Saturday, February 7, 2015

Completing the Circuit: Autism, Reading, and Adaptive Living Skills

One listserv, one librarian, and one question caused me to ponder the notion of completing a circuit among the nodes of autism, reading, and adaptive living skills.  The post that follows attempts a circuitous route towards the development of more meaningful, purposeful, and efficient book lists for autistic readers.  Please feel free to contact me by email to share your thoughts on my "electrical engineering."

Several months ago, a post on the alsc-l listserv came from a librarian with a question from one of her patrons, a mother with a young autistic son.  The mother was looking for books that would "teach him that it's okay to make mistakes."  The librarian was seeking suggestions of titles from her colleagues.

While I have spent much time on this blog describing characteristics of literature appropriate for autistic readers, I had yet to explore possible applications of such literature in the lives of neurodiverse children-- until this post.

As a result of mulling over many thoughts on designing book lists for autistic readers, I've determined that there are essentially two types: basic and expanded.  A basic book list features titles that effectively factor in the sensory, modality, and affinity needs of autistic readers (for more on the "3 E's of Autistic Literature," click here).  An expanded book list does everything that the basic book list does, plus it features titles that address needs in the area of adaptive living skills.

One title appeared repeatedly in suggestions to the librarian and, upon scrutiny, seems to most satisfy the requirements of making an "expanded" book list for autistic readers.  

Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg meets the following criteria for placement on such a list:


Visual: Picture book bursting with color and textured images.
Tactile: Flaps, die-cuts, and crumpled paper texture.


A book most appropriate for visual thinkers, but it could playfully challenge pattern thinkers to analyze images and guess what form each "mistake" will take (this would work best on the first read).


A book for artists, paper engineers, and animal lovers.


Aims to address perfectionist/rigid behaviors and lessen performance anxiety.

Interestingly, Beautiful Oops! appears as a suggested title for library programming for school-age autistic children in Barbara Klipper's trail-blazing book, Programming for Children and Teens With Autism Spectrum Disorder, but no mention is made of its suitability supporting adaptive skills needs.  

Please see page 66 in Klipper's book for an excellent recreational activity, "Beautiful Oops! Making Accidental Art," designed by art educators Michelle Lopez, Jennifer Candiano, and Hana Joo.  Those interested in further exploration can also visit Barney Saltzberg's new website, Beautiful Oops!  A Program to Foster Creativity.

Touching back upon the topic of adaptivity, books can never be the single magic bullet to address challenges in developing self-help skills, community and social skills, independent living skills, functional/pragmatic communication skills, and safety skills.  Expanded autistic book lists would do well to include further strategies/suggestions for making gains in these adaptive skills areas.

A wonderful blog post to pair with Beautiful Oops!, for example, would be "It's Got To Be Perfect" by Bec Oakley of Snagglebox.  As a mother of autistic teens, and as someone on the Spectrum herself, Oakley provides a coherent context for perfectionist behavior with accompanying practical tips for mitigating it.

I want to conclude this post with the following infographic:

Through a process I call "rectangulation," I believe that librarians and children's literature experts can build the best possible book lists for autistic readers.  By considering the sensory, modality, affinity, and adaptivity aspects of books, librarians and others can ensure that recommended book lists for autistic children truly reflect the needs and experiences of neurodiverse readers.  

Only then will the circuit be complete!

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Turning the Kaleidoscope: Re-envisioning Book Lists for Autistic Readers

Note: Before I dive into the post, I wanted to comment on the serendipity of placing these images together.  It struck me how the child's eye appears to be reflecting the colors of the kaleidoscope.  I suppose this is how an image can be worth a thousand words.  And now for those thousand words (more or less)...

If a kaleidoscope is all about the fluid movement from one perspective to another, then I hope to be kaleidoscopic and smoothly present a differing perspective on the development of book lists for autistic readers.

I suspect that most of those serving autistic children in a library setting are aware of Lesley S.J. Farmer's book, Library Services for Youth With Autism Spectrum Disorders.  It provides an over-arching approach to the unique needs of neurodiverse library patrons.  (Side note: Those seeking specific guidance on youth programming design and development will want to consult Barbara Klipper's Programming for Children and Teens With Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Farmer spends one chapter ("Chapter 6: Focus on Reading") discussing the characteristics, preferences, and needs of autistic readers, including recommending specific types and titles of books. The "kaleidoscopic turn" I want to suggest is not to counter or undo any information presented by Farmer, but, rather, to frame it somewhat differently.

I believe that a well-designed framework reinforces and reveals the essential features of that which it frames.  The arrangement of elements in the Periodic Table, for example, is not haphazard, nor is it based on the principles of visual design, or even alphabetical order.  The particular arrangement is based on properties of the elements and those elements' relationships to one another.

In a similar fashion, the "book list" template I am going to suggest contains its own blueprint for understanding the characteristics and needs of autistic readers.  It goes beyond the monolithic "books for autistic readers" lists that one finds on many websites online or on library hand-outs.  There is nothing inherently wrong with such lists, they have been a great place to begin; but now it's time for the next generation of book lists for autistic readers.

The template is based on my Three E's of Autistic Literature.  Here it is:

Books That Address the Unique Needs of Autistic Readers




Visual Thinker:
Word-Fact Thinker:
Pattern Thinker:


I overlaid this template on Farmer's "Chapter 6: Focus on Reading," merely reorganizing her discussion on the characteristics of appropriate literature for autistic readers.  Here's how it looks after a "turn of the kaleidoscope:"


Auditory:  Rhyme, songbooks, alphabet books, alliterative books, audio books

Visual:  Books that make use of visual discrimination (i.e., "look-and-find" books), large-format coffee table books, graphic novels, wordless books, picture books, books with photographs

Tactile:  Books that make use of motor-skills and motor-planning, board books, books with multisensory features, e-books, books with props, large-format coffee table books (per Farmer, "carrying them often meets a youth's need for sensing heaviness")

Olfactory:----- (none cited)

Gustatory:----- (none cited)


Visual Thinker:  Books that make use of visual discrimination (i.e., "look-and-find" books), large-format coffee table books, graphic novels, wordless books, picture books, books with photographs

Word-Fact Thinker:  nonfiction books, reference books published by Dorling Kindersley, newspapers (per Farmer, "...can also be great reading sources for youth with ASD's, especially allowing them to focus on specific interests, such as sports statistics, weather, or cartoons.")

Pattern Thinker:  Predictable books, formulaic stories, cumulative stories, familiar sequence (i.e., number, alphabet, days of the week), change books (i.e., seasons, butterfly, life cycle, yesterday-today-tomorrow), patterned stories with "scenes repeated with some variation," question-and-answer, repetition of phrase, rhyme


Newspapers (per Farmer, "...can also be great reading sources for youth with ASD's, especially allowing them to focus on specific interests, such as sports statistics, weather, or cartoons."), Thomas the Tank Engine (Farmer cites as a "favorite for many children with autism.")


Applying the template not only serves as a compass forward in developing appropriate autistic book lists, but it also provides valuable feedback on a particular book list's extent of coverage regarding the sensory, modality, and affinity needs of autistic readers.  In a cursory glance, one can determine if there's an adequate representation of titles for word-fact thinkers, for example.  Are there enough titles addressed to the olfactory and gustatory senses, etc.?

Accessing greater insight into the minds of autistic readers is readily available.  All it takes is "turning the kaleidoscope."

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

RIBBIT RABBIT and MOO HOO: Bineuralism and Autistic Children's Literature

After receiving feedback from parents of ASD children that my books were "autistic," I spent a long time mulling over what that meant, or what it could mean-- not just about my own neurology and my own books, but about an entire body of unacknowledged and underexplored children's literature.  After all, my books couldn't be the only ones.

As I focused, in particular, on two of my books, Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo, the concepts of native neurology and bineuralism emerged, borrowed from similar concepts in the field of linguistics.  The neurology we're born with, that which is native to us, has a degree of plasticity to it.  Indeed, this very malleability is the reason why early intervention can work for many on the Spectrum.  Even outside the chronology of childhood, autistic individuals can make gains and experience success in "cracking the code" of the nonautistic world.  Such individuals could possibly even fit a description of being "bineural."

A bineural individual would have ASD as his/her native neurology, but through external intervention
supports and/or internal regulating processes, would be able to "speak" the nonautistic neurology, as well.  What's one example of what this looks like?  Some autistic individuals can learn "standard" in-person greeting procedures (i.e., those preferred by the nonautistic population).  While the ritual of making eye contact, shaking hands/hugging, and saying "hello" may not be the most natural of social expressions for those on the Spectrum, there are autistic individuals who can "speak this other language."

This is where Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo enter the conversation.  If conceptualizing neurology as language can help support our understanding of the autistic experience, then endowing neurology with its own language, literally, may prove even more useful.  From my own perspective, I view Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo as books written for two voices, or, more boldly, for two neurologies.

Each book, as I see it, is written in both English and "Autlish" (I have the "l" there mostly so that it won't be pronounced "oddish").  The English appears as the "straight-ahead" prose, and the "Autlish" appears as the highly-patterned poetry.  

A nonautistic way to describe two friends playing might sound like, "They fight monsters together;" whereas, an autistic expression of the same action might sound like, "Ribbit Rabbit.  Zip it, zap it."  I think imagining an "Autlish" language could go far in helping many understand and work with the special characteristics of autistic linguistics, including the phenomenon of echolalia.

If viewed a certain way, Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo appear as translated texts.  Every phrase of prose English is translated into its corresponding phrase of Autlish.  Notice that I did not say "rhyming" Autlish.  This "dialect" of Autlish rhymes by its very nature-- it can't not rhyme.

The patterning of this translation in Ribbit Rabbit appears below in a rough chromo-scope. 

Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo serve not only as touchstones for a conversation on bineuralism, but they also provide a guiding grammar of social interaction for ASD children.  The former explores establishing and maintaining friendships, while the latter addresses how to develop new ones.  Of course, navigating the intricacies of social interaction bears relevance for all children and makes Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo a pairing apropos for all kids who want to be "in the social know."

I've said a virtual mouthful about two books that are each only about 150 words in length, but it is my hope that bringing these insights to light will help extend the conversation on creating meaningful literature for autistic children.

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

EWE AND AYE: My Unintentionally (But Not Accidentally) Autistic Picture Book

My fourth picture book, Ewe and Aye, has been published recently by Disney-Hyperion.  Illustrated by Stephanie Ruble, the flap copy sums it up nicely: "Ewe was a sheep with a feel for wheels.  Aye was a lemur with a thing for wings.  But it wasn't until Ewe and Aye found each other that things really got off the ground."

Although the characters, world, and publishers are different, Ewe and Aye continues charting a terrain first explored in my picture books, Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo, a terrain of lifelong mystery for me-- that of relationships.

Ewe and Aye takes off (quite literally) from where the other two books left off.  If Ribbit Rabbit explores how to establish and maintain relationships, and Moo Hoo addresses how to develop new ones, then Ewe and Aye goes even further with the question of purpose.  Why relate with anyone at all? Why relate with this person more than that person?  And, maybe the trickiest question: What does a reciprocally meaningful and fulfilling relationship look like?

The answers to these questions are probably obvious to most people, or at least to non-autistic ones.  Even asking the questions themselves might seem irrelevant and unnecessary for those who are not on the Spectrum.  Keeping in mind, however, that part of what characterizes Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are social/communication deficits, then the need to ask these kinds of questions becomes more understandable.

(I must interject here that autistic people most definitely want to connect with others. The social mechanics of connection may mystify them, and their "connection language/empathic expression" may not be entirely decipherable to nonautistics, but they are fully human.  It's long past time to dump the "robotic/lacks empathy" lingo from public discourse).

When I wrote Ewe and Aye (originally Ewe and Aye-Aye), I did not set out to write an "autistic" book.  Looking back on it, though, I don't know how I could have written anything other than that.  Same with my son.  I did not set an intention for having an autistic child, but he is most definitely a part of me-- and what a gracious gift he has been!

Before I delve into Ewe and Aye's story specifics, I wanted to first comment on the story's origins.  It began as all of my stories do, in a sea of sound.  As evidenced on the notebook page below, I began
playing with the I/eye/aye/ai sound.  At the very bottom of the page, the you/ewe/yew sound makes
its first appearance.  A challenge to myself at the top of the page read, "Tell a story with one phoneme repeated over and over."

Yeah, I'm a sound hound.  But sound isn't enough.  The sounds have to be arranged in a pleasing pattern.  That's where the diagram below comes into play.  It is a rough visual representation of the narrative pattern of Ewe and Aye.  Once I've got the sounds and structure figured out, then I can listen for the story to emerge.

Invoking Noam Chomsky's linguistic concept of deep structure versus surface structure, I almost missed the "deep narrative" of autistic experience in Ewe and Aye undergirding the "surface narrative" of a sheep and lemur cooperating to fulfill a shared dream.  

It wasn't until I read an email from my editor late in the production process that the "aha" moment hit me.  He mentioned the need to strengthen the transition between the scenes of the pair working alone and the scenes of the pair working together...working alone, working together... alone, together.

That's it!

I went back and looked through all of the text and illustrations early in the book.  I saw two characters who spent a lot of time alone and were comfortable doing so.  Interestingly, the Publishers Weekly review even picked up on this, "Although the two animals are always supportive of one another ("When Eye got into trouble, Aye was there to help. And when Aye got stuck, Ewe came to the rescue"), each is strictly a solo act (Ewe prefers working with wheels, while Aye uses wings)."

I saw two characters with intense, focused interests (i.e., wings for Aye and wheels for Ewe) engaging in proximal, parallel play (see the illustration below).

I saw a friendship develop at the intersection of their passions.  I even saw a character, Aye,  a "wings" enthusiast, known for his "flapping," a self-stimulating behavior recognized as a classic trait of autism.  Although I never sat down to write an autistic book about autistic characters, realizing that I had was startling and affirming at the same time-- like observing my reflection in some kind of mirror of ultimate reality.  More than just seeing myself for the first time, I finally knew myself for the first time.

The opening line of Ewe and Aye reads, "Ewe and Aye were different."  When I first wrote that line, there was only one meaning: Ewe and Aye were different from one another.  Now, the meaning has expanded to include: Ewe and Aye were different from one another and from others.  

I think overlaying the one meaning on top of the other (for a "montage of meaning," if you will), renders a hopeful message to the autistic community: We are together in being different.  It's a message that respects the unique dimensions of each individual, while at the same time acknowledging that the individual exists within the context of a larger autistic community that can be accessed for mutual support and understanding.  

Connecting with this community can offer limitless possibilities.  To quote the last lines of my book, "And now together, there's nowhere Ewe and Aye can't fly.  Ewe and Aye.  We!"  Of course, the need for this kind of connection transcends neurology, making Ewe and Aye a book for all "wirings."

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Stars and Cars: Imagining an Autistic Children's Literature

I think the easiest way to begin imagining an autistic children's literature is to bring to mind a compositional form in music-- namely, the theme and variations.  A given book would be the theme, and experimenting with its structure would yield the variations (I am hearing Glenn Gould's 1981 Bach Goldberg Variations in my mind as I write this:-)

For the purposes of demonstration, our "theme" will be Ursus Wehrli's The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy, and one of its variations I will present in part shortly.  First, I want to comment on why I chose this particular book for experimentation.  

As soon as I saw the cover of The Art of Clean Up (published by Chronicle Books), I had a sensory-based reaction of feeling calmed, relieved, and soothed all at once.  Moving through the book had a mildly therapeutic effect, as if a deep itch were being scratched (My default mode is to order the cosmos from its chaosmos [wink here to James Joyce]).  I knew I had stumbled onto something special.

What was so special?  In a pure (and literally) uncluttered fashion, the systemizing nature of many autistic minds was put on full display to explore and celebrate.  Even though The Art of Clean Up was marketed as an art/photography book for adults, I knew that many autistic kids could peruse its pages and find acknowledgement and validation for the way their brains work.  

Of course, I recognize that autistic systemizing can be functional (i.e., the foundational basis for a career in science, engineering, computer programming, etc.) or less functional (i.e., lining up toys all day, everyday, without adaptive application).  Interestingly, the latter example could be just photographs and a published book away from a productive use of the systemizing ability (Please note, this is not to diagnose Mr. Wehrli with ASD).  
The challenge is always to harness the systemizing ability for adaptive use.  Unfortunately, this outcome cannot be guaranteed for all autistic individuals.  Nevertheless, I believe that a book presented to autistic kids that celebrates systemizing (the way that many of their brains work) can go a long way in helping develop autistic kids' sense of self-understanding and self-worth, which ultimately strengthens their ability to become contributing members to society.

Similar to the case rightfully made about kids of color needing to "see" themselves as characters in books in order to access a sense of societal worth and dignity, autistic kids not only need to "see" themselves in books in the same way, but they also need to "see" their thought processes and affinities reflected in the actual conceptualization and design of books.  Bottom line: autistic kids need to recognize their neurology within the neurology of books.

And here's one example of how that can happen...

My "variation" on The Art of Clean Up is called Stars and Cars, and it exists in its entirety only in my notebook and as the following rough digital mock-ups.  It exists in my imagination as a children's book aimed at neurodiverse readers and also serves as an on-ramp towards acceptance and understanding for non-autistic readers.

I developed a 32-page picture book complete with a rhyming text of about 150 words.  I omitted the more "unnatural" or abstract contents (e.g., the pine branch stripped of its needles, the reorganized school children, and the chicken/eggs scene), and focused on imagery that appealed more to kids in general and, in some cases, autistic kids in particular (e.g., stars, cars, toys, ball pit, food, etc.)

I applied the 3 E's of Autistic Literature (sensory, modality, and affinity) throughout the production process.  In the realm of sensory considerations, I used a low-contrast setting for the text and employed a dyslexic-friendly font known as OpenDyslexic.  In the mock-up below, the tactile sense is invited to trace the newly formed "lines."  The rhyming text engages the auditory sense, and the olfactory and gustatory senses are also engaged throughout the book via word and image.

The visual and pattern-based autistic thinking modalities are well-represented in the very premise of the book-- systemizing one's surroundings.  In addition, phonological and wordplay patterning are presented throughout the text.   As mentioned earlier, particular subject affinities are also featured.

In this brief example, I hope I've demonstrated some exciting possibilities for creating autistic children's literature.  By simply adapting pre-existing books, in a "theme and variations" fashion, if you will,  autistic kids can begin to reap the benefits of a literature created with their needs and interests in mind.  Publishers can begin building lists for this under-served population in low-risk fashion by offering e-book-only publication at minimum.  Neurodiverse readers could be just a click away from "seeing how they see" in a book. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Theory of Autistic Texts (The 3 "E's" of Autistic Literature)

When contemplating the question of what constitutes an autistic literature, I gravitated toward a "theory of three" model as a satisfying means of laying a working foundation.  I developed what I refer to as "The 3 'E's' of Autistic Literature," which are sensory, modality, and affinity.  (The "E's" are named as such for the common terminal sound in each word, which also nods to the concept of modality that I will discuss later).

Autistic texts would be those created with deliberate consideration of how the sensory, modality, and affinity aspects combine to create a literature most respectful to the needs and desires of neurodiverse readers.


Along with social/communication deficits and repetitive behaviors/interests, autism also manifests as sensory-based issues.

Non-autistic people often have a difficult time imagining what an autistic sensory reality might be like.  Compare the typical non-autistic, public movie-going experience (lights down, volume up) to a typical autistic, public movie-going experience as offered by AMC Sensory Friendly Films (lights up, volume down).  It's the complete opposite!  The autistic preference is counter-sensory (and I'd stretch that to say counter-intuitive) to the non-autistic preference.

I want to posit that a loud and dark movie theatre can bristle the senses and sensibilities of an autistic person just as much as a book's high contrast, text-only (no images), neuro-normative narrative can.  I believe that the "environments" of most books cater more to non-autistic readers than to autistic ones.

If this is the case, then how can we create a sensory experience more friendly for autistic readers?  Again, I must take the opportunity on this blog to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to solutions for improving life experiences for autistic people.  We can, however, work with data provided by research and anecdotal evidence that seems to indicate positive outcomes for segments of autistic people.  And, of course, no single book can be all things to all people.

Many of the literary-sensory features I am about to discuss are already in use and available for autistic readers.  Usage and availability is not necessary widespread or consistent, however.

Intra-book:  Autistic readers can benefit from books full of images, including illustrations, photographs, and/or infographics.  Graphic novels and comics are popular among the neurodiverse crowd.  Some visual processing difficulties can be minimized through the reduction of high contrast design (i.e., black type against a white background).  Typography should also be taken into account, specifically typefaces designed for high readability (e.g., sans serif fonts designed for dyslexic readers).
Extra-book:  Irlen lenses and colored transparencies mitigate visual processing challenges for some autistic readers.  Lighting is also important, as fluorescent bulbs are known to disrupt visual processing in some cases.

Intra-book:  Audio books, enhanced e-books, novelty books, books read aloud, and poetry all provide auditory experiences for readers. The musicality of language and its implications for the autistic
community are worthy of further study.  Temple Grandin notes in The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, "Again and again I've heard from parents and teachers that they taught kids to
talk through singing, and I wondered if there was a scientific basis for this relationship."  Research
indicates that the regions in the typical brain responsible for music and language appear to overlap.
Consequently, it makes sense to leverage this possible neural connection by increased exposure to language that is distinctly musical-- for example, poetry written with an emphasis on sound and rhythm, as opposed to form and imagery.
Extra-book:  The absence or presence of sound or a sound's quality/volume/frequency can either enhance or detract from the reading experience of an autistic person.  An audio environment can be experimented with in any number of ways for optimal impact on reading.  Different forms of white noise can improve concentration.  Musical instruments can be used to accent or "accompany" reading passages, supporting multiple pathways to learning.

Intra-book:  Novelty books are good at exploring the world in many textured ways and can be a virtual playground for the hands.  Even standard book covers and pages come in all different "feels,"
from slick and smooth to rough and scratchy.  A hand's imagination can run wild.  Some autistic readers may prefer the cool smoothness and interactivity that characterizes reading on a tablet.  An exciting and growing format of books designed originally for blind readers, the 3D-printed tactile picture book, has potential cross-over appeal for autistic readers seeking tactile stimulation.
Extra-book:  There are many ways to incorporate the tactile sense while reading, including offering fidget toys, utilizing a weighted vest or lap pad, positioning on a tactile therapy ball, or featuring a water-based setting that includes water-proof "bath books."

Intra-book:  The olfactory sense is uncommonly accommodated in the process of reading, but there are novelty books with "scratch-and-sniff" components.  Authors can also pack language with scent-based references.
Extra-book:  Although most books aren't designed with olfactory features, it would not be difficult to
introduce a scented experience for autistic readers.  Aromatherapy-based reading can be offered
through herbal beanbags, scented fidget toys, essential oil sprays, and scent inhalers.  When thinking of how powerful an impact scents can have on memory in a neurotypical brain (e.g., one smell can bring back summer/childhood/a favorite holiday), it seems like a worthwhile effort to explore how scents could possibly support learning, memory, and sensory stabilization for autistic readers.

Intra-book:  Despite the phrase, Reader's Digest, and the notion of someone "devouring" a book, there are obvious limitations to a book's ability to directly address the gustatory sense.  For the most part, an author's use of language would be the closest means of conjuring the sense of taste.
Extra-book:  There are ample opportunities to include the gustatory sense alongside reading.  I blogged about one such way in a post titled "Litereat, Literate."   It can be as simple as eating while reading, or eating what you read, as in the case of the Edible Book Festival.


Of the "3 'E's' of Autistic Literature," the modality aspect has the potential to be the most defining characteristic of neurodiverse texts.  If a book is a written record of a particular brain's approach to language, thought organization, and worldview, then an autistically-informed expression of language, thought organization, and worldview will appear necessarily distinct.

The modalities I describe below were first introduced in Temple Grandin's ground-breaking book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.  As one might expect, these are not mutually exclusive autistic brain types, and Grandin acknowledges that a blending and overlapping of thinking
modalities is probably the norm.  These dominant autistic-thinking pathways parallel Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, but differ from the latter in their full consideration of how an autistic neurology can impact the process of thinking.

Picture Thinker
Visually-appealing books for all readers have gained steam in the marketplace in recent years.  While once enjoyed primarily by young children in the form of picture books, readers of all ages/abilities can select visually-friendly books in the form of graphic novels, comics, and manga.  There's still wide open space to support older/advanced readers with illustrated novels, however.

Visual books for picture thinkers can serve the neurodiverse population well by addressing visual-sensory issues, special interests common to the autistic population, and other autistic thinking modalities (i.e., pattern thinkers and word-fact thinkers).

Putting it all together, an autistic book well-suited to a picture thinker would be designed with sensory considerations (e.g., a legible-friendly typeface and low contrast setting), and might feature train locomotive schematics accompanied by a text either oriented to a word-fact thinker (e.g., a text focused on compiling, detailing, and cataloging information on a subject), or a text oriented to a pattern thinker (e.g., a text focused on uncovering and illuminating a subject's underlying structures, similarities, and symmetries within itself or when compared to other subjects.)

Pattern Thinker
Of all the autistic thinking modalities, pattern thinkers are probably the least served in today's literary marketplace.  My very unscientific speculation as to the reason why might have something to do with pattern thinking as being a cognitive pathway most divergent to those common in non-autistic thinking.  It's the "left-handed girl in a right-handed world" phenomenon.

Books designed for pattern thinkers would take sensory considerations in mind, while also addressing the manifestation and expression of patterns across a multiplicity of forms, including images, natural
objects, numbers, language, and data sets.   The visual content and text would work in tandem to support the revelations of a pattern-rich world.

One possible book for pattern thinkers could be a compilation of photographs of naturally-occurring
fractals accompanied by a text of highly-formalized poetry.

Word-Fact Thinker

Word-fact thinkers have far more options when it comes to book selection than do pattern thinkers.  This shouldn't come as a surprise, when considering that the strength of their thinking is rooted in language itself.   Even though autistic word-fact thinkers can feel quite cozy with nonautistic encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, compendiums, guidebooks, handbooks, and manuals, these materials can also be specifically designed with autistic needs in mind.

Whether addressing sensory issues, incorporating more visual content, or even including literary material embedded within the heavy "word-fact" text itself, informational books can definitely be designed to be more neuro-friendly.

I will borrow my example of a possible book for pattern thinkers as a possible book for word-fact thinkers, with some modifications.  Along with the compilation of photographs of naturally-occurring fractals (something like a fractal handbook), the book would feature a factoid-rich text that could be
presented either relatively "straight-ahead," or more literarily/poetically.  The more "poem-like" the text, and the more formalized the poetry, then the more likely the book will appeal to the pattern thinking modality, as well.


The final "'E' of  Autistic Literature" addresses the need to respect and incorporate the passions and special interests of neurodiverse readers.  Books for autistic readers must connect with affinities, instead of hiding from them, or worse, denying them.

For a particularly eloquent rationale, I want to quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind's book, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.  Suskind recounts the story of how Disney films provided a template and framework that enabled his severely autistic son to communicate his thoughts and feelings.

Here are Suskind's words: "There's a reason-- a good enough reason-- why each autistic person has embraced a particular interest.  Find that reason, and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacities.  Authentic interest will help them feel dignity, and impel them to show you more, complete with maps and navigational tools that may help to guide their development, their growth.  Revealed capability, in turn, will lead to a better understanding of what's possible in the lives of many people who are challenged.  Affinity to Capability to Possibility."

Plugging into autistic readers' special interests establishes a personal relevancy and meaningfulness that can support literacy development and real-world connections.


In conclusion, the "3 'E's' of Autistic Literature" are presented as a starting point, not an end point, in what I hope will be an ever-evolving conversation on the exciting possibilities of autistic literature for young people-- a literature that respects the needs, concerns, and desires of a neurodiverse readership. I look forward to many more voices rising up to offer commentary and insight.  Please feel free to send me an email with your thoughts.  Thank you for your interest!

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Can a Book Be Autistic?

I remember reading some years ago about James Joyce's Finnegans Wake being "diagnosed" as schizophrenic.  Although Joyce himself was never diagnosed as such (his daughter was), the notion that a book could possess a psyche (and neurology) all its own has intrigued me ever since.

So, when I had parents of autistic children tell me that my books were autistic, I had to smile inside  of myself while I thought of the "schizophrenic" Finnegans Wake.  And because an autistic child had already come out of me, it didn't seem that surprising that autistic books could come out of me, too.

Readers may wonder, "Are Candace Ryan's books really autistic?"  Depending on various factors and conditions, parents of newly diagnosed children may also wonder to themselves, "Is my child really autistic?"  Well, after living with my own autistic child and my own books over the years, I can definitely confirm their mildly autistic orientations to the world.

To imagine my books as autistic feels quite natural to me.  As a matter of fact, viewing them this way actually resolves and clarifies a lot of questions I've had in the process of writing children's books and getting them published.  I will dive into the specifics of how I believe my own books are autistic in future posts.  In the meantime, I want to further explore some possibilities for defining an autistic literature.

My whole purpose for writing this blog is to encourage thinking about and creating autistic literature for children, literature that respects and aims to connect with the experience of being autistic.  At this juncture, I should mention that I do believe autistic books are already circulating among us-- for both adults and children.  For the most part, it is simply a matter of these books finally being recognized as such.  

Nowadays, the advances in information science, technology, and our understanding of autism have helped bridge a connectivity gap for autistic and non-autistic people alike.  As a result, a unique opportunity exists for authors, illustrators, editors, and publishers to approach the creation of autistic literature with a greater sense of purpose and intentionality.

To this end, I have identified three "E's" of autistic literature: sensory, modality, and affinity.  I believe these three features most fundamentally define the characteristics of autistic books.  My next post will illustrate the "what's and how's" of it.