Neurodiversity and Fandom

School is starting up soon. My son used to attend a preschool/kindergarten for special-needs kids and their siblings, and now he’s going on to a public school, though still in the special education program. He’s cool with it, but I am a little freaked. It has brought up a whole childhood can of worms regarding my less-than-lovely educational experience, and makes me reflect on issues of social acceptance for neurologically atypical people overall. That leads me to fandom. I can’t help but think neurodiveristy is an area in which science fiction and fantasy fans are a long, long ways ahead of society in general.

A few years ago I attended a panel at Norwescon that was supposed to be about the future of psychology but quickly became a discussion of the neurological make-up of fandom. The lively and engaged discussion covered dyslexia, Asperger’s, ADHD, autism, sensory integration dysfunction, and related topics. The general consensus was that among convention-goers, the percentage of people with such atypical neurology ranged around 60 to 70 percent. Almost all the audience members who spoke identified with one or more of the above, or mentioned a close relative that did.

What I found most remarkable about the discussion was not that we acknowledged the high percentage—which is pretty obvious to anyone who knows what to look for—but rather that at no point did the panel become gloomy. No one said, “Oh, no! We’re all screwed up!” but rather the feeling was one of pride in the open-heartedness of science fiction and fantasy fans. It wasn’t about “normal people tolerating the strange ones” but rather a warm and broad acceptance and appreciation on all sides. I left the panel feeling downright cheerful. Throughout the convention I reflected on how marvelous it was to see a group of such unusual minds. I hardly think fandom is Utopia, but in terms of acceptance, it’s a fantastic thing.

Allow me to give you my view of neurodiversity. We all have strengths. We all have problems. I believe that no one deserves to be defined by his or her problems. Atypical neurology brings with it both challenges and advantages, and when looking at the life of an neurologically atypical person, the view should not be blocked by preconceived notions of what is and what is not normal, or worse still, believing that normal is best. (Also, though I require them as an expedient, I don’t quite like the words neurotypical and atypical because they force an unfair notion of duality when the reality is more often a matter of degrees of difference.)

A Google search for neurodiversity and fandom brings up a ton of stuff. It makes perfect sense to me that folks like me are drawn to genres that frequently investigate what it means to be an unusual human (on a quest, lost in a distant galaxy, prophesized, cursed, vital, altered, hunted, etc.), or what it means to be an alien, or a sentient machine…in short, what it means to be “other.” For those of us who have lived in the shadows of people’s assumptions of how we are “supposed” to be, it’s refreshing and empowering to see the so-called other win in the struggle for self-definition.

There was once a time when a great many atypical people ended up institutionalized or otherwise isolated and subjected to torturous therapies. What I’ve faced has been nowhere near as harsh, but far from enjoyable. There was no real attempt from my teachers to understand what was going on in my head, let alone to think perhaps there were advantages to it, along with the difficulties. That said, when I reflect on the ignorance and prejudice I faced as a young student, I can only marvel at how much progress has been made since then. I know that my son, who faces substantially greater challenges than my own, has been treated far better in school than I was. The desire to understand differences and work with strengths has improved tremendously. But it’s early days yet, and schools have a very long way to go (and society in general even further) before they can even begin to approach the appreciation of neurological diversity that happens in fandom.

When I think of my son and the world he’ll inherit, I know he’ll be strong enough to face whatever comes his way, but I hope that the general social trend toward tolerance and understanding continues and strengthens. I believe science fiction and fantasy fandom can continue to play a vital role in this. The more social environments such as conventions and other communities embrace and empower the otherwise marginalized, the more these empowered people will bring that confidence outside those safe environments, to everyone’s benefit.


When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA

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