Content warning: This piece includes discussions of death, trauma, and ableism against neurodivergent people
Neurodivergent: Adjective — “Differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal.”
You probably know someone who is neurodivergent. Per the National Library of Medicine, an estimated 15-20% of the population can be considered such. Identities classified as neurodivergent include, but aren’t limited to, autism, ADHD, OCD, Down Syndrome, dyslexia, or Tourette’s Syndrome.
That’s a very wide net of identities, not all of which have much in common with each other except quote-unquote “unusual” brain functioning. But millions of people around the world live this way.
Depending on an individual’s needs, some neurodivergent people may use accommodations. If someone has sensory needs, for example, they could benefit from dimmer lights or noise-canceling headphones at work or school. Some neurodivergent people have different communication needs and may use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) like text-to-speech to hold conversations. Others may need more support from full-time caretakers to assist in daily tasks that others take for granted, like using a restroom. Accommodations can even be as straightforward as giving someone more time to take a test or allowing remote work. Just like people with other disabilities, with the right support, many neurodivergent people live full, happy lives.
Several of our cast members, production team, and administrative staff identify as neurodivergent –including both of the young performers portraying Tiny Tim. According to the show’s director Stephen Thorne, this was done out of a desire for representation and inclusion, and to reimagine the Cratchit family’s dynamic in a way that’s relatable to many modern families.
Yet as a neurodivergent person myself, I was concerned upon first learning this.
Tiny Tim has long been associated with an “abled savior” narrative, or a story in which a disabled character passively exists only to be “saved” by a non-disabled protagonist. Tiny Tim’s unspecified illness in the original novella (possibly polio or rickets) was more of a plot point than a part of his identity. A motivator for Scrooge, a non-disabled man, to complete his character arc.
But polio and rickets aren’t as common anymore, nor is “An Ambiguous Illness That Requires Crutches And Kills You,” since they’re all seen as things of the past. That’s what offers us a degree of separation from Tiny Tim’s disability. You think of him as a poor normal kid who just happened to get sick with a disease that doesn’t exist to us anymore.
So, when Scrooge looks into his future to see the Cratchit family mourning their youngest child … what does it mean if instead of Tiny Tim dying due to an unspecified disease requiring crutches, he dies due to … being neurodivergent?
I was fearful that it would be implied that for Tiny Tim to survive, he’d need to be “cured” of his neurodivergence. Yes, neurodivergence can be a disability, but it’s not a disease. It’s a way of being – a valid identity in its own right.
As a neurodivergent person myself, my brain is literally wired differently. If I were to be “cured” of that, who would I even be? Would I even be me anymore?
Upon expressing my concerns with Stephen, we both agreed that being autistic, or having ADHD or Tourette’s or Down Syndrome, is not inherently deadly.
But we both also knew that a prejudiced, unwelcoming world could be.
And that was how Stephen planned to portray Tiny Tim’s tragic “yet to come,” if Scrooge doesn’t change his ways. By not accepting people like Tim, and not accommodating his needs, Tim’s quality of life would suffer.
While society has improved significantly since Victorian times in terms of accepting neurodiversity, there are still systemic barriers. Historically, neurotypicals (as in “non-neurodivergent people”) have underestimated neurodivergent intelligence, empathy, and literal humanity.
Like all other forms of oppression, ableism can manifest at varying degrees. You encounter microaggressions, like the assumption that just because someone is nonverbal means they can’t understand you, and using that as an excuse to talk down to them, directly to their face. There are the harmful, false assumptions you encounter like “children grow out of ADHD”, or “autistic people don’t feel pain.” Or the idea that neurodivergent people can be “high” or “low” functioning — labels that undermine the struggles of those who are boxed into the former category, and belittle the strengths of those considered the latter.
Building on these societal stereotypes and dehumanization, more serious injustices occur. Neurodivergent children are more likely to be bullied and abused. Per the U.K.’s government-run Office for National Statistics, autistic people and/or people with a learning disability are four times more likely to be victims of a hate crime than someone with any other kind of disability. Suicide rates amongst neurodivergent teens and adults are horrifically high. And neurodivergent people, especially in Dickensian times, have been institutionalized. I don’t think I need to explain how that has literally killed people, especially in Victorian London.
There is a line that Scrooge says early in the play that displays his cruelty. It’s a line said every year that expresses his disdain for the poor, but when thought in a neurodivergent context, expresses some incredibly ableist, eugenicist subtext.
“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
Are there no institutions?
Are there no places to get rid of “the undesirables” of society, who makes this harder for us “normal” people?
“If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
This is what many neurodivergent people are told, implicitly and explicitly, on a daily basis. And no one should ever have to hear that.
I would like to emphasize that Tiny Tim’s story is one of hope. Not hope for him to “get better,” but hope for a world where he can thrive because his support needs – physical and emotional – are met.
Many neurodivergent people are extremely creative, thinking “outside the box.” Many, like Tiny Tim, have a deep capacity for empathy: we may not always be able to read someone’s facial expression or tone of voice, but once we know something is wrong, we will feel very deeply about it. Many neurodivergent people have a strong sense of justice: we relate to being outcasts, and it can be hard for us to comprehend why the world isn’t always fair. Many of us are detail-oriented and organized. We’re of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, personalities, and backgrounds.
With the right support and accommodations (which differs from person to person), neurodivergent people can survive. Neurodivergent people can thrive.
So Tiny Tim isn’t cured. But maybe society is. Or at least, is starting to be.
Scrooge is a man with power. One man, sure, but a man with money and privilege.
With that in mind, how would Scrooge getting to know Tiny Tim – not as a cute little plot device, not as a token, not as someone to pity, but an actual human being with strengths, weaknesses, and feelings – change Scrooge’s mind?
What would Scrooge do, with his power, money, and privilege, once he had that revelation? How would he make his business, his life, his home, his world, more accessible and welcoming for all? How does this allow Tiny Tim to live?
That, I’ll leave for you to see on stage.
Laura Weick is Trinity Rep’s communications specialist. She served as a neurodiversity consultant in support of the work on this year’s A Christmas Carol.