From Awareness to Acceptance: 10 Children's Books that Accurately Portray What It Is to Be Autistic
Editor's note: The author of this article is also the author of a resource listed below.
Autism Awareness Month is coming up in April, and many teachers and parents will be seeking out books to share with their little readers.
A quick Google search will undoubtedly bring up dozens of books centered around autism, but to find books with positive, accurate portrayals of what it means to be autistic is not as simple. However, it's critical if we want to create a more inclusive and autism-friendly world.
Brandy Haberer, an autistic advocate and co-teacher of a course called "Healthy Friendships and Intimate Relationships, available at Stanford University through The Asperger/Autism Network (AANE), said such portrayals in children's books matter.
" … For many, this is the first time they're learning about autism," she said. "It's important because of the incorrect stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media and the medical community. By accurately representing autism, we can challenge incorrect stereotypes and help the autistic community be more accepted.
"It's important because more people need to know that autism is not something to be cured but merely a different way of being. To be honest, accurate representation is not something that happens for us often. That needs to change."
Here are 10 children's books that can help both kids and grown-ups see the beauty of neurodiversity (differently-wired brains), start to make the societal shift from mere awareness of autism to complete acceptance and inclusion, and better understand and celebrate autistic peers, not only during Autism Awareness Month but year-round.
"My Brother Otto" (Ages 3-6)
Written by Meg Raby and illustrated by Elisa Pallmer
This is the story of two young crow siblings, Piper and Otto Crow, and their love for one another as they navigate daily life. Otto is non-speaking and uses a tablet to communicate. Young readers will also learn that when he spins a yellow pipe-cleaner, swings incredibly high without stopping and cuddles up next to his sister under a dozen stuffed animals at night, those are just other ways Otto communicates how he is feeling, as well as his likes and dislikes. Piper teaches readers that Otto needs to be Otto — he needs to be autistic — and though some things might seem different about him, he is a little crow who wants to be loved, have fun and feel safe, just like you and me.
"Nope. Never. Not For Me!" (Ages 3-6)
Written and illustrated by Samantha Cotterill
Part of the picture book series entitled Little Senses, "Nope. Never. Not for Me!" cleverly addresses the genuine anxiety about trying new foods for those with sensory processing issues and those who are autistic. This picture book guides readers in a fun way on how to be patient and understanding if someone appears to be a picky eater while helping autistic kids with the process of trying new foods.
"This Beach Is Loud!" (Ages 3-6)
Written and illustrated by Samantha Cotterill
Another picture book in the Little Senses series, "This Beach is Loud!" addresses sensory overload often found at beaches. To help readers understand what a day at the beach is like for someone who has a sensory processing disorder and/or is autistic, the author uses unique text placement, bold and descriptive single words and relatable illustrations. The Dad who accompanies his autistic son to the beach in this story displays respect and sensitive responses, making for excellent talking points between caregivers, teachers and children.
"A Friend for Henry" (Ages 4-8)
Written by Jenn Bailey and illustrated by Mika Song
Author and mother to an autistic son, the author honestly yet delicately addresses the desire Henry, an autistic boy "in classroom six, second left down the hall," has to have a friend he can relate with. Henry knows they can't be too loud like "a thunderstorm, booming and crashing" like his classmate named Samuel, and it can't be the class goldfish named Gilly "(because) she can't play on the swings."
"Lulu Is A Rhinoceros" (Ages 4-8)
Written by Jason and Allison Flom and illustrated by Sophie Corrigan
Lulu may look like an English bulldog on her exterior, but she wholeheartedly believes she is a rhinoceros and decides to let everyone know. Fellow animal peers laugh and tease Lulu because they don't accept what she believes herself to be. Self-confident and unapologetic, Lulu stays true to herself, showing readers not to judge someone by their exterior, that who we are inside is what truly matters and that differences should be accepted and embraced. Lulu may act differently, but she wants to be seen, have fun, belong and have friends. A sweet little bird named Flom Flom also shows the reader how to be inclusive and loving of Lulu in this endearing tale.
By accurately representing autism, we can challenge incorrect stereotypes and help the autistic community be more accepted.Brandy Haberer, autistic advocate and educator
"The Girl Who Thought In Pictures" (Ages 4-8)
Written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley
Based on the true story of Temple Grandin, this picture book introduces readers to the autistic mind and heart of one of the most well-known scientists of our time. The message that being different is something that should never be associated with shame is highlighted in this fascinating story about Grandin's unique mind and her ability to connect with and help animals.
"Too Sticky! Sensory Issues With Autism" (Ages 4-8)
Written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
The author, an autistic associate professor of English at Norfolk State University, draws from her and her autistic daughter's experiences with sensory processing issues specific to stickiness. In the story, Holly feels anxious about an upcoming science lab where she will be making slime with her classmates. One of the ingredients to make slime is glue, and glue is sticky. Holly is honest about her anxiety about the upcoming lab and lets readers see what she sees and feels through descriptive text and brightly illustrated pictures. The book is an excellent glimpse into autism and sensory processing disorders (SPD) and highlights how we can be inclusive even while an autistic peer feels anxious.
"Trampoline Boy" (Ages 4-8)
Written by Nan Forler and illustrated by Marion Arbona
Every day, multiple times a day, a young, autistic boy jumps on his trampoline, ignoring the sneers of other children passing by. One day, Peaches, a curious and kind girl, asks to jump with the boy. She ends up soaring to new heights among the birds and planes and ultimately gains perspective and a new friend. The author shows the reader how to engage in an autistic peer's life by participating in their interests.
"The Categorical Universe Of Candice Phee" (Ages 8-12 and best read with a parent or teacher)
By Barry Jonsberg
A book full of humor, vulnerability and a captivating protagonist, "The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee" is powerful. The main character is autistic and shares her life story using the alphabet. 'A' is for the initial assignment she is given by her teacher to write this essay in the first place. 'B' is her birth story where she is quick to let the reader know "I am an unreliable witness because I can't remember a thing about it," and 'C' is for chaos in which the author informs the reader about her chaotic family dynamics and "the time Darren Mitford swallowed his pencil sharpener and nearly died." She is well aware that she is different from her peers and even her family members in how she experiences life and views certain events. Still, she is empathetic, determined and confident in who she is.
"The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism" (Ages 8-12 and best read with a parent or teacher)
Written by Naoki Higashida and translated by Ka Yoshida and David Mitchell
To understand a perspective of what it is like to be an autistic 13-year-old boy, the author invites readers into his brain in this exquisite and honest nonfiction book written in the form of questions and answers. Some examples of the questions asked include: "Why do you echo questions back at the asker?" "How are you writing these sentences?" and "What's the reason you jump?" The book sends a profound message and sense of urgency to be patient, to listen and watch, as well as to know that autistic individuals have feelings "pretty much the same as yours."