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


15 responses to “Emily Wenstrom: Why We Need ADHD Representation in Fiction”

  1. I’m the mom of an (adult) special needs son and the teacher (30+) years of middle school special needs students. THANK YOU for saying what you said and being who you are. “They” are everywhere among us, and when we fail to see “their” value, we do all of us a disservice.

  2. K.M. Herkes’ books Controlled Descent and Flight Plan do a great job of dealing with neurodivergence – also chronic pain and brain injury. And they are fun and funny and action packed and GREAT stories!

    • Great, recs, thanks, I’ll have to add these to my list! I could write an entire other article about the ways ADHD characters make for absolutely wonderful protagonists 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for this! My ADHD has frustrated every career I’ve attempted, in part b/c I was not diagnosed until my late 30’s. I spent most of my life believing, as I was told, that the problem was my laziness, lack of discipline, daydreaming, etc. etc. ad nauseum. My boss at my current job made the offhand comment to another coworker that “people blame ADHD but the reality is parents don’t discipline their kids enough.” (Needless to say, I keep my diagnosis to myself.) Recently, after joining some online ADHD groups, I’ve come to realize that these problems are shared by thousands of people. But ADHD also grants me some fantastic advantages! And I’d love to see a book with an MC who doesn’t overcome their ADHD, but who uses it to win the day. Maybe that’s what Sherlock Holmes did..? Funny, I LOVED those books as a kid. (I will now revisit them.) Thank you again!

    • The interpretation of Sherlock Holmes interests me as our understanding of certain neurological conditions evolves. For a long time I supported the theory that he was bipolar. The more we learn about autism, I’ve seen a good share of autism arguments. ADHD is a new one to me. Maybe he was so neurodivergent, he had ALL the conditions. Either way, reading his stories got me through some tough years.

  4. Your post interests me greatly, as I am successful autistic author, and am currently thinking of creating an autistic character. Indeed, I am currently writing a book for homoeopathic physicians on the treatment of patients who are autistic (NOT the treatment of autism, which is not disease). I shall investigate your book. Good luck.

  5. I agree that I’d like to see more inclusion of neurodivergency. And not in that either accidental or “coded” way, ie. Sheldon Cooper. I’m very interested in the upcoming Ghostbusters movie, which seems to clearly have an autistic girl in a leading role. It’ll be interesting if they outright say that, or if she’ll just bleed the traits all over the screen.

    However, representation is a bit of a hot button issue with me. I’ve seen it done very well. But when it’s not done well, it comes off as forced, shallow and sterile. Like this character is being written by people who have no idea what they’re writing about and the representation is only happening because of a political issue in the news and/or a corporate diversity initiative. Recent Disney animation tends to really fall on their ass with that.

  6. May I recommend the amazing book, _Turtles all the Way Down_ by John Green (author of _The Fault in our Stars_). The main character is a high-school age young lady with an ADHD brain. Great story with very sympathetic characters.

  7. I haven’t been to the blog in a bit and it is awesome that this is the post. I was diagnosed with ADHD just this year (2021) at the age of 42! I had a lot of friends say no…it can’t be…b/c for 42 years, I had been able to “contain” my symptoms and slide under the radar. I’m never quite sure how to respond to this so I stopped talking about it.

    Learning the symptoms and the strengths was such a relief and was life changing for me. Thank you for sharing this message on this day. It’s always nice to hear from people who understand it and are including it in their work. I appreciate it!

    P.S. Was Alice (Alice in Wonderland) ADHD? I like to think so…she was my favorite.

  8. Love this post! I was diagnosed last year just before my 40th birthday. There was, and still is, a grieving process. Both for my own internal thoughts and beliefs, as well as other’s expectations throughout my life.
    I’m glad to see some representation in fiction and look forward to your book as well as other’s recommendationed in the comments 🙂
    I know this is an incredibly late comment, but the post has been sitting in my inbox waiting for me to get to it – as per for ADHD lol

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