This past March, my debut romance young adult novel, Prom Theory, was published by Simon and Schuster. I took a leap with this book by making my main character a young woman with a little known learning disorder — NonVerbal Learning Disorder. Because socially and behaviorally NVLD presents like an autism spectrum disability, many questioned why I didn’t just make the main character someone with Asperger’s. After all, ASD is well known, in the media, and somewhat understood by the YA community. Wouldn’t they relate better?
Iris, my main character was inspired by my child. As a writer and a parent, I wanted to give this disorder, which I was intimately familiar with, its due.
While my oldest child shares many traits, experiences, and social difficulties with Iris Oxtabee, Iris is a unique person, although fictional. One aspect of Iris’ character I wanted to focus on was her determination and successes. Simply because a child has a learning disability or an autism spectrum disorder does not mean everything in life is difficult, nor does it mean some things can’t be overcome once coping mechanisms and life skills are learned. This takes knowledgeable support from friends, family, and professionals. It also takes understanding, patience, and acknowledgement of the gifts that often accompany what are often characterized as developmental delays or deficits.
As a parent of a now adult child with NVLD, my worries that the big wide world will break their spirit or drown them in the anxiety and depression that often accompanies NVLD or Autism Spectrum Disorder are still with me. But so is my amazement of their gifts. Their vast knowledge of birds and other wildlife, ancient civilizations, languages, and artistic ability has at times, (and perhaps to their dismay) drawn both groups of adults and children to them with questions and wonder.
They have learned to drive a car when at times it seemed like that would be something out of their reach. They have excelled academically, even at math though the effort was intense and real. They overcame a significant delay of fine motor skills due to a nearly obsessive desire and focus on learning to draw. This too came at a cost as teachers would have to insist they did not draw in classes, and much of the time saw this behavior as disruptive. But as the school district psychologist told me after the final testing was completed their junior year of high school for their IEP, “That fine motor difficulty? They’ve ‘fixed’ it.” A kid for whom it looked like they would need to learn to use a keyboard in elementary school because writing was such a struggle, now gets compliments for their beautiful handwriting.
I wrote Prom Theory because I wanted Iris, and every child no matter their difficulties, to have loyal understanding friends, a strong community of supportive educators, and loving parents who try their best to understand how and why things that come so easily to many children seems to elude theirs. I hope I’ve shown a little bit of what that world might look like through this story. I also hope this story helps readers better understand classmates who act and react differently than they expect. I also hope that I’ve helped bring some attention to a disability that can go unrecognized or misdiagnosed, so that students might have more of a chance to get the help and skills to be successful in life. We need to help, support, and lift up the neurodiverse. They often are the ones who make the big discoveries, create the never before imagined, and change the world.