Neurodivergent Characters vs Neurotypical Ones :: Do We Mix and Match?

by Jule Selbo

So embarrassed I am.

So abashed I feel

So distraught I missed it…

Early morning, a few days ago. I was listening to Jesse Thorn’s BullsEye show on NPR; it’s one of my favorite interview shows because Thorn is a definite fan-boy and often has interesting on-air talks with people that I also admire.

A term I had never heard came up in the interview and it delighted (and saddened) me.


I am now in apology. Because I had to look up the word. And, since blogs can be “whatever you are thinking about at that time of writing the post” I decided to do some thinking on it. So I started a crappy version of self-educating. You can stop reading now if you know all you need to know on the subject. But there are a few thoughts about character creation coming up, in case that’s interesting.

As soon as I saw the word – neurodivergent – spelled with no ‘dash’ between neuro and divergent as I was assuming it would be, I knew for sure I was a latecomer to the term. I figure when words have been around long enough to dismiss the ‘dash’ that sometimes makes a concept easier to ‘get’, they’ve been around awhile.

But – I learned it was never hyphenated. It was born with 14 letters, no dash.

In fact, an Australian sociologist Judy Singer (she’s on the autistic spectrum) coined the word as an alternative to deficit-based language – terms like disorder, affliction, malady, and disease.  The term was intended to be used mainly (and has been mostly) to refer to those on the autism spectrum. Singer’s mother was autistic, her daughter has Aspergers Syndrome and she wanted to highlight strengths in the “disorder” population – things like the ability to hyperfocus, to recognize patterns, and remember facts, numbers and random information (to name a few).

NPR’s Jesse Thorn was interviewing David Bryne – the mastermind/leader of the now-defunct musical group, Talking Heads. Thorn was asking Bryne what it was like to be neurodivergent. Of course, the question tumbled into the observations and questions: aren’t we all neurodivergent because we are all different from one another? After all, we are all individuals.

That discussion is, of course, fruitless and could be endless. As often happens, well-thought-out research that, initially, has perimeters is co-opted. My research took me to Google (not the best medical research obviously but I didn’t take the time to go down to Johns Hopkins) and see what others were referring to when using the term. According to a ChatBot kind of research (I say that in a derogatory tone even though AI can be extraordinary), neurodivergence can cover a huge area: autism, ADHD, tourettes, ADD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, bipolarism, OCD, dyscalculia, and other “learning disabilities.” My (quick and scattershot) reading suggested the term could also include homophobia, racism, depression, anxiety, narcissism, god-complex, sadism, masochism, misogyny, megalomania, uncontrollable greed, and sex-addiction – the list can go on.

Which brings up the question of nature vs nurture. What are we born with and what do we learn.

What is “in our brains” (actual physical and chemical) and what do we learn/become by living in this world? Do we have to wait until our brains are studied in the MRI machine or dissected (post death in most cases) to see how “normal” our brains are? Scientists say all brains are shaped a bit differently, but with technology, signs of certain recurring physicalities that point to neurodivergences can be detected.

Of course, I asked myself if I was more neurodivergent or neurotypical?

That’s another rabbit hole that could lead to millions of never-ending tunnels.

I remember thinking during my insipid research that I wanted to be more productive, so I moved my thinking to: What about the main characters in my Dee Rommel Mystery series? Does Dee have neurodivergent tendencies – like ones in recent classics like Temperance Brennan in Bones, Adrian Monk in Monk and Abby – the forensic scientist on NCIS?



Dee, my protagonist, has made “justice” a primary thing in her life. Once on a case, she’s compelled (would I ever call it OCD?) to bring the problem/crime to a “just” end. She’s very observant (would I ever call it hypervigilance or simultagnosia?) or do I simply perceive her ability as being a better observer than most in the “normal” population?

In Dee’s romantic relationships she’s a deflector, she’s unable to let someone get close (would I call it philophobia or attachment disorder?) or is it a normal reaction to not being comfortable with her “new” body (does she have a dysmorphic disorder?)

**I hope you can read the “fun” I am having with all these ‘xias’ and ‘isms’ and ‘xxobias’ and syndromes. Bordering on being silly. Sorry.

Another question: IF Dee is hyper-anything, have I unconsciously surrounded her with neurotypicals?

In Neu West Writer’s magazine, I found an article by neurologist Jordan Sorokin. He wrote about BBC ‘s Sherlock Holmes (2012-2017) and the neurodiversity displayed in the main characters.

Sorokin enjoyed how the writers embraced Holmes’ Aspberger-ness as well as his Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) – the latter characterized by a disregard for social norms, frequent lies, impulsive behavior, aggressiveness and hostility, irresponsibility and risk taking, and a remorseless indifference to the feelings and rights of others. Sorokin also found neurodiversity in Watson – stating that where Sherlock obsesses over his work for the sake of solving each mystery, Watson focuses on solving each case to benefit those involved (a version of allodoxaphobia). Sorokin also points out that Watson (in this tv series) claims his limp is a consequence of a war injury, until Holmes proves to him that the limp is simply a psychosomatic manifestation connected to PTSD.

Now I’ll leave this kind of breaking down of character because there’s no medical degree in my past. I’m a plain old ‘creative’ but this – for some reason – it has caught my imagination in regards to building characters.

Kristin Lamb (author of crime/mystery The Devil’s Dance and a few how-can-writers-use-social-media and also a book how AI and authors can co-exist) wrote in her blog (it’s on her author website and I just stumbled on it) about how neurodivergent characters have always been around: the nerd, the brain, the geek, the computer whiz, the conspiracy theorist, and the outcast. Now I can think of these characters (which in some instances have become cliché) as neurodivergent and can consider exploring them in new ways.

But back to David Byrne (I have been a fan for decades). He (and a partner) created a 60-minute show (parts were designed to be viewed with VR goggles in a lab in Silicon Valley) that uses theater and art to inform viewers how brains work. It’s called “Neurosociety”. Byrne makes it clear he is an ‘amateur’ and that the show is entertainment – but 35 neuroscientists (from around the world, top researchers from top universities and labs) worked on it with him. They designed experiments that are real-life scenarios such as playing with dolls, classrooms, game shows to see how individuals make choices and ‘move through the world’. Maybe you’ve seen the YouTube video on it. or read about it at

Bryne’s got his neurodivergent journey going on and I am happy in my (neurotypical) one right now. And I want to thank Bryne for sending me on this latest tear. I ended up going through some lyrics of Bryne’s songs and landed on “Toe Jam”. I think his neurodivergent observations in the world just inspired me for a villain I want to create in 6 DAYS.

I was asked in New York City: Do you like my clothes?
I’m talking to my tape recorder, walking down the road
But on Friday night, I’m, purified that my feet don’t touch the floor
When the rubber meets the road, in between my toes…

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. The next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery was released in September 2022 and is nominated for a Clue Award and received a starred Kirkus Review. 8 DAYS, the third in the series, is scheduled for release November 2023 and Jule is now working in 7 DAYS.
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7 Responses to Neurodivergent Characters vs Neurotypical Ones :: Do We Mix and Match?

  1. Anne says:

    Wow, Jule. What a clear example of the rabbit holes we can go into as we seek to be aware of differences and the impact of such differences on our lives. This speaks to pretty much every arena one could explore! Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking (and somewhat amusing) piece!

    • Jule Selbo says:

      Anne – appreciate the reply! I could’ve gone on forever – sometimes I think people latch on to the amazing word and want it to fit everything! But it did make me think about balancing types of characters in a book –

  2. Anonymous says:

    After reading your comments, I realize that the neurodivergent tendencies we write into our works are the ones that catch someones attention, neuro normal is the counterpoint that sharpens that point, and it all leads to interest, as most people have some sort of divergent thinking, one way or another.

  3. Anonymous says:

    yeah – agree

  4. John Clark says:

    The term and topic has been big in YA fiction for quite a while. For example, here’s a list of such titles collected by Goodreads.

  5. Amber Foxx says:

    I heard part of the interview with Byrne, and agree, it was intriguing. He’s a good example of how people on the spectrum range far beyond the nerd, geek, etc. to include musicians, actors, writers, and others. In order to function socially, actors and writers with autism have spent their whole lives working to understand how neurotypical people think and feel, and that constant study affects their creative work. So does their effort at masking autism–trying to act like an NT. (To my knowledge, the term Asperger’s is out of favor because Hans Asperger was a Nazi sympathizer, though not a Nazi.) The greatest challenge in everyday life, in my opinion, is the way NTs drop hints and infer from hints. This social process is far easier to navigate in fiction, when I can observe my characters and understand them without the need to be part of the interaction myself. (That may not have made sense–it’s a hard thing to describe.) I think everyone is a bit eccentric in some way, but I don’t think everyone is a bit neurodivergent. Writing this made me think of Byrne’s virtual reality show/experiment in which people get to feel what it’s like to inhabit the body of a 12-inch doll. (Thanks for the link to that!) I could go on, but I’ll save the thoughts for my own blog post at some point. Maybe. Eventually.

  6. Tim Qiueeney says:

    Nice piece on the multifarious multiplicity of major and minor characters, Jule.


    Love the big suit

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