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Friday 5 July 2024

Neurodivergence in Children’s Literature: To identify, or not to identify a character?

Contemporary children’s fiction increasingly represents neuro diverse characters and this week’s post considers whether this should be identified in the blurb or not.

A recent post in a book chat group complained about book blurbs that fail to identify the neurodivergence of the characters in the story; and it made me ponder what the need or benefit would be to have this information, both for the reader and for the character.

My readings confirmed my thoughts, that the main benefit to the individual of a diagnosis are to create some self-understanding and help explain to themselves why they may respond in certain ways to situations (that this response is normal for them), and enable them to advocate for themselves with authority. Diagnosis can also help others to make workplace and social accommodations to support the neurodiverse person. There may also be a negative to diagnosis, as it may affect the person’s options to move countries or see increases in travel insurance as it will identified as a pre-existing condition.

Small studies have shown that when a reader has high transportation engagement with the fiction, they experience affective sympathy (the ability to share feelings and emotions) and this can transfer to their responses to situations in their environment. Readers can also develop cognitive empathy (the ability to understand events from another’s viewpoint), although this may have little impact on their responses to situations.  

As a reader, I select books based around the storyline, rather than the character. The character development is an adjunct to the story, so to be told too much about the character in the blurb, would detract from the joy of the story. The wonder is in the discovery and development of the person. Whether the character is neurodiverse, culturally diverse, cis gender or not, is all part of the story development. 

So, to answer my own question in the title of this blog: No, I do not believe identification of neurodiversity is required in the blurb.

The Little Bookroom has a good list of neurodivergence stories (though not many current titles are listed); many by authors who have self-identified as neurodivergent creators. Some examples from this list, Children’s Books with Neurodiverse Characters for Kids, Parents, Teachers and Therapists · The Little Bookroom, are included below.

Picture Book: Colour of Music by Lisa Tiffin and Matt Ottley; Midnight Sun Publishing, 2020. 

A story where colour and sound are inseparable in the character’s experience of the world.

Junior Fiction: Polly and Buster series by Sally Rippin; Hardie Grant Egmont, 2017. 

A 2018 CBCA Notable title; the characters have dyslexia and anxiety and a friendship which doesn’t fit the societal norm, for either of them.

Middle Grade Fiction: Paws by Kate Foster;  Walker Books, 2021. 

The main character has autism and needs to use learned skills to approach friendship.

Young Adult: Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley; Allen & Unwin, 2020. 

A CBCA 2021 Shortlist title which covers a full range of neurodivergent topics in a natural, honest and times both humorous and poignant story.

Interesting sites I visited in my research

Noetic Health

Big Think

National Library of Medicine


Felicity Sly 

Felicity is a recently retired Teacher Librarian and a CBCA Tasmania committee member.

Editor's note: For further primary school examples check out Tasmanian author Kate Gordon and her Aster series of books.