WRITING FEATURE Neurodivergent Characters, Part 1


Fran Price chats to author Halli Gomez about the dos and don'ts of writing neuro-atypical characters.

Welcome to Words & Pictures! Can you briefly introduce yourself and describe what you write?

My name is Halli Gomez. I teach martial arts and write for children and young adults. I have written several stories with neurodivergent characters including my young adult novel, List of Ten, publishing March 2021. 

What is the difference between ‘neurodiverse’ and ‘neurodivergent?’ 

I have seen these terms used interchangeably when speaking or writing about individuals. The concept of neurodiversity relates to viewing neurological differences as normal and natural variations in the brain.

Would you describe yourself as neurodivergent (ND)?

I would describe myself as ND. I have Tourette's syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sensory issues, and anxiety, all of which fall under the concept of variations of the brain.

Can you give examples of the main ‘types’ of neurodivergence?

There are many neurological differences that fall under the ND category. They include the ones I mentioned above plus ADHD, autism, dyslexia, epilepsy, and many more. In addition, many ND individuals have secondary issues called co-morbids.

How does day-to-day life impact an ND person?

Day-to-day life differs for every ND person. School may be difficult and require tutoring or special accommodations such as extra time or quiet surroundings. Social situations such as school, work, and gatherings may be uncomfortable. Schedule changes may cause anxiety.

Why would a children’s writer consider writing an ND character?

Every writer has their own motivation, but I hope the reason is not just to get their book noticed. I hope it comes from a more altruistic and educational standpoint, a desire to show ND characters as successful, entertaining, and brilliant. Writing these characters not only educates readers about neurodiversity, but also lets ND kids see themselves as heroes, something that doesn’t always happen in real life.

How can children’s writers help raise awareness of neurodivergence?

The best way to raise awareness is to get these stories into the world. Of course, not every story is created equal. As writers, we want to make sure we are not furthering stereotypes and tropes. We want to be sure the characters are portrayed accurately with a lot of options for success.

How would it help the child reader?

Books about neurodivergent characters helps both ND and neurotypical children. For the ND child, it is an opportunity to see themselves in stories, on great adventures, solving mysteries and making friends. For the neurotypical reader, these stories help explain how ND children feel and see the world, creating a world of understanding and acceptance. 

Diverse or divergent? With thanks to @scrappapertiger. 

Do you think it should be strictly ‘own voices’ ie only ND people writing about these issues?

Honestly, I go back and forth with this issue. I cannot speak for other writers, but there is a lack of ND writers in certain areas. Growing up, there were so few novels about kids with Tourette’s syndrome. I’m thankful there are more today, but still not many. I would love to see more novels about people like me, written by people like me, but because the ND group I belong to is small, and with the time it takes to write, revise, and go through the publishing process, the novels are going to be few and far between.

With all that in mind, it is not easy to write another’s perspective. There are many thoughts, emotions, and views that are hard to understand unless you live that experience. Can it be done? Yes. But first writers should consider alternative ways to tell that person’s story, for example, a ND secondary character.

What ways can we support ND authors?

It is important to support ND authors, not just because they are underrepresented in publishing, but these authors must continue writing stories from their unique perspectives. To support them, read and buy their books, give them as gifts, and promote them on social media and by word of mouth. 

Do you have any tips for writing ND characters (even if we identify as ND?)

Writing diverse characters, even ones that mirror your life, requires a certain amount of research. Unless the character resembles you in every way, different experiences will create different views, emotions, and actions. For example, two characters are diagnosed with autism, one early in life and the other as an adult. Both struggle in social situations, and repetitive movements are part of their daily lives. Although they appear similar, differences in growing up would dictate how they relate to situations emotionally and socially. You can even go further and look at where they live, their community and what their family situation is like.

Are there definite big no-nos to writing ND characters? 

The biggest DON’TS are furthering stereotypes, tropes, and inaccurate representations. Examples are portraying neurodiverse characters as burdens or sidekicks for the neurotypical main character, using words that are derogatory, or grouping ND characters into oversimplified sets of facts. Words and misrepresentation can be harmful to the ND community and damaging to readers who take these stories as fact.

Can you recommend any books that include ND characters?

There are a lot more than before, but I will pick out just a few:

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green
OCD Love Story – Corey Ann Haydu
All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven
Challenger Deep – Neal Shusterman
Planet Earth is Blue – Nicole Panteleakos
Paws – Kate Foster (Pub 2021)
The Someday Birds – Sally J. Pla
Fish In A Tree – Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus – Dusti Bowling
Forget Me Not – Ellie Terry
Just Like Me – Louise Gooding (Pub 2021)
Just Ask! Be Different. Be Brave. Be You – Sonia Sotomayer

Thank you so much Halli!

Thank you for this wonderful interview. You can find me on Twitter @Halli_Gomez and my website halligomez.com. I love to do giveaways for newsletter subscribers so please sign up!

*Header image: halligomez.com.


Fran Price is part of the Words & Pictures team. Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org

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