Book Review: Neurodiversity! What’s that? An introduction to neurodiversity for kids

Neurodiversity! What’s that? An introduction to neurodiversity for kids by Nadine Arthur. Reviewed by Dr Alyssa Alcorn

Date published: 2022

Paperback price: £6.49

Link to book on Amazon

Reviewer: Dr Alyssa Alcorn, LEANS Research and Impact Lead

Reviewer expertise: Researcher on developing neurodiversity-related materials for schools and professional development, including the LEANS project

What is the book about and who is the book aimed at?

This book aims to give primary-school-aged children (est. ages 7-10 years) a very short introduction to neurodiversity terminology. Written by the neurodivergent parent of a multiply neurodivergent child, it is proudly and unapologetically pro-diversity. The back blurb explains that the book was “written to improve the self-esteem of neurodivergent children”, but the book would be suitable for all children in the age group.

This is not a traditional picture book with a narrative story and characters. The focus is on the text and terminology. The- small, clip-art-style pictures are used to break up the text more than to directly illustrate it.

A brief description of the content of the book

The book opens immediately with the term “neurodiversity” and relates it to differences in the brain. It lists different neurodevelopmental conditions in relation to neurodiversity, but does not define them in detail (though there is a glossary at the end). It touches on differences in the types of daily experiences, challenges, and strengths people may have. The last section of the book shares examples of famous neurodivergent people (or reputedly neurodivergent people) and ends with a call to accept, respect, and celebrate differences. 

This book makes some extremely important points, such as how individuals may need adjustments and supports to cope in particular environments (that weren’t designed for their neurotype!), and that neurodivergent people are everywhere in our daily lives - including in responsible or aspirational roles, like doctors or YouTube stars. The text also directly contrasts neurodiversity with terms that “suggest that the person is broken or unwell”, and has a memorable illustration of the words disorder, syndrome, impairment, and deficit literally going in the bin.

Content explaining core ideas of neurodiversity, neurodivergence, and neurotypicality could benefit from more detail. The author has focused on keeping things short and simple, which in some places becomes confusing because language and explanations are too general. For example, the in-text definition that “neurodiversity means different types of brains” may not be very helpful to most readers, and referring to “brain wiring” might not make things clearer. How are people’s brains different? What does that have to do with some people needing supports at school? At the end of this book, some children may still be asking what neurodiversity really is. Adult-led discussion around the text could help fill in some gaps (see below).

Is the content in line with best practice / research evidence?

Despite some weaknesses in the body text re: explaining neurodiversity and neurodivergence, the book deploys these terms and concepts in a way that substantially (though not perfectly) agrees with the wider literature. In-text definitions could refer more clearly to what we know about how brains are different. Some other choices in the book suggest some confusion around the science, such as likening the brain to a computer, and the repeated use of disembodied brain illustrations when talking about differences and experiences that are in fact deeply embodied. Neurodivergence isn’t just ‘in your head’!

The book also includes some common types of neurodiversity content for children that stir up disagreement over their helpfulness or harmfulness: a section directly juxtaposing challenges and talents (via illustrated children and speech bubbles), and a page spread of famous neurodivergent people and their achievements. Not every neurodivergent child may feel like they have any talents at all, let alone ‘superpowers’ - and it can be harmful to present talents as ‘compensating for’ or ‘justifying’ people receiving help in other areas. Celebrities can be exciting, but they are by definition exceptional. It’s not a failure to be ordinary! This type of content may inspire some children but truly demoralise others, so do think carefully about the child you might be reading with.

Would the book be helpful to its target reader?  If so, how? Would it be helpful to anyone else?

Given the topic and format, I very much see this book as one for an adult and child(ren) to read and talk about together, page by page. The adult will have an important role to help children engage with the content one new idea at a time, address questions, and relate it to their own lives. While a confident young reader may be fine reading the text independently, they may not take much away without further discussion. Due to its abrupt start, the book would also benefit from some preliminary “framing” from an adult about why you’re reading it. For example, leading in by referring to the child’s own life experiences, or that they may have noticed that other people are different in ways X Y Z ... why is that?

For an adult with background knowledge of neurodiversity terms and concepts, this book could usefully support an initial conversation with children - exactly the kind of “what’s that?” conversation the book title suggests. It could work particularly well read and discussed in conjunction with a selection of narrative picture/chapter books focusing on individuals’ experiences (e.g. growing up with dyslexia). This book gives the vocabulary - others could flesh out what neurodivergence means.

On the other hand, adults without prior knowledge may find it difficult to facilitate a useful discussion around this book. Even with its glossary of terms, this book doesn’t give quite enough information to easily stand alone. This is a problem, as adults/families who are relatively new to neurodiversity concepts may be the biggest market for this book. 

It’s worth noting that the book’s inconsistent and visually busy layout may be particularly challenging for neurodivergent readers of any age. Almost every page has a combination of body text, text in boxes, and small pictures with labels or speech bubbles. It can be hard to know where to look first, or what’s most important. The small picture size may make the book tricky to read with a group.

What is your final, overall opinion on the book?

I was keen to review this book because few children’s resources talk explicitly about neurodiversity as a big concept, rather than individual diagnoses. Examples that are strongly pro-diversity are also limited. On one hand, this book can be confusing in sections and may leave readers with some unanswered questions. On the other hand, there is huge value and benefit in talking with children about neurodiversity, and this book can structure an initial conversation. It introduces key ideas in a short space of time, is age-appropriate, and available right now! I know there is a big appetite for this kind of introductory content from parents and professionals.

This is definitely a book for adult and child to ‘work through’ together if at all possible. If you are an adult with little prior knowledge of neurodiversity, even 30 minutes of background reading about neurodiversity could pay dividends, for example using some of the sources suggested on the LEANS recommended neurodiversity readings for educators (PDF).

Overall, I think this book is a helpful contribution in an area that badly needs more informational resources. Do be aware it is introductory, as the cover says, and prioritises brevity and simplicity over giving lots of details or examples. It can’t answer every question, and may meet the needs of some readers (or families, or classrooms) better than others.