Elizabeth Verdick: A Look at “Autism Fiction”

by Eliz­a­beth Verdick

I spent the month of April read­ing children’s fic­tion fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters with Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der (ASD). April was Autism Aware­ness Month, but that wasn’t my only moti­va­tion. I love children’s lit­er­a­ture, I have writ­ten non­fic­tion about ASD, and I’m rais­ing a son who’s on the autism spec­trum. I won­dered, Which mid­dle-grade sto­ries could I hand him, say­ing, “I think you’ll real­ly like this”?

bk_AutismSurvivalI read the books with zeal — and grow­ing dis­com­fort. Why did many por­tray­als of char­ac­ters with ASD lack the authen­tic­i­ty one yearns for in fic­tion? Why did the plots include so many tropes? Why did the nar­ra­tive voice often rely on devices: inter­jec­tions of ran­dom facts, unusu­al uses of cap­i­tal­iza­tion and/or ital­ics, or an arti­fi­cial­ly dis­tant tone in moments of emo­tion? Such rep­re­sen­ta­tions, though well inten­tioned, may leave read­ers with an over­ly sim­pli­fied impres­sion of the autis­tic experience.

Again, I thought of my son, who’s not a col­lec­tion of quirks or a social mis­fit lack­ing empa­thy or emo­tion. He’s not a bud­ding detec­tive, a genius in one sub­ject, or some­one who refus­es to be touched (com­mon por­tray­als). I didn’t want to give him books that sug­gest his autism is a source of deep con­flict, that he’s a bur­den to his fam­i­ly. Or ones that depict sen­so­ry-over­load behav­iors as bar­ri­ers to social inter­ac­tion. I sought sto­ries with three-dimen­sion­al char­ac­ters he might relate to — per­haps look up to — and remem­ber for years to come.

Two books shone brightly.

bk_AnythingButSixth-grad­er Jason Blake in Any­thing But Typ­i­cal by Nora Raleigh Baskin is a pro­tag­o­nist with heart, a boy who strug­gles with the issues many mid­dle-grade and pre­teen read­ers do: iden­ti­ty, fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships, a crush. Yes, Jason has ASD but his sto­ry isn’t about “over­com­ing” his dis­abil­i­ty or becom­ing more, as we say in the autism com­mu­ni­ty, neu­rotyp­i­cal. Jason is kind, forth­right, curi­ous, cre­ative. He stays true to him­self as the plot unfolds, show­ing read­ers the ways in which the neu­rotyp­i­cal world can be dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate, espe­cial­ly when oth­ers aren’t kind or open in return.

The sto­ry is writ­ten in first-per­son, which gives read­ers insight into how Jason thinks and feels as he goes about his every­day, yet excep­tion­al, life. He’s an aspir­ing writer, spend­ing much of his time on the Sto­ry­board web­site, where he posts his own sto­ries and can com­ment on the work of oth­ers. Here Jason finds a com­mu­ni­ty, but he’s put to the test when his par­ents offer to take him to the Sto­ry­board con­fer­ence in anoth­er state. Attend­ing the con­fer­ence means Jason can’t hide behind writ­ten words or a screen — he will be out in the open where every­one, includ­ing a girl he’s trad­ed sto­ries with online, will see him for who he tru­ly is. Jason’s growth as a char­ac­ter doesn’t arrive in one big moment in which he “dis­cov­ers” an abil­i­ty to feel emo­tion or make a social con­nec­tion. The author’s focus on real­ism and authen­tic­i­ty allows read­ers to expe­ri­ence her character’s incre­men­tal growth, which is more sat­is­fy­ing in the end.

bk_RealBoyAnne Ursu’s The Real Boy takes a dif­fer­ent approach but arrives at a sim­i­lar des­ti­na­tion: deep respect for her ASD char­ac­ter and an authen­tic emo­tion­al por­tray­al. In this mid­dle-grade fan­ta­sy, an eleven-year-old orphan named Oscar is a magician’s helper who lives in the cel­lar among the cats, where he stud­ies herbs and the mag­ic they bring forth. Read­ers look­ing for enchant­ment and mys­tery will find both here, but what cap­tured my heart was Oscar him­self. He’s smart, earnest, qui­et, thought­ful, self-doubt­ing, and brave. He wants to do what is right (if he could only fig­ure out how) in a world that’s becom­ing increas­ing­ly strange and dangerous.

The sto­ry uses third-per­son, told from Oscar’s view­point, with a sub­tle empha­sis on his dif­fer­ences: his com­fort in rou­tines, his spe­cial inter­ests, his con­fu­sion about social expec­ta­tions. The word autism nev­er comes up because the sto­ry takes place in anoth­er world, one of the imag­ined past. Yet, read­ers sense Oscar’s ASD through and through. That’s a cred­it to the author, who weaves Oscar’s dif­fer­ences into his char­ac­ter and the sto­ry­line, rather than high­light­ing ways in which he doesn’t fit the norm. When left to tend shop dur­ing his pow­er­ful master’s absence, Oscar gains greater inde­pen­dence and con­fi­dence, despite how the towns­peo­ple treat him. He forms a friend­ship with a healer’s appren­tice named Cal­lie, and togeth­er they set out to dis­cov­er what is mak­ing the town’s chil­dren ill and what answers can be found deep among the trees of the wiz­ard woods.

Oscar is an unsung hero. Jason is an “untyp­i­cal” boy in a world where ASD is large­ly mis­un­der­stood. Their sto­ries open doors for kids on the autism spec­trum — and those who want to learn more about what life there is like.


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Debra McArthur
Debra McArthur
9 years ago

Won­der­ful exam­ples, Eliz­a­beth. Nav­i­gat­ing Ear­ly by Clare Van­der­pool is anoth­er one.

Joanne Toft
9 years ago

Add Rain Reign to your list. All great books!

Marianna Barber
Marianna Barber
9 years ago

Thank you, Eliz­a­beth, for your insight into books on this sub­ject. I’m about to start read­ing Any­thing But Typ­i­cal. I will add The Real Boy to my list!

Vicki Palmquist
9 years ago

I very much appre­ci­ate your thoughts on this aspect of read­ing, Eliz­a­beth. I’ve often heard com­ments about how unre­al­is­tic the rep­re­sen­ta­tion is of char­ac­ters who are on the autism spec­trum. Your expla­na­tions help me know what to look for but I sus­pect I’ll have to rely on you to rec­om­mend oth­er books. I hope you’ll keep us updated.