Authors are becoming more committed to implementing diverse character ranges in their work. This isn’t just an important step in terms of providing readers with representative stories and characters. It also helps to make the worlds you create richer, more inspiring, and more authentic.
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Over the last few decades, we have seen a greater push to create fiction that includes people of varied races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. However, in recent years authors have started to place more focus on creating characters with neurodivergent traits. This can be a positive step on the condition that such characters are depicted in a realistic manner. Understandably, many authors without lived experience of neurodivergence find this challenging.
We’ve put together a brief guide to writing neurodivergent characters. What should you be wary of and how can you proceed in an authentic way?
Understand the Definition
Before you can authentically write neurodivergent characters, it’s important to gain a good understanding of the definition. Without this, it’s easy to fall into writing negative and two-dimensional people. This is because, in many ways, the meaning of neurodivergence helps to illustrate just how rich and varied people living with these traits are.
So, neurodivergence, which is also known as neurodiversity, refers to a range of neurological differences. Often, the term applies to diagnosed conditions. Among the most common conditions associated with neurodiversity is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It also encompasses attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, among many others. Essentially, it is an umbrella term describing what various brain studies have found is a natural difference in processing and cognition.
The most important aspect of the definition to grasp as an author is that it isn’t a description of a disability. Though there are often diagnoses involved in identifying conditions, neurodiversity isn’t about something being “wrong” with the brain. Rather, it’s about being wired differently. While this may result in some difficulties it also provides those living with neurodivergent traits with unique and positive perspectives.
Research is an important part of any writing project. It helps you to create more honest characterizations and narratives. The same applies to writing characters with neurodivergent traits. You can’t just apply a range of behaviors based on your perceived understanding of conditions. You need to gain deeper insights into what it is like to live with a neuroatypical perspective.
It’s worth taking the approach from a wellness perspective. Gaining solid health literacy skills can help you to understand complex medical terms and conditions. For patients, this can help them make more informed personal decisions. But, as an author, it can provide you with more accurate impressions of symptoms, perspectives, and experiences. It also empowers you to ask the right questions to make your work more robust. Take the time to do deep dives into credible journals on the subject and talk to specialists in the field.
That said, one of the most powerful sources of education can be those living with neurodivergent traits. This doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to mine people for their personal life experiences that you can implant into your project. Rather, hire them to review the language you’re using and correct any inaccurate or insensitive characterizations.
Avoid the Stereotypes
One of the biggest mistakes writers make in depicting neurodivergence is relying on stereotypes. These are often more than simply incorrect portrayals. They can also be actively harmful to neuroatypical people, who must see or read characters being depicted in such insubstantial and negative terms. It can also inaccurately inform the popular understanding of conditions, as with the movie Rain Man and autism spectrum disorder.
There are various stereotypes that you need to actively avoid. This includes the idea of neurodiverse individuals being emotionless or robotic. Contrary to popularized depictions, those living with autism do not lack empathy. Another problematic stereotype is savantism. There are certainly many talented neuroatypical people whose focus on specific interests may be informed by their perspectives. However, it’s rare for them to have exceptional abilities at the expense of their cognitive or social functioning.
This isn’t just a question about avoiding insulting depictions or contributing to harmful tropes. It’s also the case that stereotypes amount to bad and just plain lazy writing. You should want to create characters that are authentic, well-rounded, and will impact your readers positively.
Write Beyond the Diagnosis
Writing neuroatypical characters is a valuable contribution to literature and the lives of readers. However, it’s important to be aware that this can’t and shouldn’t be their defining characteristic. If the only or primary way your character can be described is that “they are neurodivergent,” this is a failure of authentic representation. Why? Well, because in reality, people are far more than just their neurology.
You should seek to write beyond the diagnosis. They’re not a neurodivergent character, but a character that happens to live with neurodivergent traits. However, it’s equally important not to treat their experiences superficially. Don’t just tack on conditions or behaviors like accessories. It can be helpful to think of neurodivergence as a lens through which your character experiences the world. Their atypical cognition isn’t the be-all and end-all of their personality, rather it informs the way they interact with the world.
Characters with neurodivergent traits can add richness to a project and fictional experiences readers can relate to. However, it is vital to ensure you create your work from a place of authenticity by performing thorough research. Avoid lazy and inaccurate stereotypes and commit to making your characters more than just their diagnosis or traits. As with any other element of good writing, you need to put in the time and work here. When you do, the results are positive and enriching for both you and your readers.