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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