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Writing neurodivergent characters: advice from neurodivergent teens

This article was written by Charlotte Webber, an Autistic researcher on the Neurodiversity and Narrative Fiction project who works at Scottish Book Trust and the University of Edinburgh.

Age group: 15-18, Adults
Audience: Writers

Last updated: 17 April 2024

Slightly blurry image of person writing on notepad next to typewriter

Scottish Book Trust has recently collaborated with researchers at the University of Edinburgh, BookTrust, National Literacy Trust and other practice partners to explore neurodivergent teenagers’ perspectives on the representation of neurodivergence in YA fiction.

Recent years have seen a remarkable shift in our understanding of the importance of representation in the stories we share with young readers. While much attention has rightly been placed on increasing ethnic representation, diversity extends far beyond ethnicity alone. One often overlooked aspect is the representation of neurodivergence. 

If someone is neurodivergent it means that they may think, learn, and process information differently from most other people, perhaps by being dyslexic, Autistic, or having ADHD. Neurodivergent teenagers deserve to see themselves authentically portrayed in literature, but the representation of neurodiversity in YA fiction – and how this is perceived by neurodivergent teens themselves – remains limited.

As part of the Neurodiversity and Narrative Fiction(this link will open in a new window)  project, we interviewed neurodivergent teenagers (aged 14–17) about their experiences of reading books featuring neurodivergent characters. We asked them about the benefits and any potential harms they thought could arise – both for themselves and for their peers – from reading books featuring neurodivergent characters(this link will open in a new window). We also asked them about what they thought authors and publishers should think about when writing neurodivergent characters.

Neurodivergent characters should be complex, realistic, and have positive attributes

Neurodivergent people are all different from one another. Just because two people are both Autistic does not mean that their experiences and perspectives are the same. Representation in books should reflect this diversity and complexity. This means representing aspects of neurodivergent experiences that are often overlooked in the media, rather than reinforcing stereotypes about particular diagnoses. 

Neurodivergent teens told us that it’s essential to portray neurodivergent characters as having positive attributes, doing this in a way which avoids stereotypes and doesn’t present neurodivergence as a problem to be solved. Neurodivergent people shouldn’t feel that they need to mask or ‘overcome’ parts of who they are in order to be accepted.

While not every portrayal of neurodivergence needs to mirror the exact experiences of neurodivergent individuals, our interviewees told us that some similarities are crucial to help them find characters to relate to. This means writing realistic neurodivergent characters who are navigating experiences like those neurodivergent teenagers have on a daily basis.

They also emphasised that representation should be intersectional, acknowledging that neurodivergence intersects with other aspects of identity, such as race, gender, and sexuality, and that these intersections also require greater representation in books. 

Normalising neurodivergent representation

Neurodivergent teens also told us that in many cases, the goal of representation should be to normalise the presence of neurodivergent characters in fiction (and in society), rather than to sensationalise or draw attention to them. Neurodivergent characters need not always be the central focus of the story, just ‘being there’ can be enough to help neurodivergent readers feel accepted.

The presence of neurodivergent characters also doesn't always have to be explicit; subtle inclusion can be just as impactful. Explicitly identifying a character as having a particular diagnosis can help signpost readers to books which represent their experiences and, when done accurately, can help both neurodivergent and neurotypical readers learn more about neurodivergent experiences. However, coded representation – where a character’s neurodivergence is implied rather than explicitly stated – can be a means of exploring different ways of experiencing the world without drawing attention to particular diagnostic labels. 

What should authors and publishers do next?

We asked our interviewees about what they thought authors and publishers should consider for the future of neurodivergent representation. 

They told us that to make sure neurodivergent characters are complex, realistic, and don’t perpetuate stereotypes, authors should talk to neurodivergent people about their experiences. They said they valued neurodivergent authors writing neurodivergent characters because their portrayals were likely to be authentic, but that neurotypical authors could also write complex, well-rounded neurodivergent characters if they did appropriate research. 

Our interviewees told us that they felt books featuring disabled characters are often considered niche or marketed exclusively to disabled audiences, which limits their reach and impact. It is important that books featuring neurodivergent characters are presented as being relevant for all readers. We know that reading about characters different from ourselves can help us become more empathetic and get better at taking other’s perspectives.

Finally, books featuring neurodivergent characters need to be accessible for teenagers with reading difficulties and/or who don’t often read. This might mean using dyslexia-friendly fonts and layouts and having audio versions of texts available so that all neurodivergent teens have the opportunity to engage with characters they can relate to.

For more tips, you can read our article on writing well-rounded disabled characters, which was written by a disabled teenager.

By portraying neurodivergent characters authentically, positively, and with nuance, we can empower neurodivergent readers to see themselves reflected in the stories they love. Normalising neurodiversity in literature and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to encounter characters which help them learn more about themselves and others can lead to a more inclusive, educated, and empathetic society, where everyone's experiences are valued and celebrated.

You can read the open-access academic publications associated with these findings here: Representation in fiction books: Neurodivergent young people's perceptions of the benefits and potential harms(this link will open in a new window).