top of page

Neurodiversity in Unexpected Places: A Picture Book Roundup

Neurodiversity (ND) is a term describing the wide network of traits that stem from mental, behavioral, or developmental differences/challenges. Neurodiverse (sometimes called neurodivergent) or ‘differently brained’ individuals have unique abilities, challenges, and preferences.

When A Novel Mind features neurodiversity-related titles, the ND themes are usually prominent. But today’s picture book round-up offers a more subtle twist. Many of the other picture books in the library – especially those with friendship themes - can also be great conduits for ND conversations. Specifically, they can:

  • promote empathy (not pity),

  • depict acceptance (not ridicule),

  • emphasize successes (even tiny ones), and

  • define disabilities or illness accurately and realistically (avoiding false heroism or stigma-based otherness).

Further, adults can enrich young readers' understanding by asking questions such as:

  • · Have you or a schoolmate or friend ever acted like this/felt this way?

  • · What may have caused the behavior?

  • · If the behavior was difficult for you or for the person doing it, what made it better?

Reading lots of storybooks through an inclusion lens can reveal a message that ND is an element in many tales (and in real-life, too).

Reading lots of storybooks through an inclusion lens can reveal a message that ND is an element in many tales (and in real-life, too). To that end, let's take a look at a few picture books with subtly specific ND support – even though they may not have been written with that in mind.

We Don't Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins

It's the first day of school for Penelope Rex, and she can't wait to meet her classmates. But it's hard to make human friends when they're so darn delicious! That is, until Penelope gets a taste of her own medicine, and finds she may not be at the top of the food chain after all. . . .

ND elements:

o Impulse control - struggling with or failing to resist an urge or impulse

o Misreading social cues – misunderstanding or not noticing nonverbal behaviors like eye contact, facial expressions, posture, and gestures to make or maintain social connections

o Missing/misunderstanding limits – ineffectively recognizing, accepting, and even respecting that certain settings or people will require or preclude certain behaviors.

· Cues: This hyperbolic take on impulse control and (mis-)reading social situations opens wide the door to discussing all sorts of general social (e.g. burping in church) or ND-triggered faux pas, and how to recover from them. While the unwritten rules (don’t eat classmates!) may seem laughably obvious to some, others truly need direct learning opportunities to understand that their natural inclinations (eating classmates!) must be curtailed or redirected. Additionally, even in kind, sensitive groups, there are at least some firm limits (the finger-biting fish) of what will and won’t be tolerated. Everyone must appreciate that while T. Rexes can be fully themselves at home, full-on dino behavior just won’t work at school.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

The almost-wordless story shows the many different viewers' perceptions of one cat, and how perspective shapes what we see. When you see a cat, what do you see?

· ND elements:

o Inflexible thinking – Perceiving input in one way, making sense of it for personal use, and then not being able to shift that perspective to align with wider parameters or others’ perceptions, input, or questions.

o Screening input with non-standard priorities – Focusing on elements of an experience that the general group may not prioritize as key features due to sensory issues (e.g. high reactivity to aromas) or language processing difficulties (e.g. poor word recall) that realign the screening-categorizing-reacting process.

· Cues: Even the very youngest reader literally can see at least something different about each illustration of the cat. To expand the book discussion to include ND issues, ask something like: What might it feel like if your view of things (a cat) frequently does not match the most popular or common view? It’s enlightening and even amusing to share cat concept variations as shown. It can be equally mind-opening to appreciate that some folks literally see things with different filters and priorities.

I'm a Duck by Eve Bunting

Sometimes it takes a lot to get your webbed feet wet! An adorable picture book makes a splash with a satisfying story about conquering your fears. "I cannot swim, and that is bad. A landlocked duck is very sad."

· ND elements:

o Disproportional anxiety – Feeling intense, excessive, and abiding worry and fear about what many others might consider everyday situations.

o Black or white thinking – Rejecting alternatives due to avoiding or not being able to perceive gray areas, successive approximations, or integrating options.

· Cues: Everyone manages anxiety. Some move quickly from recognizing it to pushing through the discomfort. Some are highly reactive. Others seem to manage, but like the proverbial duck, they paddle madly underwater just to stay afloat and not get pulled under by a current of fears. These fears often stem from all-or-none thinking -- like the duck’s distrust of all water experiences, based on one bad moment. Or they come from a need for more tiny exposures (puddle paddling) and supportive reminders (ducks float). Brainstorm things that may energize some kids but terrify others (riding roller coasters, speaking in class, meeting new people). Then ask young readers to practice specifically encouraging phrases that could alleviate hidden anxiety in others.

Book Week is here, and Missy will find a book to love, even if Miss Brooks has to empty the entire library. What story will finally win over this beastly, er, discriminating child?

· ND elements

o Missy’s reading difficulties – Formally diagnosed or abiding but indefinite issues that interfere with the enjoyment or comprehension of reading often pairs with reading avoidance.

o Ineffective self-advocacy – Presenting a stubborn or uncooperative demeanor when lacking skills to communicate distaste or a need for clarity or help.

o Unfocused/inefficient decision making – Trouble choosing often stems from insufficient experience with or low comprehension of key details. This feeling of being overwhelmed by choice can cascade into emotional flooding or avoidance.

· Cues: Indecisiveness/insecurity can look like stubborn misbehavior or aloof refusal. Issues with reading will always require extra patience and energy, so finding the right motivations for the reader is critical. In the meantime, reasonable limits must keep misbehaviors in check. Shout out to the many educators who are happy to go above and beyond – even for understated appreciation (as Miss Brooks feels, watching Missy read happily) – as they balance offering personalized help with overall group needs.

Elmer by David McKee

Elmer the elephant is bright-colored patchwork all over. No wonder the other elephants laugh at him! If he were ordinary elephant color, the others might stop laughing. That would make Elmer feel better, wouldn't it?

· ND elements:

o Feeling too different – Noticing and feeling alienated or defeated by personal traits that seem outlandishly different from the rest of the group.

o Avoidance – Fleeing, or trying illogical or unsustainable coping methods.

o Symptom management fatigue – It takes a lot of energy to handle being different in a group. Sometimes the least exhausting option is to deny the differences.

· Cues: The story clearly emphasizes that the elephants are quite different, except for their color. It also shares that the herd relies on Elmer for his jokes and games. They appreciate his humor; teasing him about his patchwork color is not the norm. And yet, Elmer is tired of feeling different. So he finds extreme, unsustainable work-arounds (fleeing, painting himself). How delightful – and critical to embracing solutions to ND issues - that his community directly appreciates not only Elmer’s traits (humor, patchwork colors), but also that they literally celebrate Elmer’s coping strategy (painting) as worthy, even though it is temporary and doesn’t yield the exact same results for everyone.

These five books are supportive of ND awareness, but were not originally written with this intent. They complement the titles that are expressly written to champion ND perspectives, such as A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey, The Little Senses series by Samantha Cotterill, and Benji, The Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla.

A well-rounded library will contain both explicitly labeled ND picture books, and those more subtly applicable to sensitive interpretation. In sum, there are many story-conduits for exploring diversity (neuro and other) in all its forms.

Which title(s) have you shared, with an eye to ND elements?

Is there a book you love, and are looking for clarity on how to explore its ND elements with youngsters? Leave a comment, below!


Katie O’Brien Engen, M.Ed, currently works in private practice to mentor students with executive functioning and language processing challenges. She also writes stories and cross-curricular lessons to engage young minds with big ideas, does writing work for hire, and reviews books for various kidlit outlets. Katie is fueled by faith and laughter, and rarely is she too busy for family, sports, or ice cream. She lives in Maryland where one of her favorite runs is the ~10 miles to the Washington Monument in D.C. Learn more about Katie here.

1 Comment

Feb 19, 2020

How to Babysit a Logan by Callie Metler Smith has neurodiversity elements through the eyes of a cat. And Rock and Roll Woods has elements of sensory issues (loud noise)

bottom of page