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Margaret Finnegan: Reading Autism


As this great website demonstrates, there are more and more books featuring neurodiverse characters. Moreover, those books are changing how we read and talk about neurodiversity.


For example, the first generation of children’s books to deal with autism painted bleak pictures of families with autistic children. In these early works, such as Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko and Rules by Cynthia Lord, autistic characters bring embarrassment and heartache to their parents and neurotypical siblings, on whom the stories focus.



As the mother of one daughter with autism and one without, I understand how hard things can be for kids who have siblings with special needs. They definitely need and deserve their stories, and if that is what you’re looking for, the above titles are good places to start (as is the delightful Slider by Pete Hautman). But if the only books on autism paint it as a burden born by others, then those stories not only misrepresent neurodiverse families, but they offer no comfort to autistic readers. Who wants to read a story about how people like you make the lives of everyone else difficult?


A newer generation of autism-centered stories has begun to broaden readers’ understandings of life on the spectrum and how people with ASD can exert agency over their lives. For example, Sally J. Pla’s The Someday Birds shows that the abiding passions of autistics can help them adapt to hardships (such as injured parents) as well as build resiliency, perseverance, and relationships. Likewise, Rain, Reign by Anne M. Martin—which focuses on an autistic girl’s dedication to finding her lost dog—shows the deep, abiding love and longing for intimacy that can accompany life on the spectrum. In doing so, such books challenge stereotypes that people with autism lack empathy or have no interest in other people.

This newer generation of books also dispel clichés about the brilliant yet socially awkward autistic savant. Only ten percent of autistic individuals have any sort of savantism, yet widespread misrepresentations of this truth perpetuate the lie that people with autism don’t need accommodations, because their superiority in math and science will lead them to high-paying, stable jobs. In fact, a 2015 report found that 58% of young adults with autism were unemployed and that rates of unemployment were higher among people with autism than any other disability.



In my own middle-grade novel, We Could Be Heroes, for example, the main character—Hank Hudson—knows a lot about rocks, but he is no genius. Moreover, his deep emotions create a barrier to learning when he struggles with a tragically sad book his teacher is reading his class. Yet, Hank’s deep feelings also help him make a friend and save the life of a seizure-prone pit bull.


What all of these stories demonstrate is that neurodiverse individuals can be the heroes of their own lives—and not in some ‘inspiration-porn’ way that helps neurotypicals feel better about their own struggles. They become heroes like all heroes do, by facing their fears and embarking on quests that forever change them.


While these stories round out representations of autism, they also call attention to the shortcomings in this body of literature. Most newer works—including my own—focus on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum. But fully one third of people with autism are nonverbal. We need more stories centered around this experience. Likewise, the majority of these works focus on boys, rather than girls or gender non-conforming individuals, the later of which have a higher than average chance of also having autism. This focus is especially troubling since gender seems to impact how autism manifests itself. These books also tend to focus on white characters and families, although an important exception is The Stars Beneath Our Feet, by David Barclay Moore.


But I feel confident that these stories are being written, and that they will enrich representations of autism in the same ways that books like Sally J. Pla’s Stanley Will Probably be Fine (which deals with sensory issues) and Wendy Mass’s A Mango-Shaped Space (which deals with synesthesia) are enriching the ways we think about neurodiversity in general. Neurodiverse, after all, is not simply a synonym for autistic.


So as you dip into the growing pool of stories with neurodiverse themes, take heart. You have more to choose from every day, and a lot of it is FANTASTIC! Enjoy!


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Margaret Finnegan is the debut middle-grade author of We Could Be Heroes (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Feb 2020). When she is not writing, she enjoys walking her cute little dog, baking really good chocolate cakes, and hanging out with her wonderful, neurodiverse family. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @FinneganBegin, at MargaretFinnegan.com, or on Facebook.


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Here are some middle-grade novels featuring autistic characters that Margaret Finnegan recommends:


A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Superstar by Mandy Davis

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

We Could Be Heroes by Margaret Finnegan

Slider by Pete Hautman

Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Rain, Reign by Anne M. Martin

The Stars Beneath our Feet by David Barclay Moore

The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool