Representing Neurodiversity

Representing Neurodiversity

Agent Kortney Price talks neurodiversity and tips on fair representation.

When I finally started building my list as an agent, including neurodiverse and differently-abled characters as a wishlist item was a no-brainer. I was so excited to see all the amazing submissions I knew would come pouring in! But as I read, I realized that special needs characters can be a challenge for authors. In some stories I noticed the same problems popping up again and again. In some cases, I’ve talked with authors who are scared they won’t get it right and so don’t include special needs characters in their stories. 

I’ve worked with special needs children and adults for two thirds of my life. Back in 1996, my aunt founded a nonprofit (TASK) that provided sports opportunities for kids who weren’t allowed to be in the regular sports leagues. Today, the same nonprofit serves over 1,000 individuals with special needs and provides athletic, artistic, skill building, and social opportunities for the same community. 

The first time I can remember being at TASK, I was five years old and I’m still very active with the programs there. It’s my therapy. My happy place. My safe place. I adore the individuals I work with and enjoy the creative outlet planning fun events for them gives me. 

Kortney and one of the TASK kids under the St. Louis Arch
Kortney and one of the TASK kids under the St. Louis Arch

TASK holds a huge piece of my heart and soul, so it makes sense that this passion would carry over into another passion of mine: books. 

So, here’s a few tips on including neurodiverse or differently-abled characters in your stories. 

Disability is not a defining quality

So many times I see characters with special needs who are defined only by their disability. This makes them feel more like a prop than an actual character. If I had a dollar for every “younger brother with autism” whose only purpose is to be a source of angst for the main character of a YA novel, I would be able to retire by 35. 

I think this stems from a lack of experience with the special needs community. When you only see a young boy with autism from a distance, you only see the stereotype or the disorder. When you spend time with him, you see him

There’s no such thing as a “standard” or “normal” person so don’t limit yourself to the textbook versions of neurodiverse or differently-abled people.

Disability should not be the main focus of the plot

If your main character has a disability, it’s not the center of their world and so it shouldn’t be the center of your story. Think of it this way: if a “typical” brain runs on Windows and a neurodiverse brain runs on Mac, they’re both functioning computers. When you get on your computer, do you spend a ton of time focusing on the operating system? Or do you focus on the work you do with your computer? 

The same goes for characters who are Deaf, blind or physically different than the “norm.” How you pick up a paint brush doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do with it. 

P.S. If you “cure” your neurodiverse or differently-abled characters in your story, you’re telling real-life people that they need to change in order to be loved or successful or whole. Don’t be that person. 

Disability shouldn't be ignored

Okay, so after all that talk of not defining your character by their differences alone and not making disability the center of your story, I’m going to throw a curveball at you and say that you also can’t ignore disability. As much as neurodiverse and differently-abled people aren’t defined by their differences, they’re also doing things in ways that work for them. This is a fundamental part of their daily lives and so is a part of them just like how you go about your day.

Maybe their communication style is different. Learn how your character communicates or how they go about their daily lives and don’t be afraid to include that in your story. However, be aware that it’s possible to majorly overdo it.

Educate yourself

Kortney gets pied for fundraiser
The aftermath of a TASK fundraiser has Kortney covered in pie

There’s no such thing as a “standard” or “normal” person so don’t limit yourself to the textbook versions of neurodiverse or differently-abled people. I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals in my life and exactly zero have had the same communication style or the same behaviors. There’s no such thing as a “standard autistic kid.” There are “typical” behaviors that accompany an autism diagnosis, but every person brings their unique personality to the table. 

So get out there and meet new people! Ask questions and you’ll learn so much more than you could ever imagine. I’ll always advocate for spending as much time volunteering in the special needs community as humanly possible. Not only will you learn so much about the community, you’ll meet the best personalities humanity has to offer, the kindest hearts, and the gentlest souls. 

And there you have it! My top tips on including neurodiverse or differently-abled characters in your story. I hope you find these helpful in writing your diverse stories and that you’ll send them to me when you’re done. I can’t wait to read them!