Monday, 23 November 2020

Daring to Write Inclusively in an Exclusive World


I want you to imagine a scene, as if it were a part of a novel you were working on:

A single mum of three tunes into her local news broadcast for the latest update on the sudden 6-day lockdown her state has been thrust into at a moment’s notice, due to  Covid-19 rearing its ugly head after seven months of no cases. The authorities immediately sprung into action to lock the city down, for the greater good. She bites the inside of her cheek, awaiting the dire news of the day: additional cases? the need for extreme testing? greater quarantines? The announcement that came was a complete shock:

“The man at the centre of the pizza shop outbreak lied. The threat is not as great as first anticipated; some restrictions will cease immediately, and full lockdown will end at 11.59pm Saturday evening.”

End scene.

If this were your novel, how would you proceed to write the character’s reactions? Generally, most would have her and her children burst into excited and thankful whoops of joy and rapture! Phew! The lock-down is finished! Our lives can return to normal! 

That’s the overall expectation, right?

Well, this was my morning last Friday. I am that single mum of three boys, and I can tell you, that was not my reaction.

I burst into tears. Not joyful, “hooray, lock-down is over!” tears. These were tears of overwhelm, of exhaustion and frustration, and thoughts of “here we go again.” More changes. More planning. More fixing of plans and routines that I’d just managed to fix when they were so suddenly broken just a few days earlier. 

It’s okay, I’m not sharing this to throw a pity party, (that is done with, the chocolate has been put away and I am once again adulting as well as I usually am). I did, however, want to use this situation to raise an interesting discussion around the characters we write, or read of, in modern fiction. 

Most are written from what I would call a neuro-typical mindset, that is they think and act in ways that are the social norm; happy events bring on happy reactions and emotions, sad events see them sad, exciting see them excited. It’s just what is expected.  Right?

What if they didn’t? What if one of your main characters reacted to good news the way I did? What if they didn’t rejoice at being set free from a terrible situation? What if they laughed at tragic news, or didn't cry or acknowledge the situation at all? What if they displayed character traits that were not what we expect in society? How would that go down with a person reading a novel? And why is this even important?

I believe it’s important because we read to connect with characters, and there is a significant proportion of society who don’t always get that chance, because they are neuro-diverse.  Think of the quirky work mate, or cousin, or maybe even yourself! These people often see the world differently, through glasses perhaps tinted with OCD, Autism, ADD/ADHD, anxiety, or depression, or even manic episodes; some have brains that think too fast for their mouths to form the words so they stutter, or remain silent, or babble incessantly; some appear to not do well at school, or at work, yet they have IQs of 140; many suffer greatly from social anxiety, and cope in ways that most don't even see. 

There really aren’t that many examples of neuro-diverse people in mainstream media, or in literature; perhaps the most identifiable is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and that is such a clich√©, narrow, and not always positive, representation of neuro-diverse people.

We have the opportunity, as writers, to be inclusive in our writing, by depicting characters with these wonderful neuro-diverse traits. Beautiful, funny, sad, clever, hilarious, angst-ridden characters where their differences are celebrated, rather than being swept under the carpet of neuro-typical normality.

You may feel a little in the dark about this, and that's understandable. May I suggest an excellent way to learn about neuro-diversity is to chat with those who live with ND traits, such as Autism, ADD/ADHD, OCD, Anxiety, and so on. If that isn’t possible, or feels a little intrusive, then perhaps google articles written by people who share their everyday lives and experiences as an neuro-diverse person living in a neuro-typical world. There are some incredible stories of strength and resilience around.

I am very new to creative writing. I have so much to learn about crafting a good story, and all the ins and outs of character development and story creation, and so forth. So, I cannot possibly speak on what makes a good novel, or how to write with proper technique, though I hope to learn these things. But above all, I hope when I do write, that I would include wonderfully real, neuro-diverse as well as neuro-typical characters who are beautifully themselves, quirky and dramatic, or quiet and reserved, in the most extraordinary ways. That I can show the love of God for all people, and that faith is a real struggle for many who find it difficult to find their place in the church because of they perhaps don't fit the typical Christian ideal. And that people reading my words could identify as the awesome, strong, beautiful leading lady, or the suave, debonair hero.

And you better believe that at least one of the characters will be, in part at least, autobiographical.

Psst: She’ll be the character drinking loads of coffee, looking for her keys, and purse, and phone, and running ten minutes late...or quite possibly a week early!

God, investigate my life;

get all the facts firsthand.

I'm an open book to you;

even from a distance, you know what I'm thinking.

Psalm 139:1-2 The Message

Image credit: Tim Mossholder - Unsplash


  1. Thanks, Helen. Great reminder that people don't always react as we would or as we would expect. With several close family members with neurodiversity, I can only endorse your call to include neurodiverse characters in literature. I've enjoyed reading a few in recent years - House Rules by Jodie Picoult (and arguably her Lone Wolf), Loving Anthony by Lisa Genova, The Rosie Project trilogy by Graeme Simison, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime by Mark Hadon (though not as keen on that one), Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud by Jonathan Safron Froer.

    Kathy Hoopmann has written a number of books with ASD main characters and one of the protagonists in Anne Hamilton's wonderful Daystar is on the spectrum.

    I think it is a great trend and look forward to reading more diverse characters.

  2. Thanks Jeanette, what a wonderful selection of books to read! Thanks so much for taking the time to share those, I'm delighted to know there are so many!

  3. Thanks for sharing those thoughts, Helen, and for having the courage to make yourself vulnerable. You raise many interesting points about the need for diversity and for developing fully-rounded characters who are not the stereotype. I really enjoyed 'The Rosie Project', as Jeanette mentioned; and also 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' by Gail Honeyman. Both had lead characters who saw the world differently, but they were both a good mix of humour and pathos. They both made me think about how we treat people who are a bit different.

    Also, there has been a great story in the news recently about a boy with ADHD and autism who has become a wonderful musician because of the generosity of a teacher who gave him a chance. Would be great to see more of those inspiring stories in fiction:

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for commenting Nola. What a beautiful story about Tom. And I'm really looking forward to reading these books! I think I'll start with The Rosie Project, it has me intrigued...

  5. Thanks so much, Helen. I read your blog with great interest, as we have a grandson with ADHD and are slowly learning how to understand him better and what works well for him. He is gorgeous, by the way--of course!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jo-Anne. It can be a long process of trial and error, that's for sure. As the article Nola shared shows, when we find what motivates our ND kids they thrive. And I am sure he is just beautiful ☺

  6. Thanks Helen. I just read and enjoyed your post this morning. I have a son with ADHD who is an adult with a family of his own now. He is a beautiful young man and father, but struggles a lot. We have many ND people in our family. We've lost some to untimely death. I myself am bipolar. But we are all beautiful people. Afterall we are all God's children. I thoroughly enjoy reading books with ND characters, and sometimes have a quiet giggle - it's okay we all need to be able to laugh at ourselves sometimes. 'quirky and dramatic, or quiet and reserved' ... hmmm, I can be both of these in one day. Thank you again, it would be wonderful to see and read more books where the characters aren't as predictable.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting Josephine, and for being so open about how this resonates with you and your family. I was diagnosed as autistic several years ago, and have recently been officially diagnosed with ADD. It is a relief, and answers so many questions! It can be very difficult, and I'm loving that there are people starting to write about these struggles. As for predictable... that's something I definitely am not! I'm starting to celebrate that.

  7. That is a fascinating blogpost, Helen, sprouting all sorts of ideas. I must admit my first reaction to the news of the reversal of SA's lock-down, apart from being stunned, was self flagellation for cancelling a meeting for an organisation I chair. It could have gone ahead after all. This went on for a day or so, until someone spoke reassuring words to me. And now I'm sad for all the businesses that suffered greatly for no good reason. We are very diverse, and thank you for not only reminding us we are, but giving us and our characters permission to be

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, it's certainly been a rollercoaster ride for us all, around Australia, hasn't it! I pray that your delayed meeting will bring about even greater rewards when it goes ahead, if it hasn't already. Blessings, Helen

  8. Thank you for open sharing, Helen, and for bringing us closer to the realities of our complex world–and complex, varied psyches. A thought-provokig viewpoint.

  9. Hi Ruth, thanks so much for commenting, I'm glad you found this food for thought. I'm beginning to wonder if there really is such a thing as a "normal" benchmark for any of us?! What a wonderful, beautiful thought that is, too. Blessings, Helen

  10. I really enjoyed this, Helen. I worked for many years as a relief teacher and indicated I was happy to work in special schools as I had done studies in these areas. I was often called to two specialist schools. I had a class one day with a boy B….. in the class. He appeared very intellectually challenged. The teacher said that in the Music lesson, after set work, B….. could go on the piano. As he took over I stood there, absolutely amazed to see and hear him on the instrument. Suddenly he stopped. Took a toy microphone from the top of the piano, took my hand and out the mike in it, pulled my hand and mike over in front of his mouth and pretended to sing! I was stunned! We had a girl in our church diagnosed on the autism spectrum and also intellectually challenged but was brilliant with jigsaws; but she had to do them her way and would not allow anyone to help her. Then we also have a little grandson with the most delightful nature who did not speak until he was about two. In his kindergarten the staff just loved him. However once he began to speak it was hard to stop him! When was about two and a half he was given programmes for an iPad by a teacher dealing with his condition. On it were several shapes. As they came up he said, “square”, “triangle” etc. then suddenly “trapezium”. “Trapezium” I thought I was in about Grade 8 before I heard of them! The specialists later diagnosed him as a savant. However the main thing about him is that he has the most delightful smile and nature; but he wants to be sure he gets the same treatment snd privileges as his two older sisters. I am going to try to read some of the books suggested - I have so many books I want to read! Thank you again for this post.