Reading (and Writing) While Neurodivergent
I was the girl who sat in class reading a book under her desk while ignoring her math teacher. It made me extremely popular with math teachers, but the feeling was mutual. ADHD is a life-long condition, but smart girls who read instead of disrupting the class were not diagnosed with ADHD when I was a child, so I remained undiagnosed until age 28.
I never had any reason to suspect that my ADHD brain impacted my reading until I started writing. My first reaction to some critique partner feedback would be “But no one really cares about this, right?” Then I realize that yes, many readers do care about these things, because we read in different ways.
One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is that first words and pages don’t matter to me. I need a certain amount of context until characters, settings, and events start to “stick” for me mentally. The first few pages are a reading warm-up, allowing me to sink into the world of the story and start to experience it. A recent, very stark example of this is Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas. It begins with a prologue, the main character in a climactic situation, being all mysterious to get us to wonder “how did they get here?” It clearly spells out the situation in the first three pages that I experienced as a (somewhat jarring) twist at the end. I have a very clear memory of reading the line “He is asleep in the chair, and the hair on his left arm (the one I have not shackled)” and thinking “shackled, wtf?” So it’s not like I didn’t catch it—I just didn’t have the context to place that into the world of the story yet, so it slipped by.
So this idea that the first sentence has to hook the reader who is progressing sentence-by-sentence through the story feels totally alien to me. To me, the first few pages are like waking up first thing in the morning, disoriented and wondering where I am.
Chapter breaks, and how one structures chapters, has similarly eluded me. To me, chapter breaks are a visual indication that you’re making progress through a story. Other than that, they have literally no value to me. The idea that people read until they hit a chapter break and stop there for the session? Who would do that? Apparently, most people that aren’t me.
I tried stopping at chapter breaks to see what it was all about. Turns out, I actively dislike it. It gives me a milder version of the above syndrome—there has been a resolution, I stop reading, and my brain goes “well, that’s not important anymore” and pages it out. When I start the new chapter the following day, I once again enter it a bit drowsy. If I leave the story right in the middle of stuff happening, it’s easier for me to get started again later. (I feel this way about episodic television, as well, I prefer to stop an episode in the middle—drives my partner bonkers.)
Those are the two major ones, though there are a few others. I tend to skip around when reading, and in some cases miss things. Really tight concise language without a prepositional clauses? I hope nothing important happened in that sentence, because I might not have seen it. I quite enjoy telling as part of stories, again, because sometimes I didn’t catch that subtle allusion to emotion. I’m not on autism spectrum, but have heard from those who are that they really, really, really like being told what emotions the characters are feeling, because they are unlikely to be able to intuit it from subtle physical descriptions.
Obviously, I listen to what my critique partners say and always try to level up my craft. I’ve found it incredibly interesting to examine what “rules” of writing might be lost on my neurodivergent brain. Then again, I can’t speak to how widespread my own experience is. I tried to research this topic more deeply, but resources on the topic tend to (rightly) be focused on how ADHD can negatively impact children learning to read, and not on the strange literary habits of adult ADHD bookworms. If you are neurodivergent, do you have similar experiences, or does reading work differently for you in other ways?