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JR Creaden: What YA Neurodiversity Rep Gets Right... is Still Wrong


When A Novel Mind approached me to write about neurodivergent representation in young adult literature, my immediate reaction was to question my credibility to do so. Who am I, an unpublished and querying author, to set my voice alongside others on a site that I’ve used and recommended so many times as a resource?


What finally settled my mind was the realization that my status in publishing is the norm, so I’m done doubting my voice, especially on this specific topic.


In the last few years, there have been a few powerful YA novels featuring neurodivergent (ND) characters. Among these, here are some of my favorites.



The Extraordinaries, by TJ Klune (ADHD, queer)

"Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. New York Times bestselling author TJ Klune's YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves."


Author TJ Klune says that ADHD "is not a negative,” and that “we’re not disordered. We just have a little extra.”



Hell Followed With Us, by Andrew Joseph White (Autistic, transgender)


A furious, queer debut novel about embracing the monster within and unleashing its power against your oppressors. (“A long, sustained scream to the various strains of anti-transgender legislation multiplying around the world like, well, a virus."—The New York Times)


Regarding his publication journey, Andrew Joseph White recalls an “overwhelmingly positive” experience: “At the time, I did not appreciate that enough. A trans, autistic author writing trans, autistic characters with blood on their faces—are you kidding? It still feels like I pulled a fast one on the industry.”


UnSeelie, by Ivelisse Housman (Autistic)


Iselia “Seelie” Graygrove looks just like her twin, Isolde…but as an autistic changeling left in the human world by the fae as an infant, she has always known she is different. Seelie’s unpredictable magic makes it hard for her to fit in—and draws her and Isolde into the hunt for a fabled treasure.


Ivelisse Housman explains that her book is “paced a little differently from a traditional fantasy novel because it’s told from Seelie’s point of view, and she (like me, and lots of autistic people) takes a long time to process her emotions. I had to give the plot room to breathe in order for her character to develop, and I hope readers will enjoy a peek inside the autistic perspective for its uniqueness.”



The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester, by Maya MacGregor (Autistic, transgender, ace.)

In this queer contemporary YA mystery, a nonbinary autistic teen realizes they must not only solve a 30-year-old mystery but also face the demons lurking in their past in order to live a satisfying life.


When talking about Sam’s autism, Maya MacGregor says: “the average person really isn’t aware of the diversity of autistic experience. My ability to mask impeded my diagnosis. It’s a double-edged sword—when we mask successfully, we are perceived to have low-to-nonexistent support needs, but none of us really mask well enough to not be perceived as somehow Other.”

 

There are more great works by ND authors that I won’t name here. If they don’t feel safe disclosing their status, then I respect that choice.

I applaud all these authors, agents, and publishing teams for their part in crafting brilliant, authentic, and poignant works of art. Ten out of ten: No complaints.

Except for this—it’s still insufficient.

It’s not enough to have a mere handful of books, when there should be dozens every year, with new voices regularly joining the rest to expand expectations of what ND authors can do, and what ND characters can be.

Despite seeking out titles with diagnoses like my own, I have yet to see anything that resembles me or my experiences on the shelves, and I hear that sentiment echoed by most YA readers who are neurodivergent. As is the case with other underrepresented groups, the representation being published -- while authentic individually -- is still terribly limited in scope.

Take autistic representation, just for example, since it’s what I know best. With the exception of UnSeelie, there’s a noticeable flatness of affect in the autistic characters being published that mirrors stereotypes common in TV and film, and this can even be heard in the voice narration of their audiobooks. This is not a critique of these books, or of having a flat affect; having a flat affect isn’t a fault or inauthentic simply because it’s commonly stereotyped.

My point is that the flat affect isn’t universal among autistic people. Many autistic people are effusively passionate, with modulated voices, and don’t fit the patterns we’ve all been told look and sound autistic. Shouldn’t teen readers have access to autistic characters whose mannerisms differ from the stereotypical presentations? Similarly, one could ask, where are the young adult books by Black autistic women? Or those with multiple neurodivergent traits who also have physical disabilities?

What’s being allowed into circulation isn’t a complete picture of the neurodivergent reality. What’s most infuriating is that I know books are being written with more expansive depictions of neurodivergent life. These other unheard voices are out there, shaped into beautiful, riveting, and memorable novels, then left to languish in the query trenches and submission piles of traditional publishing.

The onus is not on authors to be all things (or anything other than their authentic selves); it’s on publishing executives, the last and most powerful in a line of gatekeepers who decide which and whose voices are palatable and allowed into public consumption to then influence how a fifth of the human population is perceived.

This isn’t a new problem, nor is it limited to neurodivergence, but it’s still frustrating. No, it’s more than frustrating, since whole medical organizations devote themselves to erasing our existence. There are authors terrified of being exposed as neurodivergent, because they could lose their livelihoods and medical access, as well as their families, their mental health, or their lives.

By limiting access to the full range of neurodivergent voices, publishing contributes to a culture of silence that critically endangers these already vulnerable populations.


 


JR (Jess) Creaden writes science fiction and fantasy for children and adults from an artistic paradise outside Atlanta, Georgia, that's disguised as a normal house. Some of their special interests include songwriting, rock hunting, UFO/UAPs, Tarot, and all things Bioware. Their most recent work is MEMPHIS AND THE SHADES, a middle grade contemporary fantasy about a family band of neurodivergent orphans with world-changing magical powers.



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