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Real-Life Autistic Heroes In Picture Books

Typically, A Novel Mind concerns itself with children’s fiction. But there are some wonderful non-fiction biographies of autistic luminaries that would be a credit to any library collection. Kids with autism and ADHD also need to see that there are ‘real live’ neurodivergent people out there – even teens – whose ideas and leadership are helping to shape and improve our world. Here are a few of those books.

OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE by Jeannette Winter (author illustrator). To be published in Fall 2019 by Beach Lane Books.

This is a new biography profile of sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, who was recently named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Her movement to raise awareness of climate change has spread to more than 1,800 cities in 130 countries, with the social media hashtags #FridaysForFuture and #ClimateStrike. Greta has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Greta Thunberg says she has experienced success not in spite of her autism, but because of it. Here and here are some articles where Greta talks about her autism.

When author/Illustrator Jeannette Winter first read about Thunberg, she was inspired to get to work quickly on this story, according to an article in Publishers Weekly. Winter said, “[Thunberg] speaks more powerfully about this than any adult I’ve ever heard.”

The title of the picture book comes from a speech Thunberg made to the World Economic Forum at Davos in early 2019. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” Thunberg said. “I want you to panic. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

WE ARE ALL GRETA: Be Inspired to Save the World. By Valentina Giannella and illustrated by Manuela Marazzi. Sept 24, 2019.

This is an illustrated YA biography of Greta Thunberg, mixed with actionable advice and inspiration, allowing readers to follow in Greta Thunberg's footsteps and join the global mission to save our planet from climate change. With in-depth text and data, this book will answer readers' questions on what climate change means, what its consequences will be, and what must be done to protect our world.

THE GIRL WHO THOUGHT IN PICTURES: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin. By Julia Finley Mosca. Illustrated by Daniel Rieley. PB, 2017.

This winner of the 2018 Dolly Gray Award for picture books profiles young Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous autistic scientist of our day, and a leading autism advocate. When Temple was diagnosed with autism, no one expected her to talk, let alone become one of the most powerful voices in modern science. Yet, the determined visual thinker did just that. Her unique mind allowed her to connect with animals in a special way, which helped her invent groundbreaking improvements for farms around the globe.

DIFFERENT LIKE ME: MY BOOK OF AUTISM HEROES. By Jennifer Elder and Marc Thomas, Jessica Kingsley, 2005.

Different Like Me introduces children aged 8 to 12 years to famous, inspirational figures from the world of science, art, math, literature, philosophy and comedy. Eight-year-old Quinn, a young boy with Asperger's Syndrome, tells young readers about the achievements and characteristics of his autism heroes, from Albert Einstein, Dian Fossey and Wassily Kandinsky to Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Banneker and Julia Bowman Robinson, among others. All excel in different fields, but are united by the fact that they often found it difficult to fit in -- just like Quinn.

You will notice this is a short list.

It is hard to find biographies of autistic heroes, because the diagnosis simply didn’t exist until very, very recently. However, many famous figures in history are strongly suspected of being neurodivergent. These include Mozart, Bach, Newton, Turing, Gates, Einstein, and many, many more. Even without their having actual diagnoses, still, reading about these famous figures, and discussing with neurodivergent kids how they showed intensity of purpose, focused intellect, blunt honesty, social challenges, etc., can help autistic kids to see that they are not alone in their different ways of viewing the world, and to realize that their own unique minds can be something to be proud of.


Sally J. Pla is an author and advocate for neurodiversity and autism acceptance. Her critically-acclaimed middle grade novels The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and picture book Bejni, The Bad Day And Me, all feature 'differently brained' kids. You can find out more about Sally on her website, or connect with her on Twitter


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