Neurodiversity and Star Trek: What Trek Means to The Neurodiverse

Ethan Peck as Spock in episode 205 “Charades” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+
Ethan Peck as Spock in episode 205 “Charades” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ /

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds recently highlighted Star Trek’s positive representation of neurodiversity.

Star Trek has been committed to diversity from the beginning, but neurodiversity is invisible and has only become a part of popular discourse recently. But Star Trek has, perhaps unknowingly been positively representing neurodiversity right from those auspicious beginning.

One thing bothered me about Star Trek in the 90s. Bear in mind that I was a teenager in the 90s, and teenagers tend to be a little solipsistic. It seemed to me that Data was an audience surrogate; whenever Data was confused about human nature or the social rules of human interaction, I wondered if we were meant to find that relatable. Were the Star Trek writers implying that we fans were all socially inept androids?

It takes a special kind of person to overanalyze Star Trek so much they get offended by it.

I’m a little too old to take it personally, but I still suspect that Data was an audience surrogate. What I didn’t realize when I was younger is how many Trekkies might find Data genuinely relatable. It’s no terrible thing to be confused about the social rules of human interaction. It’s a fact of life for many neurodivergent people.

Neurodivergence is a family of conditions that includes autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and dyslexia. What these conditions have in common is that someone with these conditions has a mind that works differently from what is typical. These conditions may have typically been thought of as disabilities, or learning disorders, and so a paradigm that frames them simply as diversity is a little controversial. I’ll sidestep that controversy by simply saying that these conditions can present difficulties, that someone with the condition may want assistance or treatment for.

Fans relate to the many characters who read as neurodiverse.

I doubt Data was written with neurodivergence in mind. Rather, I am guessing, he was written to mirror Spock, after Spock became the surprise star of the original series. Fans related to Spock in ways that the original series’ producers had not anticipated, and probably failed to understand. But like with Data, there was probably at least a subset of fans who related to Spock’s bemusement about typical human behavior.

To avoid simply repeating the same character traits, Data was given one crucial difference to Spock. While Spock had rejected his human side, Data wanted to be human. If we understand Data as an allegory for neurodivergence, this character trait has aged poorly, as it implies that neurodivergent people would or should want to be “normal.” Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation now, whenever Data mentions his desire to be human, I want to reach through the TV and slap him, and point out that individuality and uniqueness are what make one human, and that he’s the most unique being in the galaxy.

…which brings us to that Strange New Worlds episode, in which Spock was transformed into a full human. I didn’t make the connection myself, but The Mary Sue pointed out that what was great about this story is that no one said they preferred Spock as a human or suggested that he stay that way. From a neurodivergent perspective, this story could’ve gone off the rails if it had set up that sort of conflict. But it specifically went in the opposite direction, with Nurse Chapel saying that she loves Spock for who he is.

I think the Star Trek writers get the appeal of Star Trek to the neurodivergent community.

I’d say it started all the way back with Deep Space Nine, with that show’s focus on alien perspectives, there were many positive depictions of people who see things differently. This one exchange is worth a hundred years of neurodivergent representation to my mind.

Two decades later, Star Trek gave us the first neurodivergent character. Star Trek: Discovery’s delightful ensign Tilly is a human, not an alien or an android who metaphorically represents neurodiversity. She’s shown as having so many neurodiverse traits that it’s hard not to think of her as canonically neurodiverse. She’s also brave, intelligent, empathetic, and always does the right thing. Discovery doesn’t get enough credit for creating some great characters, and she’s one of them.

Next. Star Trek: Discovery releases sneak peek for final season. dark