially girls), or to allow neurodiverse children to have characters who they can relate to, but also for neurotypical’s who can start to understand and emphasise with some of those struggles. So that children can understand they are different from each other and that’s okay, there isn’t anything wrong – which is something often said about neurodiverse people, they have something fundamentally ‘wrong’ with them, and it’s not true.

People with disabilities, especially children, should be able to read about and connect with characters who are like them. It should not be an experience reserved just for those who are neurotypical.