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Collection Development for Neurodivergent Students

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Collection Development for Neurodivergent Students

Author's Note: This article uses identity-first language (such as "autistic" and "disabled"), which is preferred by most members of both the disability and neurodiversity communities. While many educators may have been taught in the past to only use person-first language ("person with autism"), we are currently seeing a shift in the language being used to talk about disability and neurodiversity. For more information, visit my website: https://adrianaluisawhite.wordpress.com/2022/01/12/identity-first-language/

In recent years, we have seen an incredible rise in the number of diverse books. Publishers are now sharing stories that represent a much wider range of races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and so much more—and our library collections are all the better for it. Librarians are making significant changes as well—promoting these new diverse books, running diversity audits on their collections, and tackling an ever-growing number of book challenges head on. There is still much work to be done, but today's library patrons are hearing an inspiring rallying cry: "Libraries are for everyone."

Resources for School Librarians

If you'd like to learn more about how to update your library collection, the following resources are a great place to start.

Additional resources can be found in the slides from my October 2021 AASL national conference session: https://bit.ly/AWAASL21

However, if we stop to take a closer look at the diverse books being shared in our libraries, we might notice that a certain demographic is at risk of being left out. Far too often, our definition of diversity fails to include a surprisingly large marginalized group. One in four Americans are disabled in some way, but only 3.4% of children's books feature a disabled main character (CCBC 2020). Even rarer are books about, or written by, neurodivergent individuals.

What Is Neurodiversity?

Terms like "neurodivergent" and "neurodiversity" may be new to you. Coined by an autistic sociologist named Judy Singer in the 1990s, neurodiversity refers to a set of related conditions: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, and many others (Singer 2022). There are some who include mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder under the neurodiversity umbrella. The individuals who have these kinds of conditions all have physically different brain structures that lead to differences in communicating, socializing, and experiencing the world. Singer's concept of neurodiversity is similar to the scientific concept of biodiversity. Having a more diverse variety of brains will ultimately prove to be greatly beneficial for the human race. Or, as autistic professor Temple Grandin puts it, "The world needs all kinds of minds" (2010).

The CDC estimates that one in six children has been diagnosed with a mental, behavioral, or developmental condition such as autism or ADHD (2021). In reality, these numbers may be even higher, as BIPOC children are often missed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. Some children may not be diagnosed with these lifelong conditions until they enter adulthood. Additionally, not every neurodivergent student will receive special education services or be placed in a special education setting. With all of these factors in mind, it's important to realize that even if you don't think you're serving any neurodivergent patrons in your library, it is very possible that you are. And like any other child, these neurodivergent students need to be able to find library books that reflect their minds and their worlds.

The Power of Stories

Stories matter because they make children feel seen. Stories show children that they have a place in the world, that they too can go on great adventures or beat insurmountable odds. Stories help us understand those who are different from us and inspire us to be better people. Most importantly, stories give us hope when we need it most.

As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote in her essay on "Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Doors," reading is ultimately "a means of self-affirmation"—one that should be provided to all children. Sims Bishop continues:

When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part (1990).

As researchers learn more about the effects of adverse childhood experiences and the importance of social-emotional learning, it is critical that we as librarians consider the impact that representation has on the mental health of our students. Being seen in the library shelves helps students to feel like they are truly part of the school community. That feeling of belonging can be a lifesaving ray of light for students who are grappling with the darkness of depression and social isolation.

This is especially important for us to think about when it comes to our neurodivergent students. Studies have found that neurodivergent people are much more likely to experience mental health conditions, and they are also at a higher risk of dying by suicide compared to the general population (Gray-Hammond 2020; Kirby 2021). One of the key factors that reduces the likelihood of suicide in young people is having "social supports and connections" (SPRC 2021). By making neurodivergent students more welcome in our school libraries, we are having a direct and positive impact on their mental health.

#OwnVoices and Intersectionality

It is also important for us to ensure that representations of neurodiversity in our library collections are accurate and up-to-date. Many of the most popular books about autism and other neurodivergent conditions were written in the 1990s or 2000s. Almost all of these older books were written by neurotypical (non-neurodivergent) authors, such as family members or special education teachers. While these books may reflect the prevalent beliefs and ideas about neurodivergent conditions at that point in time, they are now very out of date and incredibly inaccurate. We now know so much more about the human brain and the real lived experiences of neurodivergent people.

There have been several books published in the last five years that accurately and respectfully portray neurodiversity. Librarians can look for books by autistic authors like Sally J. Pla, Sarah Kapit, and Elle McNicoll, or authors with ADHD like Merriam Saunders and Alyson Gerber. Author Jacqueline Woodson details some of her struggles with dyslexia in her memoir in verse, and Halli Gomez's first novel is inspired by her own experiences with Tourette syndrome.

These books, and others like them, are sometimes referred to as #OwnVoices titles. An autistic author by the name of Corinne Duyvis created the term back in 2015 as a shorthand for "kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group" (https://twitter.com/corinneduyvis/status/640584099208503296). Authors with lived experience can often write about sensitive topics with greater ease and better insight. However, many in the kidlit community (including the organization We Need Diverse Books) have stepped back from using the term in recent years, after publishers began pressuring authors to disclose key aspects of their identities before these authors felt comfortable doing so (Lavoie 2021). Librarians may still find that #OwnVoices can be a helpful tool to use when researching books, but we should keep in mind that it is not necessarily an indicator of quality. There are some books by neurotypical authors that do a great job of representing neurodiversity. Interestingly, in some cases, these authors (including Elana K. Arnold) have gone on to discover that they might actually be neurodivergent after all! Others authors may be neurodivergent but may not feel comfortable disclosing their disability status.

At the end of the day, the best way to ensure that we are buying great books about neurodiversity is by directly interacting with the neurodiversity community. Follow neurodivergent authors on social media sites like Twitter and see what books they're excited about. Subscribe to websites like A Novel Mind or We Need Diverse Books, so you can receive regular updates about upcoming books by neurodivergent authors. And, listen to recommendations from neurodivergent librarians, like Ashley Hawkins (known as the Manga Librarian) and myself.

Celebrating Neurodiversity

Author Siena Castellon wrote "The Spectrum Girl's Survival Guide" when she was only sixteen years old, based on her experiences growing up with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Siena is also the founder of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, a springtime event that seeks to "change the narrative" about neurodiversity. Siena writes:

Instead of focusing only on the drawbacks of being neurodivergent, it's time to also acknowledge and recognize the many strengths and talents that come from thinking and perceiving the world differently. By celebrating the strengths of neurodivergent students, we can begin the seismic shift of changing the way SEN [special educational needs] students are perceived and treated, including how neurodivergent students feel about themselves (Castellon 2021).

As an autistic librarian, Siena's words give me hope. After working with neurodivergent students for nearly a decade now, I know that school can be a difficult place for many of them. Our students face so many barriers, such as bullying, social isolation, low expectations, and misunderstandings about how their brains work. Making our schools more accessible to neurodivergent students will take time and lots of hard work, but it will be worth it to see these students thrive and succeed. As school librarians, we can help improve these students' lives by making sure that our collections feature respectful, accurate, and empowering stories about neurodiversity.

Works Cited

Castellon, Siena. "Join Us in Celebrating Neurodiversity." Neurodiversity Celebration Week. https://www.neurodiversity-celebration-week.com. Accessed January 11, 2021.

CDC. "Data and Statistics on Children's Mental Health." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (March 22, 2021). https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html.

Grandin, Temple. "The World Needs All Kinds of Minds." TED (February 24, 2010). https://www.ted.com/talks/temple_grandin_the_world_needs_all_kinds_of_minds.

Gray-Hammond, David. "Autism, ADHD, Tourette's, Dyslexia: Higher Risk for Addiction & Suicide—#NoDejahVu." NeuroClastic (Sept. 9, 2020). https://neuroclastic.com/neurodivergent-people-are-more-at-risk-of-suicide-and-addiction-speak-up-nodejahvu/.

Kirby, Amanda. "Is There a Link Between Neurodiversity and Mental Health?" Psychology Today blog (August 26, 2021). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pathways-progress/202108/is-there-link-between-neurodiversity-and-mental-health

Lavoie, Alaina. "Why We Need Diverse Books Is No Longer Using the Term #OwnVoices." We Need Diverse Books. Press release. June 6, 2021. https://diversebooks.org/why-we-need-diverse-books-is-no-longer-using-the-term-ownvoices/

Sims Bishop, Rudine. "Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors." Perspectives 6, no. 3 (Summer 1990).

Singer, Judy. "What is Neurodiversity?" Reflections on Neurodiversity. https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/what.html. Accessed January 11, 2022.

SPRC. "Promote Social Connectedness and Support." Suicide Prevention Resource Center. https://www.sprc.org/comprehensive-approach/social-connectedness. Accessed January 11, 2021.

Tyner, Madeline. "The Numbers Are In: 2019 CCBC Diversity Statistics." Cooperative Children's Book Center blog (June 16, 2020). http://ccblogc.blogspot.com/2020/06/the-numbers-are-in-2019-ccbc-diversity.html.

About the Author

Adriana White, MLIS, is the lead librarian for South San Antonio ISD in San Antonio, TX. She earned a master's in education from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and her master's in library and information science from the University of North Texas. White contributed multiple sections to the second edition of Library Programming for Autistic Children and Teens (ALA) focused on the topics of universal design for libraries, autistic authors, and the intersectionality of autism and race. Her writing has also appeared in KQED's MindShift and We Need Diverse Books. She is a staff editor for the website A Novel Mind, and she was a 2021 recipient of the Walter Grant from We Need Diverse Books. You can visit her website at adrianalwhite.com or find her on Twitter at @Adriana_Edu.

Adriana is also a children's book writer and a former special education teacher. After being diagnosed with autism in her 30s, she now advocates for more inclusive schools and libraries through educator workshops and conference presentations. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys traveling and playing video games.

MLA Citation

White, Adriana. "Collection Development for Neurodivergent Students." School Library Connection, March 2022, schoollibraryconnection.com/Content/Article/2275034.

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