Top Ten Books for Neurodiversity by Kacy Smith
It was a sheer and happy accident that I started teaching and working with neurodiverse students. I teach sixth, seventh, and eighth grade gifted students, a number of whom are twice-exceptional (2E), meaning they possess both the gifts of neurodiversity and of high intelligence. While the definition of neurodiversity is evolving, I use the term to mean that the identification of autism, OCD, ADD and others are natural variations or neurological differences. They are not diseases or vehicles for shame and pity. In many ways, divergent thinking patterns are gifts. I can spend my evening (and yours) recounting experiences of my classroom day: deep conversations, diverging and converging back to topic; seemingly unbelievable connections and comparisons; innovations and wicked humor.
My favorite part of my job is finding books for my kids, and that includes finding representations of neurodiverse children and adults in literature. When I started a classroom library, I was at a loss in finding engaging reads with positive and genuine neurodiverse characters. Representation matters.
Here is my top ten list of novels with neurodiverse characters:
In counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan creates the ineffable character of Willow Chance, a twelve-year-genius, gardener, and astute social commentator. When Willow’s middle school journey is derailed by the death of her parents, she must use her unusual set of skills to cope, move on, and reimagine the definition of family. This is a great pick for a fifth to seventh grade level reader.
I’ve found my students will believe a negative label but not a positive one about themselves. This seems especially true for my students who are 2E. In Fish in a Tree, Ally struggles to hide her inability to read in creatively disruptive ways. As it turns out, Ally has dyslexia. I love the character’s growth and the message of looking beyond labels. This novel is a great lesson in how 2E children may hide both their struggles as well as their intelligence.
Aside from the adventure/mythology/humor aspects of this series, my students love the fact that demigod Percy Jackson, The Lightning Thief himself, is dyslexic. As it turns out, many of the demigods hanging around Camp Half-Blood have learning issues: dyslexia and ADHD are possible “side effects” of divine parentage! Percy and his friends, especially Annabeth and Leo, are relatable and good role models. Their differences unite them as they save the world (in this book and many, many more). Reading a series increases fluency and stamina, so if your reader loves this series, just be prepared to buy all the books. Now.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a bestselling novel and play. The protagonist, fifteen year old Christopher, is a mathematical genius and a logical thinker. He loves numbers, routine, and red but not yellow. Never yellow. He does not want to be touched. When a neighbor’s dog turns up murdered, he sets about finding the killer. Along the way, Christopher is accused of the murder, investigates his family and neighbors, writes his findings, and discovers more truths than it seems at first he can handle. Rich in detail yet engrossing, this novel is a portrait of the family and educational challenges (and gifts) of an child with autism. Christopher is a great model for emotional growth.
Although this is more of an adult than a YA book, many of my autistic students were thrilled to find a genuine autistic voice speaking to them in Look Me in the Eye. John Elder Robison was identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome late in life- and what a life he has led before and after! Neglected and abused for parts of his childhood (John is the brother of the author Augusten Burroughs), he found his own path in life- from designing toys to the infamous flaming guitars for KISS. A fabulous storyteller, John narrates the outlandish as well as the domestic aspects of his life. Think of him as guide of sorts on how an autistic mind works.
Daniel from OCDaniel is a captivating and humorous narrator who expends a great deal of energy hiding his OCD, or “zaps,” as he refers to his continual compulsions. He is successful in his attempts at school, at home, and on the football field, where he is the backup punter for the Erie Hills Elephants. When Daniel receives a mysterious note from Sara, a self-proclaimed “fellow Star Child,” the novel changes from a coming-of-age piece to a surprising engrossing mystery about the death of Sara’s father. While Sara is open about her bipolar condition, Daniel hides his condition. The combination of these two unique characters is very realistic and balanced. This is a wonderful middle school level read.
Ginny Rorby’s How to Speak Dolphin is the story of Lily, whose half-brother Adam has taken over her life. His autism, her mother’s death, and her step-father’s resistance to see Adam for who he is casts a shadow over Lily. Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this novel conveys the struggles families may have with high needs children. Since Nori the dolphin is used as a therapy animal for Adam, this book also explores the complex animal-human relationship. Readers will find Lily a thoughtful and empathetic narrator.
Caitlin from Mockingbird is a ten-year-old with Asperger’s. Her older brother Devon is her guide to the social aspects of the world. That is, until the unthinkable happens. When Devon is killed in a school shooting, Caitlin is left with horrific grief and no means to navigate the complex social structures of mourning, family, and school. With help from her trusted dictionary and a school counselor, Caitlin comes to terms with her loss and starts the first steps to her own friendships. This novel won the 2010 U.S. National Book Award for Young-People’s Literature.
Dystopian and apocalyptic novels do not remain long on the shelves of my classroom library. On the Edge of Gone takes place in 2035, right before a rather disruptive comet is scheduled to hit the earth. Denise is autistic and biracial, and she lives with her drug addicted mother. At the start of the book, she is assigned a place in a shelter that should survive the initial impact. However, there is a chance for her to escape earth in a generation ship- if she can prove her worthiness to earn a space. This is an engaging, nerve-wracking story of “the big one.”
It’s unthinkable to write a list like this without including Temple Grandin. In Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, Temple provides us with her voice and life story- a narrative journey and also an informational one. Her descriptions of processing, reactions, visualizations- even her squeeze machine- are simple and powerful paths of understanding. A more YA version this story is Temple Grandin: How the Girl who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery. Either book is a close look at this grand person.
These books allow the neurodiverse among us to witness clear, realistic, and positive representation; allow the neurotypical among us to find explanations, understanding, and hopefully, empathy and tolerance. My life has been made exponentially better by being surrounded by neurodiverse children, tweens, and teens.
Kacy Smith is a Humanities teacher of gifted students in Beaverton, Oregon. Sharing books and the journeys of reading and writing are her favorite parts of teaching. When not surrounded by children and books at school, Kacy is surrounded by even more books, two noisy and immense bulldogs, one neurodiverse, science-obsessed daughter, and a fabulous and understanding partner.