The Rise of Neurodiversity in Literature and Media

By Amber Lee Dodd

At school, I was plagued with the feeling of being different. As a student with dyslexia and dyspraxia, I struggled with reading and writing, was put into the special needs classes and always seemed to get everything wrong. Like most neurodiverse people, I constantly felt my brain just wasn’t wired up in quite the right way.

It was also something I saw in the students I worked with as a Learning Support Assistant. Some of them had also been diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia, others were on the autistic spectrum and some had ADHD. There were also many other students who unfortunately didn’t have a formal diagnosis, but were put under the vague umbrella of learning or emotional difficulties. But all of them shared something in common, they understood the world differently. That is quite simply what neurodiversity means, a different way of thinking and processing information.

For example, dyslexic thinkers are often characterised as, ‘big picture thinkers’. This means that we struggle with the building blocks of language, and instead of breaking them down in phonics or letters, we learn words by recognition. It gives many dyslexics problems with reading and writing, but it also offers us unique problem-solving skills. We have the ability to see the forest, where a neurotypical person may only be able to see the trees. Unfortunately, this strength is often misunderstood, leading neurodiverse students to feel neglected. This is why, after being asked by students at school visits to write about a dyslexic protagonist, I came up with Amelia. Amelia, the heroine of Lightning Chase Me Home, is a lot like me. She faces many of the same dyslexic issues with learning that I did. But I wanted to show how she also has many of the advantages dyslexics have too, unique problem solving, creative thinking and heaps of determination. Along with her best friend Tom, who also has attention issues, they manage to save the day. It’s the kind of story I would have loved to have read when I was growing up. For me, there simply weren’t very many protagonists I could see myself in.

But all of that is starting to change! Books like Maggot Moon by Sally Gardener, Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan and Pages and Co by Anna James, all star characters with dyslexia. As for books portraying autism, we have amateur detectives and puzzle hunters like Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, Kieran Woods from Smart by Kim Slater and Oskar Schell from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. We also have unconventional thinkers in protagonists like Rose from How to Look for a Lost Dog by Anne M. Martin and Willow Chance, the misunderstood genius in Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan.

Plus now, on our TV screens, we not only have the very first lady Dr Who, but we have kind-hearted Ryan, the doctor’s dyspraxic side kick. Watching Ryan frustratedly try to ride a bike in the opening minutes of the brand new series made me whoop with joy. For me, a clumsy dyspraxic who once lost a skipping rope in a tree, this was entirely relatable. It was also the very first time that I had seen anyone with dyspraxia on screen.

There is also arguably more representation of people on the Autistic spectrum on TV too. Although not officially acknowledged with the label, Saga Noren from The Bridge and Sherlock from the recent BBC series have identifiably autistic-like traits. It’s these traits, such as their hyper-focus and ability to link things in a unique way, that make both on screen detectives so compelling for all kinds of viewers.

It doesn’t stop there either, there are upcoming children’s books with promisingly strong neurodiverse characters, like Felix who is struggling with ADHD in Stewart Foster’s book Check Mates. And there is another teen series of Atypical, which follows the life of autistic teen Sam Garderner due out on Netflix. Of course, there’s still a way to go before we have ideal representation. The criticism that Atypical didn’t have any own voice writers or actors with autism, justifiably changed the writer’s room and casting for upcoming seasons. And it’s a criticism that can be extended to other TV programmes too. But I for one am eager to see what will come next. Because books and media are starting to have heroes who see and experience the world a little bit differently, and that is a marvellous thing.

This is a guest post by Amber Lee Dodd and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. 

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