Sunday, October 26, 2014

Neurodiversity in Children's Literature

On the map of Underexplored Places, there's a territory in search of its share of cartographers.  At the crossroads of autism and children's literature, many are called to help chart the terrain.  So, I've given notice to have all my mail forwarded to this intersection, as I unpack my pen and paper and begin.

I don't think I can orient myself in any discussion on autism without first establishing a baseline understanding of the concept of neurodiversity.  This term recognizes that along with all other kinds of diversity expressed by human beings (e.g., racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, etc.) neurological difference is included among them.

Neurological difference is most colloquially understood as the manner in which the brain is "wired."  Diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADD/ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, Tourette's syndrome, or developmental coordination disorder can all be viewed broadly as examples of neurodiversity-- as a range of neural expressions possible in the human experience.  When I use the term "neurodiversity" in the course of this blog, it will mostly be in the context of autism.

As a children's book author, I am interested in the concept of neurodiversity and how it applies to the creation and selection of literature for both autistic and nonautistic readers.  Although the most obvious application of neurodiversity in children's literature relates to the inclusion of autistic characters and the representation of autistic themes, I am especially intrigued by the possibility of writing and structuring texts in such a way that they specifically appeal to autistic minds.

At the forefront of the children's book industry in terms of addressing the unique needs of autistic readers, many libraries already offer accommodations for neurodiverse patrons (e.g., sensory storytimes and environmental modifications), so why not address the actual reading experience of neurodiverse minds?  If autistic patrons can enter a neuro-sensitive library, then it only seems to follow that they should be able to "enter" a neuro-sensitive book.

Of course, it must be mentioned at this juncture that there is no monolithic "autistic mind."  The expression "if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person" applies here.  Temple Grandin's recent book,  The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, blazes an exciting trail in further exploring and understanding various modes of autistic thinking (e.g., visual/pictures, music-math/patterns, and verbal-logic/words).  Continuing to elucidate these modes can do much to assist children's book authors like myself who are eager to offer more neuro-sensitive literature for both autistic and non-autistic readers.

What might an autistic literature for children look like?  Well, the purpose of this blog is to explore the possibilities of more neuro-diverse narratives that reflect the unique characteristics of autistic minds.  I welcome comments, suggestions, and questions via email.  Please join the discussion!

ABC: Autism, Books & Children (and the L.A. River Bike Path)

"What are you holding back, Candy?  What do you want to say?" John asked me one day on the L.A. River bike path.  John, one of the first "bike buddies" I made along the River, has a knack for questions like that.

One word welled up inside me, but I held it back like all the others, afraid of the weight of this one in particular.  The word imploded inside me, "Everything!
John's question had to do with one of my manuscripts, but it could have been just as easily about my life or about my relationship to autism.  I have held back on speaking out about autism, held back from sharing my insights and experiences as the parent of an autistic child, as a former Special Education teacher, and as someone who is likely on the Spectrum herself.

"Why?" someone might ask.  Same reason people always have for holding back-- fear.  I was afraid of judgment, criticism, antipathy, afraid of being vulnerable, exposing aspects of my private life, bearing the responsibility of standing for something, afraid of facing the bigotry and discrimination sometimes leveled against the autistic community, and afraid of the occasional and unfortunate infighting within the autism community.

I was just plain afraid.  But then, gradually over time, I became even more afraid of something else, something utterly unexpected.  I became afraid of holding back.  Mike, another "bike buddy," once told me, "Sometimes you spend more energy holding everything back, than if you just let it go."

So, here's to letting it go!  Here's to letting it flow like my beloved River.  I will bring forth what is in me in the hopes that it will make a positive impact on autistic children everywhere, who deserve a literature respectful and responsive to the way their minds work.