When I set out to write Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism, I wanted the story to be the primary focus, not the diagnosis of the main character. I wanted to create a children’s picture book that was not so much a book about autism, as a book about a girl who happens to be autistic.
Too Sticky! is a story about an autistic girl named Holly who loves science but has to overcome her fear of sticky hands to participate in a slime experiment at school. Holly has challenges due to her autism and sensory issues. At home, she has trouble communicating with her family and eating pancakes with sticky syrup. At school, she has difficulty with social interactions and is worried about touching slime. But with the support of her family, teacher, and classmates, Holly gets the accommodations she needs in an inclusive and loving environment. She gains confidence while trying something new—making slime.
In Too Sticky!, I wanted Holly to be an autistic girl because many children’s books with autistic characters focus on boys. One of the reasons that we don’t see many autistic girls in children’s books is that many people, including medical professionals, think of boys when they think of autism. Girls are often overlooked for an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Four boys are diagnosed for every one girl, according to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC).
I had to advocate for myself and my kids to get diagnosed with ASD. I unknowingly masked my autism my whole life by imitating neurotypical females to fit in. I was diagnosed with ASD in my late thirties at the same time as my youngest daughter, who was then two years old. I wrote an essay, “My Daughter and I Were Diagnosed with Autism on the Same Day,” for the New York Times. My son was diagnosed with ASD a year later when he turned two. Most recently, my oldest daughter was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and provisional ASD.
But being neurodiverse is so much more than a medical diagnosis.
But being neurodiverse is so much more than a medical diagnosis. After I was diagnosed with ASD, I went public with our story to raise autism awareness and acceptance. One of the strengths of my autism that especially helps me as a writer is my ability to think in pictures and play vivid video memories in my imagination. My autistic kids also have strengths, including strong visual-spatial skills. My youngest daughter was able to build 100-piece puzzles when she was two years old. All three of my kids build elaborate structures with Legos like little engineers. I think of my autism as part of my identity and hope that my kids will feel the same way when they are old enough to understand.
Too Sticky! is based on my own and my kids’ experiences living with autism and sensory issues. I loved science class growing up, so I decided my main character, Holly, would participate in a slime experiment at school. I didn’t like having sticky hands as a kid, and still don’t as an adult, so I gave Holly a tactile sensitivity. Like many autistic kids, my kids have difficulty communicating their needs, so I wanted to show this with Holly in both the home and school environment. One of the strengths of Holly’s autism is her STEM knowledge, which is also true with my kids. Holly even teaches her classmates about the properties of slime. Many autistic kids, like Holly, have special interests and talents. I wanted to show Holly thrive in the classroom because of a strength of her autism, rather than simply get through her school day in spite of it.
To be completely honest, I never intended to write books for children until I had an opportunity with a publisher. I wrote an essay, “What a Muppet with Autism Means to My Family,” for the New York Times. Then an illustrator, Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, who ended up illustrating Too Sticky!, introduced me to Albert Whitman editors who read the essay. They asked me if I would be interested in writing a children’s picture book with an autistic girl as the main character.
The main reason I jumped on the opportunity was so my kids could see themselves in a book. I even named three of my characters in Too Sticky! after my kids. I decided that if I couldn’t find books that represented my kids’ experiences, I would have to write them. As it turns out, I love writing books for kids. I’ve written two other picture book manuscripts, and I’m currently working on a middle-grade science fiction novel.
In Too Sticky!, Holly experiences the world differently. The underlying message of the book is that different is not less and that neurodiversity enriches our world. I hope autistic kids reading Too Sticky! will find in Holly a character that reflects their real-life experiences. I also hope that other kids reading this book will learn to relate to autistic kids with greater understanding.
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Jen Malia is an associate professor of English at Norfolk State University and the author of Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism, published in April 2020 with Albert Whitman. She has appeared on “Parenting on the Spectrum” for NPR's With Good Reason. She has written essays for the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Catapult, Woman's Day, Glamour, SELF, and others. Her essays have also been published in The New York Times: Understanding Autism. She lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and three kids. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or on her website.