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Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Representation in Books: Neurodiversity

Neurodivergence is a term that describes variations in brain function. Some forms of neurodiversity may be familiar, such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and Dyslexia. Others may be less familiar—or perhaps you never knew their specific name, such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder & the now depreciated term Asperger’s Syndrome), Developmental Speech Disorder, Dyspraxia and many other diagnoses.

Icelandic Folk Tales There are some who claim conditions such as autism are “new illnesses” or a result of modern life and (insert any technology here). However, a look into folklore will show you that neurodivergence is simply a new name for old symptoms.

They jumped up from their bed and rushed in there to find their boy going through every barrel and pouch, every bag and shelf. There he was, as he had never gone, eating whatever he could get his hands on, and as soon as he saw his parents he gave them a frown and shrieked. His expression was grim, his eyes did not burn as bright and he spoke not a single word to his parents. The following days he wobbled around the house, kicking and yelling and stuffing into his mouth any scrap of food he could get his hands on. His parents watched him with a heavy heart, almost thinking it could not be their child. Indeed, he felt like a very different boy all together.

— Hjörleifur Helgi Stefánsson and Tord Sandström Fahlström, Icelandic Folk Tales

A certain mother’s child had been taken away out of its cradle by the elves, and a changeling with a large head and staring eyes, which would do nothing but eat and drink, laid in its place. In her trouble she went to her neighbour, and asked her advice. The neighbour said that she was to carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it down on the hearth, light a fire, and boil some water in two egg-shells, which would make the changeling laugh, and if he laughed, all would be over with him.

— Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (~1818)

The Moving FingerAnd not just in folklore. Take these passages from Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1943).

‘By the way, Megan is coming to lunch.’

‘Is she? Good.’

‘You like her?’ I asked.

‘I think she’s a changeling,’ said Joanna. ‘Something left on a doorstep, you know, while the fairies take the right one away. It’s very interesting to meet a changeling.

— Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

It was curious that one could never gauge what Megan would think or feel.

Joanna nodded and said: ‘No, one never does know with changelings.’

— Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Dead in the Garden

Megan is repeatedly described by others as not getting sarcasm, as being odd and queer, and even describes herself as not being a real person.

‘Won’t you have one?’

‘No, I don’t think I will, but it was very nice of you to offer it to me— just as though I was a real person.’

‘Aren’t you a real person?’ I said amused.

Megan shook her head, then, changing the subject,

— Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

That book also has (at least) two queer characters, reminding us there is nothing new under the sun.

Neurodivergence has historically been classified as a disorder, however, it seems nonsensical to classify 15-20% of the population as disordered when left-handedness (which affects only 10% of the population) is no longer classified as such.

One reason for the push to see these conditions are a variation rather than a disorder is the growing evidence of underdiagnosis in females and minorities. For women and girls, socialization and social expectations can cause some neurodivergent conditions to present differently than they do in males, leading to missed or severely delayed diagnoses.

For minorities, the reasons behind missed and delayed diagnoses can be even more complicated, however, as with mental health, allowing these conditions to be seen as part of being human, rather than a disability to hide or be ashamed of, helps everyone.

The Kiss QuotientJust as you can expand your knowledge of mental and physical illnesses and ailments reading fiction, you can do the same for neurodiversity. More fiction is being published each year, including stories written by neurodivergent individuals.

We need to seek out stories with characters unlike ourselves. To see other’s lives from their perspective. Doing so not only broadens our own perspective, it lets us see how the world could be made less difficult for those who aren’t average or typical.

I firmly believe stories are one of the best ways to do this, because as neurodivergent characters live and fall in love and solve mysteries and have adventures, it becomes clear neurodivergence (like mental illness, like physical disability) isn’t some horror to be hidden, but simply another way of being a human.

Even more importantly, stories with neurodivergent women and minorities allow those who have gone undiagnosed to see themselves in the stories they read, and perhaps seek a diagnosis that might allow them to discover ways to make life easier.

I’ve gathered here a few quotes from or about characters that are either explicitly written as neurodiverse, or who display traits common to those on the spectrum.


Touching is never a joke to Charlie. He doesn’t hate it as a general rule, but he does prefer advance warning and for hand sanitizer to be involved.

Alison Cochrun, The Charm Offensive

Uninvited touches irritated her, and her mother knew it. She did it to “acclimate” her.

Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient

It wasn’t that Martin disliked shaking hands, although there were some days where the touch of another person’s skin did make him shudder.

Ada Maria Soto, Agents of Winter

“Is that what happened today? Is that why you went to the tavern? You didn’t hear me?”

“Not exactly. I did hear you, and I understood what you were saying at the time. It’s just…” She winced, and her voice grew soft again. “It was so loud downstairs and… Sometimes I concentrate so hard on hearing and understanding what’s being said that I… I forget to remember it. I know that sounds mad, but—”

He squeezed her hand. “You’re not mad.”

Alissa Johnson, A Dangerous Deceit

Play It Again

(W)hile most people startle mildly when surprised, I jump out of my skin, adrenaline floods my system, and all I want to do is curl up into the fetal position. It’s unsettling and embarrassing.

— Chloe Liese, Always Only You

It was almost unheard-of for Michael to look anyone directly in the eye, with the exception of his children.

Jane Steen, Lady Helena Investigates

(T)hey said the eyes were the windows to the soul, and Clem didn’t feel comfortable peering into people’s windows.

KJ Charles An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities)

Toby twisted his mouth in dissatisfaction, or embarrassment. “I forget sometimes, to say things. Small talk is difficult for me.” He made eye contact again. “I don’t want to be rude, so I’ve learned to ask.”

R Cooper The Other Side of the Roses

Cant Escape Love

I like my books. They’re one of the most vital tools in my arsenal for navigating human behavior, to explore my feelings about the parts of life that most confuse me. Books help me feel a bit more connected to a world that often is hard to make sense of. Books are patient with me. They don’t laugh at me instead of with me. They don’t ask why I’m “always” frowning, or why I can’t sit still. Books welcome me— weirdness and all— and take me exactly as I am.

— Chloe Liese, Always Only You

Laura wouldn’t have picked up the phone, only she thought it was Ruth.

Which was, in hindsight, ridiculous. Ruth never called. Ruth hated phone conversations. She was a text-only kind of girl.

Talia Hibbert, Damaged Goods

(W)ith his job being IT, there were often good reasons he came home having exhausted his social-skill quota for the day and was only up to playing some games or reading a book before crashing. Books and video games also didn’t yell at you, or snidely act as though you were a waste of space.

Aidan Wayne, Play It Again

A few days later, Corbin seemed out of sorts. Alex was working the cash register and when he asked Corbin how his day was going, Corbin muttered, “You can’t talk to me today. Please.”

“All right,” Alex said. “I’m sorry.”

Roan Parrish, The Remaking of Corbin Wale

There was no easy way to explain being a grown man who was terrified of meaningless conversations and meeting new people. Saying small social embarrassments haunted him for years made him sound obsessive and weird.

R Cooper, Vincent’s Thanksgiving Date

(T)here’s only one glass of sangria in my system, but I’m flushed and relaxed, slightly buzzed, which is when I feel like I have a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to be a socially fluent human. To flow with conversation and enjoy it,

— Chloe Liese, Always Only You

“Do loud noises bring on these episodes? Or is it something else?”

Lawrence shook his head. Noise was only the beginning. “I need things to be predictable,”

Cat Sebastian, The Lawrence Browne Affair

The Charm Offensive

“I simply prefer to retain control of my surroundings, because if I do not, I get a headache.”

Theresa Romain, To Charm a Naughty Countess

(His) therapist– had been encouraging him to attempt to form other friendships. He had tried to explain how difficult that was, that patterns and routine gave his life order and that other people caused breaks in those patterns that could verge on physically painful.

Ada Maria Soto, Agents of Winter

When Michael was in London for parliamentary business, he employed another secretary. Such help was vital since Michael, a highly intelligent man in all other respects, had never acquired the ability to read or write.

Jane Steen, Lady Helena Investigates

“I’m capable of making out words on a page. I know my alphabet. It’s just…I am not any good at making sense of all those symbols. I can pick out words, but by the time I’ve got the next one down, I’ve practically forgotten the last. They never quite manage to coalesce into sentences.” His voice was whisper-quiet, but he spoke with a dire urgency.

Courtney Milan, Unveiled

Conventionally Yours

[Jaxon has severe dyslexia]
Caleb grinned. “Hi. How are you?”

Jaxon beamed. “I’m fine,” he signed. Signed! “How are you?”

You speak ASL?!” Caleb signed back, sure his eyes were bugging out of his head.

“Only a little,” Jaxon said. “I tried to learn some basics. Thought it might make things easier for you if you could sign at least a little to me. I didn’t get to learn very much. I only had a few days. But it’s not that hard to learn! It’s just memorization, so even I could get it through my head.” His smile was bashful, but he still looked nervous, like he was waiting for Caleb’s approval.

This man had started learning ASL for their first date. And he was good at it.

And he thought he was stupid?

Aidan Wayne, Loud and Clear

“(T)hey’re easier to see than the way writing usually looks. The letters don’t move around.”

“Letters move around?” I looked curiously at my brother.

“They do for me. They wiggle and slip away when I try to look at them. But this writing is in a picture, so the picture holds it steady for me.”

Jane Steen, Lady Helena Investigates

An Unseen Attraction

Until then it hadn’t occurred to Phillip that his own difficulty with reading might be something that ran in the blood.

Cat Sebastian. It Takes Two to Tumble

“She used to tell me, ‘S-spit it out boy.’ I d-don’t think she meant to be cruel, but I didn’t like it.” It had always seemed like such an ugly idea. My words reduced to nothing but phlegm.

Adam was frowning rather fiercely. “Your parents never said anything?”

“I didn’t ask them. I was too scared they . . . um . . . agreed with her. And I didn’t want to make my mother do the ‘he’s very sensitive’ speech because I could tell my father didn’t like it.”

Alexis Hall, Waiting for the Flood

Caleb had spent his whole life fighting with a world that judged him on one single trait. Stamped stupid on his forehead in bright-red ink because he couldn’t get them to listen to what he had to say instead of how he said it. He knew what that fucking felt like. But he also knew he was a privileged bastard who’d gotten good grades without much trouble, who’d gotten into great schools as a result, who worked hard, yeah, but who’d also had the method and means to get to where he wanted to be.

Aidan Wayne, Loud and Clear

“(S)ecret.” Actually, I hated that word. The c was a nail, driven jagged into a wall, waiting to catch at you and tear you skinless.

Alexis Hall, Waiting for the Flood

Always Only You

Michael looked uneasy. He saw eating as a necessity rather than an enjoyment and was a little squeamish about food.

Jane Steen, Lady Helena Investigates

Martin’s plate looked more like a small Thanksgiving-themed charcuterie board with bits of this and that minus certain flavors and textures he knew Martin wouldn’t like.

Ada Maria Soto, Agents of Winter

(It) was actually one of her main weaknesses, and a defining characteristic of her disorder. She didn’t know how to be semi-interested in something. She was either indifferent . . . or obsessed. And her obsessions weren’t passing things. They consumed her and became a part of her. She kept them close, wove them into her very life. Just like her work.

Helen Hoang. The Kiss Quotient

That was what she’d liked about his live stream, apart from his voice— that he was deeply and unashamedly interested in something.

Alyssa Cole, Can’t Escape Love

A Case for Christmas

Some people thought Theresa stupid. She wasn’t, not remotely. She was just the kind of clever that cared so little for what others thought that it was often mistaken for stupidity. When she could make herself sit still long enough to read, she understood everything. But she was always distracted— or, at least, she was always distracting herself.

Courtney Milan, Once Upon a Marquess

“Um… Noah?” A furrow had appeared between Jordan’s eyebrows. “What are you talking about?”

Noah scrubbed his hands over his face. He knew he was doing that thing where he jumped between topics that were related in his mind and forgot to explain the connection to his listener.

ES Yu, Human Enough

She wasn’t graceful. She was, in fact, the opposite of graceful. He worried for her safety once every five seconds at least. When she poured half of the hot water onto the counter, he was only surprised that she didn’t scald herself in the process.

Talia Hibbert A Girl Like Her

He knew he looked like an automaton, staring blankly and answering furious shouts in a featureless voice, and he well knew it didn’t ever make anyone less angry, but it was all the defence he had against the awful spectre of violent, murderous rage.

KJ Charles An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities)

The Remaking of Corbin Wale

Stella flinched, and her already anxious heart squeezed. Fighting was her absolute least favorite thing. When people fought, it always felt like a personal attack for her. It didn’t matter if she was just a bystander.

Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient

The psychologist said I’d have been diagnosed sooner if not for my fantastic ability to follow rules, copy behaviors, and pretend I was “normal.” Everyone hits a breaking point, the shrink said. It was only a matter of time before I’d have to stop pretending and get honest about my neurological difference.

— Chloe Liese, Always Only You

I confess that several times during the process of writing A Dangerous Deceit, I wondered if I should have my heroine struggle with something more likely to be familiar to readers. I never wavered for long, however — in large part because the inspiration for Jane Ballenger came from a much-loved member of my own family, a young woman who faces many of the same challenges. I wanted to give her, and readers like her, a heroine of their own.

Alissa Johnson, A Dangerous Deceit

Neurodiverse Characters

Female Characters
Romance Books

A Girl Like Her (2018) Talia Hibbert, main character [ASD]

The Kiss Quotient (2018) Helen Hoang, main character [ASD]

Always Only You (2020) Chloe Liese, main character [ASD]

Unlocked (2011) Courtney Milan, main character [ASD]

Can’t Escape Love (2019) Alissa Cole, main character [ADHD]

Destined To Last (2010) Alissa Johnson, main character [not defined]

One Good Earl Deserves a Lover (2012) Sarah MacLean, main character [not defined]

Once Upon a Marquess (2015) Courtney Milan, sibling [not defined]

ASD: 4 | ADHD: 1 | dyslexia: 0 | other/not defined: 3

Mystery Books

Dahlia Donovan Motts Cold Case series: Poisoned Primrose (2020) main character [ASD]

Sherry Thomas Lady Sherlock series: A Study In Scarlet Women (2016) main character, sibling [ASD]

A Dangerous Deceit (2017) Alissa Johnson, main character [central auditory processing disorder]

The Moving Finger (1942) Agatha Christie secondary [not defined]

ASD: 2 | ADHD: 0 | dyslexia: 0 | other/not defined: 2

Male Characters
Romance Books

Unveiled (2011) Courtney Milan, main character [dyslexia]

It Takes Two to Tumble  (2017) Cat Sebastian, main character [dyslexia]

Untouchable (2018) Talia Hibbert, main character [dyslexia]

Loud and Clear (2016) Aidan Wayne, main character [dyslexia, speech disorder]

Waiting for the Flood (2018) Alexis Hall, main character [speech disorder]

An Unseen Attraction (2017) KJ Charles, main character [dyspraxia, ASD]

The Other Side of the Roses (2017) R Cooper main character [ASD]

Can’t Escape Love (2019) Alissa Cole, main character [ASD]

To Charm a Naughty Countess (2014) Theresa Romain character, main character [ASD]

Ada Maria Soto‘s The Agency: His Quiet Agent (2017), Merlin in the Library (2018), Agents of Winter (2022) main character [not defined: ASD, ADHD]

Connection Error (2016) Annabeth Albert, main character [ADHD]

In Pursuit Of… (2017) Courtney Milan, main character [not defined: ADHD]

The Lawrence Browne Affair (2017) Cat Sebastian main character [not defined]

Unraveled (2011) Courtney Milan main character [not defined]

Vincent’s Thanksgiving Date (2014) R Cooper, main character [not defined]

How to Be a Normal Person (2015) TJ Klune main character [not defined]

The Remaking of Corbin Wale (2017) Roan Parrish main character [not defined]

Play It Again (2019) Aidan Wayne, main character [not defined]

Conventionally Yours (2020) Annabeth Albert main character [not defined]

The Charm Offensive (2021) Alison Cochrun, main character [not defined]

A Gentleman’s Position (2016) KJ Charles sibling [dyslexia]

ASD: 5 | ADHD: 3 | dyslexia: 5 | other/not defined: 8

Mystery Books

Dahlia Donovan‘s London Podcast series: Cosplay Killer (2020), main character [ASD]

Dahlia Donovan‘s Grasmere Cottage series: Dead in the Garden (2018), Dead in the Pond (2018), Dead in the Shop (2018) main character [ASD]

A Case for Christmas (2021) J.A. Rock & Lisa Henry main character [not defined]

Jane Steen ‘s Lady Helena Investigates series: Lady Helena Investigates (2018), Lady Odelia’s Secret (2022) sibling [dyslexia]

ASD: 2 | ADHD: 0 | dyslexia: 1 | other/not defined: 1

Fantasy Books

Human Enough (2019) ES Yu, main character [ASD]

Ella Stainton’s Kilty Pleasures series: Best Laid Plaids (2020), Where There’s a Kilt, There’s a Way (2021) main character [ADHD]

Libriomancer (2012) Jim C. Hines, [ASD]

ASD: 2 | ADHD: 1 | dyslexia: 0 | other/not defined: 0


Why Representation in Books Is Important
Representation in Books: Injury
Representation in Books: Illness

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