I am honored to bring Jenna Grinstead to the blog today. I could go on and on about Jenna. She’s a great friend, a talented businesswoman, and a leader in her community. Jenna is also a talented author. Her current work-in-process is about a musically gifted teenager who, like Jenna, has Tourette Syndrome. Reading her manuscript really made me think about writing neurodivergent characters. I asked her, and she graciously agreed, to answer questions on how a neurotypical author might approach creating a neurodivergent character.
Advice on Developing Neurodivergent Character
Do you have advice for an author who is developing a neurodivergent character for their novel?
Writing a neurodivergent character is an awesome way to make sure that all kids can see themselves in stories, so first I want to applaud anyone who is considering bringing this level of inclusivity to their stories. It is important as you consider creating this character that you understand the neurodivergence that you are depicting. Has this character been diagnosed with Autism, Tourette Syndrome, ADHD, OCD, or one of the other myriad diagnoses that make up neurodivergence? It’s important to understand the diagnoses, even if your character isn’t aware of theirs, as well as to do the research to understand the different ways that the diagnoses may affect different people. Sometimes girls are impacted differently than boys. I also suggest understanding the most updated language used within the community your character may belong to. And lastly, it is important to have more than one person from the community your character is from read your work and provide feedback. For example, even though I have Tourette Syndrome, for my latest work I had two members of the TS community provide insight and feedback on my main character and my story. It’s especially important to do this when depicting communities you don’t belong to in your stories.
Are there common pitfalls you’d like to warn authors to look out for when writing neurodivergent characters?
- Leaning too much into stereotypes—this is a common one when folks write based on what they think or see in popular media versus what they know personally or find out through research. If your character is based on Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory it’s probably a good bet you may be leaning into stereotypes without realizing it. Many types of neurodivergence are on spectrums, which means they show differently for each individual person. Not every neurodivergent person is unaware of other’s feelings or afraid of germs, though some can be. Create well fleshed out characters through solid research and feedback from those within the community.
- Depicting only the good or only the bad—neurodivergence can be as much a super-power as it can involve working through issues. It is especially important for kids to be able to see the positive. For example, my Tourette Syndrome allows me to hyperfocus. However, it’s also important not to create a saintly character that kids can’t relate to at all, or worse, a character that only exists to teach other kids a lesson or to inspire other kids. Show your neurodivergent characters as well-rounded kids who have both strengths and struggles.
- Using neurodivergent characters as the punch line—this is something I see a lot. Neurodivergence should never be used to bring the comic relief to a story. It’s okay if it’s sometimes fun or even funny, but there is a line where the humor comes from the reader or other characters laughing at the neurodivergent character, and that is a harmful depiction, especially for children.
Do you have any advice for researching the unique characteristics of neurodivergent characters?
The internet is a great place to start. Take the time to find reputable sources and check through your own searches whether there is controversy around a given source. For example, Autism Speaks, can be considered a controversial source by many within the autism community. It can also be helpful to find influencers in places like Instagram or TikTok who are focused on educating about their neurodivergence, but tread carefully into spaces that are meant for neurodivergent people to find each other. You may learn from those spaces but be respectful about communicating within them. It’s also helpful to find sensitivity readers in the area you are focusing on who can provide feedback. They are well worth the cost.
How can an author gain insight into how a neurodivergent character might view their uniqueness?
Reading or listening to first-hand accounts is a good way to start. Some resources, such as Tourette Association of America offer first person essays. There are also many influencers on Youtube, Instagram and TikTok who share their personal experiences, and there are many documentaries that interview people with lived experiences. If you have people in your life who are willing to share their experiences that can also be great, but tread lightly by first asking them if this is something they feel comfortable sharing.
Neurodivergence and Plot
Is it important that the characteristics that make a character neurodivergent impact the plot of the book?
I don’t think it is important that neurodivergence serve the plot of the book any more than I think the book’s plot must be driven by a character’s race, ethnicity, geography or any other myriad characteristics that make up identity. In some cases, the plot may be interconnected with neurodivergence, such as when a child is starting a new school and must make new friends, for example. But I also think it’s very important to show neurodivergent characters living their lives like anyone else—solving mysteries, seeking friendships, basically all the things we humans do day-to-day.
Fully Formed Neurodivergent Characters
Do you have suggestions for how to flush out a full neurodivergent character?
Each of us have a different approach to how we create our characters. For those who do detailed character sketches prior to writing, I suggest including neurodivergence as an element of those sketches. How does it impact the characters strengths, their world view, their childhood, their relationships, their approach to life? For pantsers, it may mean an edit round focused on that character’s neurodivergence, deepening how it contributes to the strengths and opportunities that the character deals with as the plot carries them through the story.
Important to Understand
Many neurodivergent folks are not looking for cures to our condition. Many of us see neurodivergence as a super-power—a defining way of thinking that is essential to who we are and how we operate in the world. If I didn’t have Tourette Syndrome, I would likely not be the person I am today. My fingers and lips often move in ways I can’t control and that can be difficult to deal with on some days. Not everyone understands it or is kind about it. It takes a great deal of energy to manage my tics and suppress them in situations where I feel like I must. However, my Tourette Syndrome also allows me to hyperfocus to get things done. It may be part of why I’m good at writing. It took me way too many years to see and understand the positive parts of this disorder because I never heard or saw characters with anything but negative outcomes, when I saw them at all. Writers have a chance to change that, so I wish that every person writing a neurodivergent character understood that.
What is something people who write neurodivergent characters tend to get wrong?
Not all neurodivergence is the same. There are people who struggle to make friends or have social interactions, and many others who do not. Authors need to be specific, at least in their own mind, about what they are depicting and take the time to understand that every individual person has a slightly different experience.
- A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
- Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse by Susan Vaught
- Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan
- Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry
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