(Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor a mental health professional. Everyone is different, so while the ideas included in this post may apply to some, others may find that they are suboptimal or ineffective. These are merely some ideas I’ve gleaned from hosting and attending book clubs, and speaking with others who organize book clubs which prioritize inclusiveness. A neurodiverse book club, while helpful for some, will never be able to help or include everyone. Still, it’s worthwhile to try to accommodate as many people as you can.)
Let’s get the vocabulary out of the way, first. If you are unfamiliar with the terms “Neurodiverse” and “Neurodiversity,” here’s an article that does a good job of explaining them. Basically, the idea is that many people have brains that function differently from the “norm.” (If there even exists such a thing as a perfectly normal brain. That in itself is a topic for debate.)
Conditions such as ADD, ADHD, autism, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, mental illnesses, and issues arising from injury (concussions, for example) are viewed not as “abnormal” or “in need of a cure” but rather are treated as a part of the individual and deserving of respect and accommodation. This doesn’t mean that treatment options and helpful medial therapies are disregarded or that patients should just give up and accept diminished function. Treatment can be very helpful, even if not curative. Proponents of neurodiversity simply argue that we are all different and we all have different brains, ways of learning, and ways of interacting with the world. That doesn’t mean we are “broken,” “stupid,” or “less than.” We are all different and difference is to be expected and not marginalized.
So what does this have to do with book clubs? It’s well known that reading is fantastic mental exercise and the social aspect of a good book club can also enhance the cognitive benefits. A good discussion and social activity can help anyone’s brain, but it can be particularly helpful to those who are neurodiverse and may not have as many outlets for socialization as the neurotypical population. Book clubs tend to be less threatening than some other forms of socialization and may be an ideal way for the neurodiverse person to get involved with others.
The problem becomes how do you create a book club that is supportive, helpful, and enjoyable for a neurodiverse population? When you’re dealing with what might be substantial differences among members, how do you satisfy everyone. (Or at least the majority, recognizing that you can never satisfy everyone.)
If you’re starting a book club with just your friends, this isn’t as much of a concern, although you should still be sensitive to any differences. But if you’re planning to start a club at your library, workplace, or school, it’s a bigger challenge. People will join (or want to join) who may not have the same brain that you do. They may have challenges with which you are unfamiliar. How do you make everyone feel welcome? Here are some ideas.
Offer book options.
Traditional book clubs pick one book and only one book per meeting. When dealing with a neurodiverse population, however, you may need more options. Some clubs offer two books for participants to choose from. Maybe one is fiction and one is non-fiction, or one is a standard age-appropriate reading level book while the other is of a lower reading level (or a non-traditional book, such as a graphic novel). It can make it easier for the discussion leader if the two tie together in some way, but it’s not mandatory. Having options means that members can choose something they’re excited about and can handle, plus it exposes everyone to more books.
Allow members to vote on/choose books.
Don’t be a dictator. Let your participants include their favorites/what they are excited to read and let everyone vote on what comes next. People enjoy feeling like they have some agency. Plus, you’ll get a sense of the types of books your group needs/wants to read.
Set a forgiving timetable.
You might be able to read and discuss a book every two weeks. Others may only be able to manage one a month, or every two months. Poll your group to figure out the optimal timetable for meetings. Try not to set a pace that group members cannot match. They’ll get frustrated and quit.
Keep things brief.
Keep meetings short, preferably under an hour unless the group shows a preference for longer discussions. Some people simply cannot maintain attention/interest for hours on end. (Plus they probably have other things to do!) If you do have a longer meeting, don’t give anyone grief if they need/want to leave early.
Don’t be afraid to discuss the same book at multiple meetings.
One meeting cycle may not be enough time to fully read/discuss a book. The larger/more complex the book, the more likely you may need more than one meeting for everyone to fully participate. Consider breaking the book in half (or more) and discussing it over multiple meetings. Poll your members for an idea of how much time they might need/desire.
Choose books that are available in several formats.
The more formats the book comes in, the better. Some people need large print, others comprehend audio books best. Some people need the added features offered by ebooks, such as built in dictionaries, font/margin adjustments, linked indexes, or searchability. Others will be fine with a regular printed book. The more versions you can offer, the more people can participate.
Choose books that have been made into movies/TV shows.
These options require less reading/deep focus than books with no watchable option. Participants can still read the book, but the movie or show is there to support comprehension efforts. (This isn’t school. No one should be penalized for watching a movie to better understand the book.) These options also provide a built-in discussion topic: How do the book and movie differ, and is that a good or bad thing?
Don’t discount non-traditional books.
Comics, graphic novels, poetry, short stories, serials, and other forms of writing should absolutely be considered valid book club choices. It’s also completely acceptable to discuss children’s/YA/middle grade books in an adult setting. There is some stellar work in all forms/categories being published these days and much of it is well worth discussing. Don’t insist on “traditional books only.” Some people do better with other options.
Send out discussion topics ahead of time.
Some people do best when given a chance to prepare their ideas ahead of time. Send out some potential discussion topics in advance of the meeting so people can think about what they may want to say before the “pressure” of the meeting hits.
Don’t rely on technology for administration.
Yes, tools like Facebook and Slack are great, but not all of your participants will be online or able to navigate things like Messenger or online surveys for book voting. Keep it simple and limit correspondence to e-mail unless the group expresses another preference. Once you get ahead in your book choices, you can have handouts for the next meeting available at the current meeting, as well as printed calendars, surveys, etc.
Let members participate when they’re ready.
Some people will be ready to participate in the first meeting. Others will need some time to become comfortable with the setting and other members. Don’t push anyone who is reluctant to speak. If they simply want to listen, that’s acceptable.
Ask for feedback.
Encourage your members to tell you how you’re doing. Let them tell you what could be better or what changes they’d like to see. Listen openly and make adjustments as needed.
Encourage a culture of acceptance and tolerance.
You want to create a place where people feel comfortable. Unfortunately, that sometimes means “voting someone off the island.” If someone is disruptive, trolling, intolerant, or just a jerk, don’t hesitate to ask them to leave the group. Ask that everyone respect each other and their thoughts and opinions. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but every now and then jerks do appear and you need to police them so everyone else feels comfortable.
Food overcomes a lot of awkwardness and discomfort with new situations. It’s a lot easier to get things started over a slice of pizza than it is to simply sit down in chairs and start talking. Some people appreciate the chance to ease into a meeting.
Try to reduce distractions.
If possible, have your meetings in a quiet space free from distractions. See if you can use a dedicated meeting room rather than having your meeting in the communal area of the library, for example. Some people do best in dedicated environments free from distraction and extra noise.
Let the conversation flow naturally.
Yes, you’re there to discuss books, but sometimes things will go off on tangents. Don’t feel like you have to stick to a list of bullet points. If things take a turn try to go with it, or find a way to gently bring things back around to the book. “Funny that you mention that movie. I thought it had a lot of similarities to our book.” Sometimes having fun is more important than working through every page of the book. As you get to know your members, you’ll get a sense of when to rein things in and when to just go with it.
Don’t make it into an After School Special.
If you know that the majority of your members are autistic, for example, avoid the temptation to turn your club into an autistic-issue-oriented club. Your members may want to read books about/written by people with their condition, but they may not. Like everyone else, they want to read things that interest them. If once in a while that’s a book about their condition, or a book with a main character who shares their condition, then great. Go with that. But don’t cram “issue books” down people’s throats and think you’re helping. Your members may view the club as a chance to forget their diagnosis and just read fun stuff. Listen to what your members want and plan accordingly.
Commit to the club.
If you’re going to be the leader, you have to be there, week in and week out. Members will come to count on you and the meetings. You can’t just say, “Not this week, I have a hot date.” You have to commit to being there, handling the administrative tasks, reading the books and leading the discussions, and making certain that things run smoothly.
None of this is rocket science and much of it is common sense for creating any type of inclusive, welcoming environment. Just try to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone thinks or processes information the same way you do and create a group that appreciates those differences. Books are fun and everyone should have the opportunity to read and discuss them in a supportive environment.
(Photo courtesy of MariaGodfrida)