In the second of our #OneWorld features, #ownvoices authors Ceillie Simkiss, A.Z. Louise and Xan West join us to discuss how neurodiverse characters are depicted in romance novels.
I have a distinct memory of the day I was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and depression. I was 12 years old and didn’t really understand what any of that meant. My doctor told my parents I was probably on the autism spectrum – or I would be, if I wasn’t a girl. Take a guess at how that turned out.
I remember going back to the middle school cafeteria and telling my friends I didn’t understand how it was possible I could be ADHD and depressed at the same time.
As usual when I didn’t understand something, I sought out books about all of it. But keep in mind it was the early 00's and I lived in a small town in North Carolina. I devoured every single book I could find with a neurodivergent character in them, and I found a pattern. So many of these stories were told with female narrators, but almost none of the neurodivergent characters were women. Almost always, they were allocishet white boys whose entire existence was to be an inconvenience to the narrator. It was heartbreaking. To this day, I don’t read books with autistic characters unless I know they were actually written by an autistic person because I know exactly what story I’m going to get.
Let me explain what I mean.
The main character has an autistic sibling or child. This results in their freedom being infringed upon because they have to take someone else’s needs into consideration and that’s just so difficult. If it’s a Young Adult book, usually the main character goes through something where they feel horrible about not standing up for their sibling and then stand up for them like they should have been doing the whole time. It’s basically inspiration porn. If it’s Women’s Fiction or Romance, usually the woman will find herself getting divorced because her partner can’t handle their autistic family member or doesn’t want autistic kids. It plays into the myth autistic children cause divorces and ruin their parents lives, which is such a major issue for so many disabled people. Eventually, they’ll find a new partner who either ignores their child or treats them like an absolute infant all the time. In science fiction, autistic people don’t usually exist. That’s because most sci-fi stories are in so-called utopian fantasies where disabilities have been erased from common knowledge. However, you’ll see traits commonly associated with autism and depression used as part of the alien cultures and have it discussed as barbaric and horrible.
You see what I mean?
For a long time, I wondered if there was a reason there were no books out there that featured women like me. I wondered if maybe no one else wanted to read those stories. I know now that was utter codswallop, but it’s what I thought for a long time.
There are, of course, exceptions to all of these formulas. However, every book with an autistic character I’ve ever read and enjoyed was written by an actually autistic author. Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde, Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test, Xan West’s novellas, and Kaia Sonderby’s Failure to Communicate series are the first ones that come to mind.
Knowing there were books out there that featured characters like me inspired me to put a little bit more of myself into the characters I was imagining.
I allowed myself to seep into Cora’s characterization in Learning Curves, letting her be the ADHD woman I always knew she needed to be. I used my experiences with severe motion sickness, a common trait for many autistic folks, to create a conflict for Beatrice in An Unexpected Invitation that still allowed her to be in charge of her own future.
I got to show people like me getting a happy ending.
I haven’t finished a project with an autistic main character yet, but I will someday soon. I hope when that day comes, I’ll have an array of other autistic stories by other people like me to compare it to where we get to be the hero, where we get to have our own moments of realization about something we should have realized all along, and where we get to exist just as we are.
And I hope you’ll all love it as much as I do.
Ceillie Simkiss is the author of the Learning Curves series and a freelance writer with bylines in a variety of online magazines and newspapers. You can find out more about Ceillie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or at candidceillie.com.
Most people who don't have ADHD have an image of a chaotic, forgetful person who is constantly fidgeting, and gets distracted by shiny things and passing squirrels. For people who actually know someone with ADHD, they might picture meltdowns, sensory issues, or a lack of social skills. I'll cop to a few of those stereotypes, but I find them to be the things about people with ADHD that annoy neurotypical people the worst.
It feels like characters with ADHD are made into jokes and wacky, two-dimensional sidekicks, because of these very visible behaviors. They have a place in stories about people with ADHD, but romance, more than many other genres, is about the complex inner lives of the characters, and defining them by how they bother others isn't just a disservice; it's a reminder that we are unlovable in a genre that's all about love. More than that, many people with who have ADHD deal with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which makes these reminders even more painful.
RSD essentially means that if someone says something critical I hurt them in even the tiniest way, and then convince myself nobody will ever love me. I can spiral into depression and sometimes even self-harm. It means the smallest criticism from a loved one feels like being disowned. It means I constantly worry about hurting people, or annoying them by talking too much. RSD is a huge part of navigating relationships – romantic or otherwise – for me and for many other people.
RSD makes every relationship feel like a HFN instead of a HEA. The future looks like a long series of tests; how long can I stay with someone before I annoy them with my speed talking and they dump me? How many times can I forget a birthday before I'm unlovable? How many dirty dishes have to stack up before it's over? With the anxiety that often comes along with ADHD, it feels like a single mistake means a breakup.
Balance is crucial in the portrayal of RSD. While RSD can factor heavily into relationships, the sad truth is it can derail a book, because the conflict feels contrived to people who have never experienced it. It can also go in the same direction as other symptoms, and end in characters whose only note is melodrama. On the other hand, it isn't just a symptom that people neurotypical don't know about; when I was a teenager and young adult, I had no idea it existed. I was left wondering what was wrong with me, why the thought of dating was terrifying and why I just couldn't handle the emotions involved.
Good representation of people with ADHD is important not just because it's healthy for people like me to see we can fall in love and enjoy sex if that's what we want. Stories are places for humans to understand their problems are shared, and someone might learn being scared or overwhelmed is okay.
Through a dual point of view romance novel, they might see the hyperfocus that makes them forget things comes off as passion, and that passion is attractive as long as you set a reminder to walk the dog. Perhaps ADHD logical leaps are a form of genius if you're considerate enough to guide other people through your thought process.
Through thoughtful ADHD representation which allows characters room to breathe, a reader might learn they too are lovable despite – and maybe even because of – the fact their brain works a little differently. And all of these things are best learned from someone who has lived the struggles of ADHD, who knows the negatives and the positives, and doesn't consider the ADHD brain a two-dimensional list of symptoms or a panel from a superhero comic.
A.Z. Louise is one of the authors in the Best Women's Erotica of the Year Series (Volume 5) . You can find out more about A.Z. Louise on Twitter or at azlouise.com.
I love being autistic.
I love the way my brain works. I love connecting with other autistic people and sharing autistic joy. I love feeling comfortable enough around folks to not try to mask my autism with them. I love being seen, honored and witnessed as an autistic person by folks who care about me, who love me. I want to read about and write that kind of love in romances, where autistic characters embrace who they are, are loved for who they are, are witnessed in the fullness of self, get to revel in autistic joy.
Yes, the world is not made for us and we deal with access issues. Yes, we get overwhelmed, melt down, shut down, and burn out. Yes, we are harmed by ableism, including internalized ableism. I don’t want to elide or minimize these realities, they can be a part of the stories we tell about autistic folks. But for me, the romance I want to write and read isn’t about the despair of self-loathing, the trauma of being normed by folks in our lives, the isolation of being rejected by others, or the belief we won’t find partners who want to be with us. I generally find romances that move from those places painful, exhausting, and deeply sad for me to read.
I don’t want acceptance narratives where autistic characters learn to love themselves and accept others can love them, nor do I want acceptance narratives where allistic characters work to accept autistic characters as partners. I know other autistic folks may want or need to read or write these kinds of acceptance narratives in romance. I do wish they didn’t take up so very much space in the genre. It often feels like folks assume that’s the only kind of romance which can exist with an autistic MC, and that frustrates me. This is a problem bigger than autistic representation, one that cuts across disability representation in the genre. We need a wide range of romances with autistic leads, not just ones that are about accepting us, or us accepting ourselves. Including romances that never raise the question of acceptance at all.
I want stories that start from the place of assuming autistic MCs are worthy of love, have so much to offer romantic partners, live lives that include joy, intimacy, connection and care for each other and for ourselves. That’s my baseline beginning, and I want to write and read romances built on that foundation. More than this, I want stories that center autistic POV, where it isn’t about how others see us but how we move through the world, what we want and need from a partner, our goals and dreams.
I’d love to see more depiction of autistic folks which includes our internal experiences of being autistic. In particular, ways we experience the world sensorily, and ways we experience emotion. It’s rare to see autistic characters grappling with sensory processing during moments of touch and in sex scenes, having experiences of sensory joy and sensory overwhelm, needing to close their eyes so they can process sensation. It’s rare to see autistic characters feeling overwhelmed by big emotions, stimming in order to sort through emotions and find language for them, grappling with hyperempathy and trying to figure out their own feelings while being overwhelmed by the emotions of others. What I see more often are depictions of autistic folks that focus on what others can see of us from the outside, like communication issues and struggling to understand social norms and expectations.
I’d love to see more resilience and coping in the depiction of autistic characters. MC's crafting their lives to be more accessible for them, using workarounds to get through the day, calming themselves after a meltdown, developing systems to prevent being overwhelmed. I want to see autistic characters self-soothing, stimming, using echolalia to communicate, using repetition as a way to bring joy and comfort after a hard day. I want to see autistic characters gushing about their special interests, using hyperfocus to succeed at the things they care about, choosing lives that include iterative tasks that work with their brains and let them spiral, choosing roles which help them shape their sensory experiences (like being the one that cooks).
I’m writing a Chanukah romance right now which has two older autistic queer women MC's who have been best friends for close to 30 years, and are more comfortable being in the fullness of their autistic selves around each other than most of the characters I’ve written before. I love writing their shared moments of connection and understanding around things like managing meltdowns, the wonders of hyperfocus, and sensory joy. I’m enjoying depicting the little moments where they support each other as autistic people in an allistic world, grapple with access issues and communication difficulties, and stim together.
So often, autistic characters in romance are surrounded by allistic people, and don’t have connections with other autistic people. In my experience, autistic folks find each other, are drawn to each other, especially now, given the way the internet makes it easier. I love writing relationships between autistic people: partners, friends, chosen family. Several of my autistic friends have families where everyone is autistic—their partners, their kids. I want more stories where autistic folks aren’t isolated from each other.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy writing autistic/allistic romantic pairings too. I particularly like writing allistic love interests who are into the autistic MC for who they are, don’t expect or want them to mask their autism, who care about honoring their sensory needs, who get the ways change can be disruptive even when it’s good change, and enjoy listening to them talk about their special interests. I want my autistic characters to have love interests who get them, deserve them, and treat them well; characters who are as wonderful as they are.
I find the more I write autistic characters where I imagine them carving out spaces of relative safety and access in their lives and relationships, the deeper my characterization is, particularly when I really make room for them to go at their own pace, even when it shifts the pacing of the narrative.
Xan West's latest book is Their Troublesome Crush. To find out more about Xan you can visit Twitter or xanwest.wordpress.com.
Are you a neurodiverse author or reader of romance? How do you feel about the way neurodiverse characters are portrayed in the books you've read? Who are some of your favorite authors and what books would you recommend we read? Let us know in the comments or join the discussion on our social media using #OneWorld