Why Does it Matter, and How Can We Help?
Our favorite characters are often an extension of ourselves. Sometimes, it's the characters we yearn to be, with qualities we admire. Sometimes, it's the characters we empathize with based on shared experience. Other characters we despise because they engage in actions we've yet to forgive ourselves for. No matter the reason for our emotional connection, we're lucky if we get to see characters who are like us.
We encourage reading from such a young age. We start the literature connection in the womb with parents reading stories, to preferred reading groups in kindergarten and to bedtime stories at home. The connection builds with engagement in the arts such as character study, reading music, and doing research. No matter where we are in life, literature plays a large role. Yet, the reading gap between neurodivergent and neurotypical peers continues to grow larger.
Accommodations and modifications, as well as intensive reading groups and implementing new strategies are one way of helping neurodivergent people build their reading skills, but that does not guarantee a connection. We see this shift in television: young people who connect to characters and continue to engage with shows, despite not understanding the language, words or context. Why? Because there are characters they empathize with.
If we want people to enjoy reading, we need to bring forward interesting characters. We need more of the characters we can empathize with, we can view as a part of our circle, or we see ourselves in. We know that the books we read can impact communities and how groups are viewed in society. In a study regarding the impact of representation in children's books on gender roles, Gooden & Gooden (2001) found that 51% of children's books depict women holding household artifacts.
So, what can we do about it?
We can start by getting more books into the hands of young people to encourage a love of reading from the beginning. Local libraries, schools, and community members (like the little library) are great places for underrepresented youth to find books they can connect with, eliminating any financial strain. In America today, our dollars are our voices. We tell companies our preferences by how we spend our money, so spend it on books that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Search for characters that look different, tell a different story, or have a different life experience. More representation in books provides more opportunities for people to interact with characters who are different from them, paving the way for more global acceptance.