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.