The pandemic snatched away many people’s coping mechanisms – which, for some, shone a light on aspects of their brains that may have previously been masked. As a result, the ADHD Foundation has noted a 400% rise in diagnosis of neurodivergences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) since 2020, despite NHS waiting lists spiralling to well over four years in some boroughs.
Diagnosis in adulthood can lead to many questions, and in recent years, female authors have led the charge in trying to answer them, perhaps as a result of women and girls having been less likely to be diagnosed as neurodivergent until recently due to old stereotypes of how such brain types “should” appear.
Not all unusual protagonists are neurodivergent; Eleanor Oliphant, Gail Honeyman’s beloved lead, may present as such, but her brain has developed from childhood trauma rather than a neurodivergent condition. That umbrella takes in everything from ADHD, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and ASD to conditions that are more obvious to diagnose at a young age, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and epilepsy.
While it may seem to some as though neurodiversity is a relatively new phenomenon, it is clear from reading books and about writers throughout the centuries that it has always been present – it just hasn’t been recognised or diagnosed. Put simply, brains are hugely varied and, just as some are visually creative while others are more gifted mathematically, so some people have neurodivergent brains and can find navigating a neurotypical world challenging. L.M. Montgomery’s famous lead, Anne of Anne of Green Gables, is textbook ADHD. Siblings Charles and Mary Lamb, whose 1807 book Tales from Shakespeare has been a respectable prize for many a primary school English pupil, were both subject to stays in mental health asylums, Mary with the vague label of ‘lunacy’. Octavia Butler was diagnosed with dyslexia at a late age.
Here is a mix of books that will help adults with new diagnoses to understand their brains, which may help neurotypical readers to understand their friends and family better – after all, looking at the world in a different way is half the fun of reading!
A completely sublime read that shrewdly throws questions of diagnosis back at neurotypical enquirers: Professor Don Tillman, a genetics expert using science to find himself a girlfriend, may present with many of the identifying factors of autism, but he isn’t “suffering” at all. The academic Stuart Neilson, diagnosed autistic in his mid-40s, has written an excellent exploration of this on his blog. As many academics and neurodivergent organisations point out, many of the problems encountered by neurodivergent people come from trying to engage in a society that isn’t made for them – another reason why those D&I programmes are so useful.
May has experience in the thoughtful examination of unquiet minds. Her bestseller, Wintering, (and the forthcoming Enchantment, out in spring) look at rest and recharging through difficult times, with nature at their core. In The Electricity of Every Living Thing, May turns her attention inwards, to what makes her mind work in its own particular way. A chance radio programme leads to her to pursue an autism diagnosis, and this book follows a year of coming to terms with this new discovery, explored in tandem with the exhaustion of motherhood and her challenge to herself of walking the South West Coast Path.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (2020)/
Arguably the funniest and most surprising novel of recent times, Mason’s book follows Martha, a gifted woman in her early 40s who has struggled through life and now finds herself separated from her husband, Patrick, who has been her rock since young adulthood but can’t cope with her anymore. Later in the book, Martha finds some degree of peace with a diagnosis. Where Mason is especially clever is by not specifying what the exact diagnosis is. This irritated some readers, but it’s also a brilliant way of avoiding stigma and keeping Martha’s story as a nuanced, realistic look at the absurd comedy of family, identity, and myriad forms of love.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018)
Hoang’s 2018 debut has won her an army of new fans, and even more so since being picked up by BookTok (#thekissquotient has over 16.6m views). Stella Lane is a wealthy high-flyer whose mother wants her to settle down – but Stella experiences autism in a way that makes one-on-one relationships challenging. So, she hires Michael, an escort, to teach her what’s involved in being a ‘good’ girlfriend, and sparks fly in ways neither of them expect. Hoang has published two further novels in the Kiss Quotient series featuring autistic heroes and heroines – more power to romance’s elbow for becoming one of the most diverse literary genres around.
Some adults coming to terms with a new diagnosis find an element of grief for the life they might have had if they had been diagnosed earlier. Green, author of many YA bestsellers including The Fault in Our Stars, offers older readers a chance to reconnect with that younger self and find some healing; here through the lens of obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as anxiety, which Green himself has lived with for many years. Aza is a teenager whose chronic worry about infection affects her friendships and romantic relationships. After reaching a tipping point, Aza begins to explore coping mechanisms and treatment.
Better Late Than Never by Emma Mahony (2021)
Mahony always questioned her lack of career path (which variously took in the corporate world, journalism at The Times, and teaching) until her son’s ADHD diagnosis led her to examine her own history more closely. Many parents find diagnosis in tandem with their children, and Mahony’s excellent and informative book combines her own experience with journalistic rigour to examine late diagnosis of ADHD in women, especially, and the freedom that can come from finally understanding how your mind works.
Scattered Minds by Dr Gabor Maté (2019)
“The British psychiatrist R.D. Laing wrote somewhere that there are three things human beings are afraid of: death, other people, and their own minds,” writes Dr Maté at the start of his bestselling book analysing ADHD and how adults can reverse the more challenging symptoms, which should give some comfort and hope to anyone fearing the latter. Diagnosed with ADHD in middle age, Dr Maté has spent his career working with addiction, stress, and mental illness, and his books look at how modern society is (or is not) able to support people with different brains, and what we can do to improve things ourselves.
Earthed by Rebecca Schiller (2021)
This beautiful memoir is ostensibly about grounding in nature and imagining the people who worked the land before you. But Schiller breaks it open in the first pages as she is diagnosed with ADHD in her mid-thirties. She takes us through the chaos she experiences, combined with the challenges of work and parenting as an undiagnosed adult, and the calm and reassurance that she finds as she learns how her brain works, and what it is, is as soothing as her embracing the land.
Image at top: Eve Lloyd Knight / Roar for Penguin.co.uk