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Carol Cujec + Peyton Goddard: What Makes You Feel REAL? (Autism, OwnVoices)




[Editors' Note #1: Peyton communicates by typing on a keyboard, one letter at a time, with support. Peyton's words appear in blue. Carol's words appear in black.


[Editors' Note #2: Don't miss the Book Giveaway info at the end of this post!]


"REAL is Being Loved. It is the quest of all."

– Peyton Goddard


What makes you feel real?


For years, my co-author Peyton Goddard felt less and less like a real person as isolation and segregation robbed her of hope for a better life. Unable to speak or fully control her body, she imagined herself a prisoner with no chance of parole, her many thoughts locked inside her mind.


Labels layered on, as so-called experts—she calls them the Thinkers—diagnosed her as “autistic” and “severely mentally retarded.”


Understaters utter I’m no one, I’m broken, moldy bread, throwaway trash, great leper. Years I’m tested, therapied, dataed in IEPs, evaluations millions. I taste the ugly news—I’m x, I’m y, I’m z.


Considered “too special” for public school, Peyton was sent to restrictive special-ed schools. Like the champions of social justice she so admired, she soon discovered that separate can never be equal. With no voice, how could Peyton fight for equality? Was she even considered a person worthy of rights?


I was separated, segregated in restrictive classrooms and so-called “schools.” Eventually isolated and secluded. Abused. Locked up in prisons where behavior control replaced any attempt at a true education and opportunities for friendships were nil.


Peyton’s loving parents could see their daughter fading away, but they had no idea why.


Yowls of my heart hold no options to be heard. Each day is an eternity to survive.


When Peyton was 22, she had her first opportunity to try supported typing. Peyton’s parents did not have high hopes since all previous attempts to communicate with their daughter had failed.


Peyton’s first typed sentence astounded everyone and blew her prison cell wide open:

“I AM INTLGENT.”


Once her voice was freed to speak its truths, Peyton shared with her parents the pain of so many wasted years. What she wanted most was a real education. With the support of devoted educators and staff at Cuyamaca Community College in San Diego, Peyton became the first person using supported typing to graduate valedictorian from a U.S. college.


Yet even before she could communicate, Peyton vowed to dedicate her life to a single mission—to help other children like her. Our middle-grade novel, REAL, inspired by Peyton’s journey, is part of that mission.


REAL tells the story of Charity, a girl who cannot speak or fully control her body. For 13 years, she’s had no way to tell others how she feels and what’s inside her active mind. No one knows how funny she is … how much she loves sour gummy worms … how eager she is to learn. Seeing the world through Charity’s eyes, readers can feel her heart break each time she’s treated like a baby, or ignored like a potted plant, or pitied like the hopeless charity case she believes herself to be.


Charity sees all the stares and hears all the whispers. She knows everyone expects the worst of her. That’s usually when pity poisons bubble up and she loses control in what she calls kettle explosions. Why does her body so often disobey her mind by jumping and clapping and howling when she’s supposed to be QUIET? Even in the middle of her aunt’s wedding ceremony?


When Charity’s parents fight for her to attend her local public school, she feels glimmers of hope but also dread. Will she be treated like a real student? Will she survive the stares and snickers of classmates? Will she be kicked out once her body erupts in a kettle explosion?


After a few incidents, on the verge of being transferred out, Charity has a breakthrough. Her special-ed teacher calls in an educator from a local college to try a typing technique with Charity. To everyone’s astonishment, Charity types her first-ever full sentence: “I am intelligent.”

This key phrase echoes Peyton’s own breakthrough moment. And in our discussion guide at the end of the book, we ask readers, “What would your first sentence be if you were in Charity’s shoes?”


We often measure people’s worth based on standardized tests of intelligence. And that’s why Peyton (and Charity) led with those words. In our world, “I am intelligent” often equates to “I am worthy of respect.”


But that is NOT the message of the book. As Peyton teaches us, if someone’s intelligence cannot be measured in standard ways, that does not make them less valuable or less worthy of being included. Wisdoms are in all people.


Charity’s journey inspires compassion and spreads joy as teachers and classmates find creative ways to include her. They sit with her at lunch, allow her to move her busy body while learning, and even support her participation on the basketball team—not as acts of pity but in ways that benefit all.


Magic happens when we are invited to know people different from us. This magic regularly occurs in an inclusive classroom. In time, Charity’s teachers and classmates will discover what readers knew all along—Charity is awesome!


Nurturing understanding and pure support of each other frees jolly joy in all.


Wise teachers presume that every student is capable of learning. As Charity explains, “It does not matter if a test says kids are smart. It matters that they are human. Believe that treasures are in all. Believe that all kids can learn. Everyone deserves to be included.”


Ultimately, REAL shows us that people are not problems to be fixed. Peyton’s own sufferings were not caused by her differently wired brain but by the way the world responded to her differences.


Yearns in me longed for you, world, to see me as worthy to be your child. Yet you poignantly pointed to I'm less than what you wanted. Your answer was to fix me, to change me to be what you feared not. To cure me of being ME. I reply that YOU were less than I needed. Your compassion, your pure support to help me fear not, I needed.


We hope that REAL empowers kids and opens hearts by allowing readers to walk in Charity’s shoes. By coming together, we learn not to fear the differences in others or in ourselves. Being different is okay—that’s a radical idea in middle school. You have value just as you are.


People feel real when they matter.




Carol and Peyton have kindly agreed to give away a signed advance copy of REAL.

(US only, please). To enter, just:

1) Subscribe to A Novel Mind here;

2) Follow Carol on Twitter @Ccujec.

A random winner will be chosen in about a week - we'll notify you by email.




Peyton and Carol have published two books together: I am Intelligent: From Heartbreak to Healing—a Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Autism (with Dianne Goddard), and now,

REAL, a JLG Gold Standard middle-grade novel, Feb 2021 from Shadow Mountain Publishing.



Carol Cujec, PhD, has worked as a writer and educator for more than two decades. Her own teaching and parenting experiences have given her welcomed insights into celebrating neurodiversity. Carol lives in San Diego with her husband, three children, and a mischievous orange tabby. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.








Peyton Goddard is an advocate for inclusion who writes and presents about valuing all people and protecting those most vulnerable from abuse. Her message centers on “changing this worrisome world” through compassionate understanding and support for all. Peyton lives with support in her own apartment, adjacent to her parents’ home in San Diego. Follow her on Facebook.