The Importance of Neurodivergent and Disability Representation in Literature  

How one professor is working to spread awareness both in and outside the classroom.  

By K.M. D’Ambrosio 

Alyson Bardsley’s presentation at the CUNY Neurodiversity Conference this spring will focus on neurodivergent representation in romance novels. 

When Alyson Bardsley, after earning her bachelor’s as an English major, decided to attend grad school at Berkeley, she did not have her mind set on becoming a professor. 

She believed her job would mainly be as a researcher.  

 “But while you’re in grad school you get to teach,” said Bardsley. “And I realized that I loved it and might not be terrible.”  

 Since becoming a professor, one of Bardsley’s main focuses has been highlighting disabilities and neurodivergence represented within literature. 

 She first became interested in this subject around the early twenty-first century, when people were very focused on the brain and understanding the mind.  

 She spoke of how authors at this time, specifically neurotypical authors, had begun creating more neurodivergent characters. She had become interested in these works before realizing that several of them were problematic and spreading misinformation about the neurodivergent community.  

 Currently, Bardsley is preparing to speak at the upcoming CUNY Neurodiversity Conference, which will be open to the public and available to join virtually. The theme of this conference is neurodiverse creativity and is set for April 14 from 9 AM to 4:30 PM. 

 For her part of the conference, Bardsley will be speaking specifically about neurodiversity in romance novels, both in terms of how it is represented and interactions within the fandom.  

 A portion of her presentation calls attention to the authors who have benefited from exploiting the neurodivergent community within their works. However, it also speaks to how representation has improved within romance novels, largely due to feedback from readers as well as the willingness of authors to expand their knowledge of neurodiversity.  

 Bardsley provided reactions to “The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Huong as an example of how readers are critiquing representation in romance novels. The book follows the main protagonist Stella Lane, who is autistic.  

 “People are coming for her and going like ‘yeah, okay, fine,’” said Bardsley. “‘But surely this is more savant syndrome, you know, because Stella is a genius so what’s up with that?’”  

Historical romances are also called into question when writing characters that are not neurotypical because often there was no language to represent them during the times these novels take place. These books are also critiqued in how well they are able to accurately portray these characters.  

Bardsley spoke of how romance novels that include neurodiverse characters not only serve to raise awareness but typically also cast a positive light on the relationships that are fostered between these characters and their family or friends.

 She spoke of this setting standards for neurodivergent representation and that the genre is then able to be reworked to better serve those within it.  

 When speaking on the topic of diversity in literature, CSI student Luisa Zamudio shared her thoughts.

 “I think it’s important because if you exclude a group of people like that, there’s no place of belonging,” said Zamudio. “To be able to actually relate to people instead of reading stories about the same white cis men.”  

In addition to this conference, Bardsley has also developed and taught a Disabilities in Literature and Culture course. She spoke of how several of her students were quick to point out the multitudes of people within their lives that have a disability or are neurotypical.  

 She also taught Intro to Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at the St. George campus last fall.  While focusing on topics such as sexuality, gender identity and discrimination, Bardsley also managed to include lessons focusing on disabilities.  

 “When we acknowledge the wide ways of human variation and when people embrace that lovingly,” said Bardsley. “Everyone’s world gets bigger.”  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.