For families and teachers trying to introduce autism to children, picture books are a natural place to start. The best ones educate readers (of all ages) to some of the defining characteristics of this disorder while noting that people with autism–like people everywhere–have gifts to share with their communities. In a nutshell, they aim at building not only understanding but acceptance.
For parents trying to help siblings understand a brother or sister with autism, Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete’s My Brother Charlie (Scholastic) is a good place to start. Told from the perspective of a young girl whose twin brother is on the spectrum, this friendly and accessible book touches upon the complicated dynamic between neuorotypical and neuroatypical siblings, including the feelings or anger and disappointment that can sometimes build up in sisters and brothers who often have to make sacrifices for their special needs sibling. Shame and guilt are often the byproduct of that anger, and thus I valued the Peetes’ acknowledgment that those feelings are natural and okay. I probably would not share this book with a child on the spectrum because if acknowledges another hard truth–that having your child get a special needs diagnosis can be heartbreaking. But kids in the spectrum have their own shame and guilt, and I would worry that this might make them internalize more of it. I also worry that other readers (siblings or otherwise) might internalize the message that kids with autism have caused their families lots of pain. And I’m not sure if that would translate into greater empathy or feelings of blame directed at people who might already seem different and easy to bully. So, lovely voice, sweet story here, but I might be careful with this one. I would teach it in context.
A gentler way to introduce kids on the spectrum to the story of other kids on the spectrum might be Mary Thompson’s Andy and His Yellow Frisbee (Woodbine House), which uses multiple perspectives to tell the story of Andy, a (perhaps) nonverbal boy with autism who spends his school recess spinning a frisbee. Between his sister Rosie and a new girl in school, Sarah, readers are introduced to some typical autism behaviors, but this is ultimately a story of acceptance, empathy, and patience. Andy and His Yellow Frisbee might also work for wider audiences, especially since it does take place in a school.
Finally, there is Uniquely Wired: A Story About Autism and its Gifts by Julia Cook (Boys Town Press). This too educates readers about some defining characteristics of autism and suggests that even behaviors that may provoke or frustrate others have something to teach everyone. I love that message and I actually think this is a sweet book and its heart is really in the place, but I am little wary of stories in which individuals with disabilities are intended to teach people important life lessons. I always think of my daughter with disabilities. She does not exist so that other people can learn to be more accepting.
Despite my few reservations, these are actually three very good books for introducing the youngest readers to autism, its challenges, and its gifts. Check them out–and be sure to tell me what you think!