Readfeed Logo

Neurodiversity on the page: a retrospective

Literature offers a vast array of characters. They each have their unique quirks and personalities. While authors may not explicitly state a character’s neurodiversity, some characters exhibit traits. These can resonate with readers who identify with conditions like autism, ADHD, or dyslexia. Re-examining these characters through a neurodiversity lens can enrich our understanding.

Neurodiverse characters: a growing publishing trend

This article discusses a new trend in children’s publishing: books featuring protagonists who are neurodivergent, such as AS or ADHD. Previously, publishers were hesitant to publish these books, but now they are actively seeking them out. This shift is credited to authors like Elle McNicoll, whose success with her neurodivergent characters has shown publishers that there’s a market for these books.

There is still a long way to go according to some, but there is a clear increase in the number of books with neurodiverse characters. This is positive not only for neurodivergent children who can see themselves reflected in the characters but also for society as a whole to gain a better understanding of neurodiversity.

As representation grows, it’s interesting to look back on previous titles and recognise representation. This is not to diagnose, but rather to have a retrospective on characters that have resonated with neurodiverse readers. 

Sherlock Holmes: a mind for deduction

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, Sherlock Holmes, is a prime example. His exceptional memory, hyperfocus on detail, and social awkwardness all align with potential traits of ASD. Holmes thrives on routine. He possesses an intense interest in specific areas (like forensic science). He also struggles with social interactions and emotional cues.  His brilliance often stems from his unique way of processing information.

Jo Marchn: a spirited and independent mind

Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March from Little Women could be interpreted as having ADHD.  Jo’s boundless energy, impulsiveness, and tendency to hyperfocus on writing projects mirror common ADHD traits.  She struggles with societal expectations for young women. She craves intellectual stimulation. While Jo may not fit neatly into a diagnostic box, her character highlights the challenges and strengths of neurodivergent individuals who don’t conform to traditional norms.

Holden Caulfield’s disillusionment

J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye is a complex character. His cynicism, alienation, and difficulty connecting with others resonate with experiences of social anxiety or even Asperger’s syndrome, a form of ASD. Holden’s constant judgement and difficulty navigating social situations paint a picture of someone struggling to understand and interact with the world around them.

Lisbeth Salander’s grit

Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander from the “Millennium” trilogy is an intriguing example.  Lisbeth possesses exceptional hacking skills and a strong sense of justice. However, her difficulty with social interaction, black-and-white thinking, and sensory sensitivities all point towards a potential ASD diagnosis. Lisbeth’s character challenges stereotypes of heroes. This showcases how neurodiversity can manifest as strength and resilience.

Beyond diagnosis: the importance of representation

It’s important to remember that these interpretations are not definitive diagnoses.  Characters are multifaceted, and their traits may reflect a combination of personality and potential neurodiversity. The beauty lies in using this lens to explore the rich variety of human experiences within literature.

Seeing characters who exhibit neurodiverse traits can be empowering for readers who identify with similar experiences. It provides validation, fosters a sense of belonging, and challenges societal stereotypes. It also allows readers to appreciate the unique strengths and perspectives that ND brings to the world.

As our understanding of neurodiversity continues to evolve, we can expect richer and more nuanced portrayals in literature. Authors who consciously explore neurodiversity can create characters that resonate with a wider audience and challenge narrow-minded perceptions.  Ultimately, recognising the neurodiversity present within literature allows us to celebrate the beautiful spectrum of human thought and experience.