Emily Wenstrom: Why We Need ADHD Representation in Fiction

A guest post from Emily Wenstrom about ADHD representation in fiction — please read, and then check out her new novel, Departures.

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When I first got my ADHD diagnosis in high school, I had no choice but to be loud about it. This all came about in the first place because years of good academics and a reputation as the quiet, low-maintenance girl in the back of the room let my symptoms go by unnoticed for years, until my grades took an abrupt nosedive as the different structure and higher challenges of high school caught up with me.

Even with my Section 504 in hand, multiple teachers actively resisted granting me rights as simple as an extra copy of the text book.

I didn’t have ADHD, I played too many sports. I didn’t have ADHD, I didn’t belong in advanced math. I didn’t have ADHD, I just needed to be more responsible.

I could rant for a while on this, but the point is, there was pushback to the point of animosity, based on stereotypes about what ADHD is and what it should look like. I guess I didn’t look like that, to these teachers.

But a universal truth about high school is that it ends, thank goodness. I educated myself about my symptoms and associated weaknesses, and eventually found ways to address them enough to go unnoticed.

And for a very long time after that, I took advantage of my option to be very quiet about my ADHD (to be clear, this ability to choose to go unnoticed is privilege in action–not all ADHD-ers or other neurodiverse folks have this option). I didn’t want the baggage that came with the label. Especially in my career, I didn’t want to give anyone the ammunition to read into a typo or request for a deadline extension – I would be perfect all the time (at least to the external observer), and they would never have to know. The cost of the baggage associated with ADHD just felt too high.

Because just like my high school teachers, what so many people fail to understand about ADHD, is that this different type of brain wiring can come with strengths just as much as it does weaknesses.

I can hop on my soapbox and shout this until I’m blue in the face … but I think better representation in fiction could be a lot more powerful.

Representation in Fiction Meets a Basic Human Need

From POC to LGBTQIA to physical disabilities and neurodivergence of all kinds, combinations thereof, and beyond, representation matters.

As Psych Today explains, feeling seen is a basic human need we all share. This includes consideration of our needs and requests, equitable access and treatment, and representation, too. Seeing ourselves represented in stories is one wonderful and important way to accomplish this. Conversely, the failure of inclusion is also powerful—and damaging.

As a child, I gravitated toward characters who shared my symptoms long before I even knew what they were symptoms of. I sought out catharsis else where in characters who I felt shared my symptoms, like Anne Shirley and Meg Murry.

Seeing these dynamic, multidimensional, heroic characters who shared my struggles (and, most importantly, overcame them) filled me with hope and shifted my self-perception. If these characters could overcome these struggles, maybe I could too. If these characters shared my flaws but were still worthy of love and support and being rooted for, maybe I was too.

ADHD Representation in Fiction

There is a notable lack of ADHD representation in fiction. There are a number of books for children with ADHD written specifically to this audience to help them understand their diagnosis and cope with symptoms. These have value, but when it comes to mainstream stories about more than ADHD 101, it’s a struggle to find more than a few examples.

Go ahead and try to look up a list of ADHD characters—most will in fact offer characters who were retroactively diagnosed by the list writer, rather than the author, because that’s the best we can do. Did you know Emma Woodhouse had ADHD? Sherlock Holmes?

In fact, I was so accustomed to not seeing neurodiverse representation in stories, it took exposure to better role models to realize what was missing. Authors like Corinne Duyvis who has long pushed for better representation of neurodiversity and disability, and Rick Riordan, who originally wrote the Percy Jackson series to create a hero his own son, who has ADHD and dyslexia, would relate to.

It’s easy with ADHD and other learning disorders to feel reduced to a list of symptoms. This is where characters in stories really shine: they are multidimensional. They have both good traits and flaws—even the heroes. A story with an ADHD character shows strengths in addition to weaknesses and creates something much more human and whole.

Really, Riordan said it best:

“I thought about Haley’s struggle with ADHD and dyslexia. I imagined the faces of all the students I’d taught who had these same conditions. I felt the need to honor them, to let them know that being different wasn’t a bad thing. Intelligence wasn’t always measurable with a piece of paper and a number two pencil. Talent didn’t come in only one flavor.”

Representation is for All of Us

The benefits of representation aren’t just for those who finally get to see themselves included. For those outside the group gaining inclusion, representation also helps us build empathy, connection and a better understanding of those different from us. We gain perspective, experience and a more complex and accurate view of the world.

When it comes to ADHD, there’s a lot of baggage. People expect constant hyperactivity, assume only little boys to have it, or even think it’s fake. But ADHD is a lot more complex than this. It can manifest as “checking out” from what’s going on around you, hyperfocus, Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, difficulty regulating emotions, and a myriad of other forms or combinations, depending on the person and the situation. The more we can show that it looks different in different people—different characters—the more we can bust apart stereotypes and see value and complexity in neurodiversity, rather than limitation.

There are many types of representation needed more in fiction, and this is just one type – certainly not trying to imply it’s any more important any others, and indeed some other representation needs feel especially urgent these days.

Regardless, representation enriches all of us.

I’ve slowly started being louder about my ADHD again (if you couldn’t tell), across all areas of my life, including what I write. My most recent novel even put an ADHD character front and center, and made it central to the plot, my own small effort toward adding to what’s needed, with hopefully more to come. And I have to tell you, it feels good not to be the quiet girl hiding in the back anymore.

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About Departures:

She’s planned her celebration for weeks, and other than leaving her sister Gracelyn behind, she’s ready. The Directorate says this is how it should be, and she trusts them, as all its citizens do. So tonight she dresses up, she has a party, and she dances. Then she goes to sleep for the last time … except, the next morning, Evalee wakes up.

Gracelyn is a model Directorate citizen with a prodigious future ahead. If she could only stop thinking about the shuffling from Evalee’s room on her departure morning. Even wondering if something went wrong is treasonous enough to ruin her. If she pulls at the thread, the entire careful life the Directorate set for her could unravel into chaos.

Swept away by rebels, Evalee must navigate a future she didn’t count on in a new, untidy world. As the Directorate’s lies are stripped away, she becomes determined to break Gracelyn free from its grasp—before Gracelyn’s search for the truth proves her to be more unruly than she’s worth to the Directorate.

Buy Departures Now: Amazon