Neurodiversity As A Superpower Comes With Great Responsibility At Nine Worlds

Melissa F. Olson, Anna Smith Spark, Nina Grant and Dr Nick Wood gathered at Nine Worlds, at Hammersmith in London this weekend, to discuss the concept of neurodiversity as a superpower. That, at least, was the plan. It's been a common trend in genre fiction to portray mental conditions as coming with "side benefits" or superpowers and the panel were there to talk through the issues surrounding this.

In the Percy Jackson series of novels, Percy learns that his dyslexia and ADHD are symptoms of his demi-god-hood, not actual disabilities. Autistic children onscreen often have hidden knowledge or power just waiting to be unlocked. The urban fantasy genre is filled with protagonists who struggle from PTSD or schizophrenia-like symptoms, which really mask a supernatural ability. Is the old Disability as Superpower trope now evolving into Neurodiversity as Superpower?

Other prominent examples were discussed, with Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars movies hearing voices from both the Dark and Light side, gaining access to the Force via an anti social personality disorder. He's a character who needed help, but his parents, Han and Leia, didn't understand… While Hodor was given a destiny as… a doorman, one that not so much gave him purpose but destroyed his life. Couldn't he have just held that door without having his person changed so?

Panellists discussed how the trope, while empowering for some was patronising in effect and a source of disappointment in real life as well as in fantasy. What about bipolar creators who aren't sudden creative geniuses? The question was asked if we still buy into mental ill health as the romantic, tormented, self-harming, tortured Byronic vampiric artist? It still seems an attractive figure. A comparison was also made to the trope of the "magical negro", black characters who have access to powers or wisdom because they are supposed to be more primitive and have access to spirituality as a result.

One panellist discussed having a name, or a label for a condition, and how it felt like being labeled with a specific superpower, it differentiates you in the mind of others and in your own mind and helps you deal with it. But people don't like that to be the totality of an identity, or an on-off switch like a superpower. It's more like a measure of height – everyone has it, but it's the outliers who may have problems in society. And that's what neurodiversity or neurotypicality is, rather than something specific that means you are different. And just as with Apartheid, someone is massively disadvantaged in their life by others for no reason, for something that should have no meaning, and then has all the meaning in the world.

Audience members brought up the "intense world" theory of autism, in that certain neurons in the brain are more sensitive, can pick up more sensory input, but this creates pain. The TV show Legion was discussed with a young man diagnosed as having schizophrenia, plucked out of a mental hospital and weaponised, but this then removes the diagnosis – it's a mutant power instead. Audience members compared the Power Rangers movie and The Accountant, the first having an autistic member of the group, the emotional heart of the team, against the second's hitman who can isolate his emotions and anything else that gets in the way as a result. This brought up a discourse on the movie Leon, and the character's place on the autistic spectrum. There was some debate over the idea of the fan diagnosis rather than the professional diagnosis of a fiction character and its veracity, one member saying that some diagnoses may be poor, but it's an example of people trying to find themselves, rather than coming from a place of criticism. Other examples mentioned included La Nuit des enfants rois, the portrayal of Downs in Realm Of The Elderings, the stage version of Dog In The Lifetime, the Holmesian Study In Scarlet Women – and a room favourite, Moss in the IT Crowd.

While there was much to be discussed in the panel as it deviated from its title and followed the room, it was also home to the biggest controversy of the show. I noted on the notes that speakers are expected to read and understand. Well, one of the speakers, when talking about the nuance of neurodiversity stated that there were two biological genders. At Nine Worlds, a show with a large trans attendance and representation, a number of whom were clearly interested in talking or learning about neurodiversity, this did not go down well. A negative room reaction, led to walkouts by some and a later questioner to call out the speaker in an angry fashion, causing considerable distress. A rambling apology didn't seem to help, but the panel eventually moved on. It did lead to a fair bit of tweeting however, leaving the show to officially respond.

And that's how they do it on Nine Worlds. Well, most of the time.

It pales in comparison to some con drama from the weekend. But at Nine Worlds, being on any panel must bring great responsibility, If only to read the guidelines first.

Neurodiversity As A Superpower Comes With Great Responsibility At Nine Worlds


About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.