A few years ago, I wrote CHESTER AND GUS, a middle-grade novel about a dog who fails his service animal certification test, and is adopted instead by a family with a (nearly) non-verbal autistic son. I wrote it because I wanted to convey an important lesson I’d learned watching my own son interact with Buddy, the sweet chocolate lab we got when he was six. In the early days after Ethan’s autism diagnosis at age three, I had become obsessed with expanding his language in every way possible. I kept lists of new vocabulary, tracked his sentence length, labeled every object around the house. He needs more words, I thought, lying awake at night. Words will build him a bridge to a future that includes other people beyond his family.
In a way, I was right, but as any parent of a child with a communication disorder will tell you, learning language is a mystifyingly stubborn roadblock for many children. They can understand so much--you can see it in their eyes and in their actions--and yet they can’t find the words to tell you what they know.
In adopting Buddy, I began to see this frustration over language differently.
Every pet owner instinctively knows that dogs communicate a million messages beautifully with no words at all. You take a moment, you look in their eyes, and you have a little mini-conversation: We’ll go for a walk later; It’s not dinner time yet. When I saw Ethan and Buddy have little moments like this, I was stunned. They weren’t using words, but they were communicating.
I now believe this is a crucial lesson all parents of children with language issues need to learn (though admittedly it took me a long time): All communication matters, and all of it is valid. I needed to learn Ethan’s non-verbal language (at that time composed of countless different squeaks, squeals, stims, hand-flaps, and bouncing) as much as he needed to learn ours.
I got the idea for FRANKIE AND AMELIA, a companion novel to CHESTER AND GUS, after a few school visits where students asked specifically about a character who appears about halfway through the earlier book: Amelia, a girl in Gus’ class who is a whiz at every academic subject that Gus is not, but who also has mystifying outbursts and meltdowns in school. Often, she runs to Chester for comfort in these moments when her emotions overwhelm her.
“Is Amelia autistic too?” one sharp fifth grade girl in Colorado asked me.
For a moment, I was stumped. Was she? In truth I hadn’t written her with this intent. In my mind, she was meant to be one of those girls who seems good at everything and then falls apart all the time, in confusing and often public ways. I knew girls like this growing up and I knew them in my kids’ classroom as well. They often seemed complicated in ways that made them incredibly interesting and, I know, probably hard for parents to help sometimes. “She’s like an adult living inside of a nine-year-old’s body and she’s ready to get out,” I remember one mother saying to describe her bright, moody, unpredictable daughter.
As it turned out, the student who asked whether Amelia was autistic was way ahead of me. Hampered by my own limited knowledge of how autism presents differently in girls, I was just beginning to understand how (and why) autism has been -- for decades -- under-diagnosed in girls. Because girls are often able to “mask” their struggles and mimic the behavior of their peers (which they might not understand at all,) the average age for a young girl with autism to get a diagnosis is between seven and ten years old. These are crucial years in which a girl has internalized a list of everything she is bad at -- navigating friend groups, playing recess games, negotiating social hierarchies.
She might be okay at pretending she’s okay, but beneath the mask a rupture is taking place. One in which she fears she can’t be her “true self” or talk about the things that most interest her, because she’s learned through trial and error that others don’t care about her topics as much as she does. Many doctors now believe that this mask becomes a wall, beneath which a lot of mental health issue foment. Eating disorders, self-harm, depression, the list goes on and on.
The more I read about young girls and autism, the more I related to what I was learning, and the more I wanted to tell Amelia’s story.
I brought in Frankie, an oversized Maine Coon cat, to tell Amelia’s story (along with his own) because I have always loved cats and the way they embody being so good at many things, and so very uninterested in social skills. In other words, cats seem like the best reflection of all there is to celebrate about autism: They will happily pursue their own special interests--dripping faucets, laser beams, a feather on the floor. They will proudly drop their hunting triumphs on our doorsteps no matter how many times we scream and explain we don’t WANT these gifts. And they will love us in their own way, which often looks very much like they’re ignoring us.
I wanted Amelia to fall in love with her funny cat, even as she’s making some eye-opening discoveries about herself, and have her cat help her understand that being different might be hard at times. But it is also a reason to walk proud -- and rejoice.
Cammie McGovern is the author of HARD LANDINGS, a memoir about the transition her oldest son, who has autism, made into adult services. She has also written three books for young adults, SAY WHAT YOU WILL, A STEP TOWARD FALLING, and JUST BREATHE, and three books for middle-grade readers, JUST MY LUCK, CHESTER AND GUS, and FRANKIE AND AMELIA. All feature young people with a variety of disabilities at the center. She has been widely honored for her work advocating on behalf of people with disabilities. Her books have been called “joyful, inspiring and unforgettable,” by Katherine Applegate. In addition to writing for The New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, and other magazines, she has also written three adult novels and is one of the proud founders of Whole Children/Milestones, a resource center for children and young adults with disabilities and their families. She lives in Amherst, MA with her husband and three sons.