When we speak about the romance genre in this setting, I’m referring to complete, nonstop romance. Virtually every scene, every word, every breath is imbued with romance, even if the degree of cheesiness is left to the prerogative of the author. This romance isn’t a mere subplot; it is the very essence of the novel, laying out what is often essentially 300 pages of fluff.
Despite its sweetness and all of the immediate joy these stories bring us, we cannot ignore that this genre is severely lacking in diversity. How many books featuring two cis straight white neurotypical people—one male, the other female—falling in love did publishers reasonably think they could pump out before we demanded more representation in race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity? The romance genre has begun giving us this diversity, but in our reimagining of the genre, I’m worried that queer characters, as well as the subject of this article, neurodivergent characters, are going to be left behind.
Two authors of neurodivergent and inclusive romance novels give me hope that this doesn’t have to be the case: Helen Hoang and Chloe Liese. Hoang has written three books featuring autistic characters: The Kiss Quotient, The Bride Test, and The Heart Principle. Liese has written eight novels featuring characters with autism, anxiety, and physical disabilities in her Tough Love and Bergman Brothers series. What’s even more exciting is that both of these authors have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), meaning that we get to read neurodivergent romance novels by authors who have an understanding of what it’s like to have a neurodivergent mind.
Throughout their books, we are given different illustrations of what the ASD experience might be like for different people. We get to see characters who received their diagnosis early in life, as well as those who weren’t diagnosed until adulthood, like the authors themselves. Moreover, Hoang and Liese sprinkle in particular experiences that people with ASD, and other neurodivergent folks, have, including overstimulation, touch sensitivity, confusion about certain social cues, and special interests.
Not only do we need this sort of representation across different mediums of storytelling and in everyday life, but we need to make sure that neurodivergent folks are incorporated in every genre, from action movies to fantasy novels. I find it frustrating when I go into a bookstore or library and find that books like LGBTQ+ fiction have their own section. Perhaps it’s just me, but it’s frustrating to see that there are usually so few and that they aren’t mixed in with the fiction novels. Why can’t we both write more LGBTQ+ fiction and not set them apart as if they’re an esoteric genre only queer people would read? The same must be said about novels with neurodivergent characters; we need more of them and they need to not be treated as a separate genre. This will help take away stereotypes and stigmas about neurodivergence. After all, if every human experience is unique to the person who experiences it, why should the neurodivergent experience be set apart from what it is: a unique human experience that should be cared about as much as all neurotypical experiences are?
By specifically placing neurodivergent folks in the romance genre, we get a closer look at how they might go about any human relationship, not simply romantic ones, but, of course, how they might want to receive romantic love and how they love others. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, it really is no different from a romantic relationship that neurotypicals would want to pursue. Most neurodivergent folks want a romantic relationship. They want hugs and hand holding and sex. They want their partner to feel loved. As with any relationship, there will be unique interests and things that certain people are uncomfortable with. In that case, people in a relationship should communicate to set up boundaries, but this is typical of any healthy relationship.
This is why romance novels featuring neurodivergent characters, especially those written by neurodivergent authors, are so important—they show us the reality that sweet, sexy, passionate, erotic, loving, and lasting romantic relationships aren’t unattainable or undesirable to neurodivergent folks because of their neurodivergence. What makes these relationships more difficult for some neurodivergent individuals is the expectation that they must act like neurotypicals. They must give and receive love as others typically do. These books show that this expectation is unhealthy, not simply for neurodivergent folks, but for neurotypical folks, as well. Learn how your partner loves. Do they want to infodump? Do they give you random small gifts because they were thinking about you and thought you would like it?
On a personal note, these books were here for me throughout my own diagnosis with ADHD, another neurodivergence. I read them before I even had a clue I had something in common with these characters, during the process of diagnosis, and now, after I know myself better than I ever have before. They serve as a beautiful reminder that my life, and in this context, my love life, doesn’t have to be different simply because I’m neurodivergent. They show me that I am still deserving of love. We all are.