I much prefer the stands to the field.
So, why on earth would I write a book about an autistic girl playing sports?
I have a confession. My debut novel is about baseball, but I hate sports. Or at least, I hate playing sports. Like many autistic people, I had less-than-pleasant sports- related experiences as a child. In gym class, I never ran fast enough, never did a single pull-up, never quite knew where to stand or how to catch the ball. I spent much of my time trying to avoid the ball, in fact. I tried playing competitive soccer in fourth and fifth grades. For the most part, it did not go well. I'm still not quite sure how I even ended up on the team, frankly. They must have been pretty desperate for participants. Quitting was a relief. I later played non-competitive softball, which I enjoyed much more. When I remembered to bring my glasses I actually managed to be somewhat decent, which for me was a huge victory.
It's satisfying to hear the CRACK of a bat when it meets the ball--a feeling I channeled in writing Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! Still, I am definitely not the athletic type, despite my long-standing love for watching baseball. But that is purely a spectator thing. I much prefer the stands to the field. So, why on earth would I write a book about an autistic girl playing sports? The simple answer is that I love the game of baseball -- a game that has always been rich with drama and emotion. The more complex answer is that I wanted to show that autistic people can do things even when we face difficulties. There are, in fact, autistic people who have succeeded in sports: Baseball player Tarik Al-Abour, NCAA basketball player Kalin Bennett, surfer Clay Marzo, Paralympics gold medal-winning swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate. And I'm sure the list of autistic athletes who have not been diagnosed or disclosed is even longer. My main character, Vivy, is good at baseball because she works hard at it. She practices constantly. She seeks advice from her coach, her catcher, and her older brother. She wants to be the best player she can be.
I wanted to show that despite Vivy's love for playing, she still has challenges. During my ill- fated time as a competitive soccer player, a very kind coach discovered that I had a problem. Most runners will run in a basically straight line without having to think about it too much. Me? I sort of veered off at an angle, meaning that I was actually trying to cover more ground. I am a slow runner in general and that just made it worse.
I figured out that if I specifically concentrated on running in a straight line, I could manage it. But it definitely did not come naturally to me, just like so many of the other motor skills involved with playing a sport. So I decided that Vivy too would struggle with running in a straight line. She would also have a coach help her to figure things out. But she still has certain struggles because she is autistic. Although Vivy might be great at throwing the knuckleball, she's bad at hitting the ball. Obviously, not every autistic kid will be able to be a great pitcher like Vivy and that's totally okay. But neither is it impossible for an autistic person to play a sport and play it well. The experience of playing a sport is different for an autistic people. Dealing with sensory stimuli, figuring out motor skills, and interacting with teammates can all be challenging. But we can still play, if so we choose. And we should.
As an athlete, Vivy also faces challenges due to ableism. Her over-protective mother doesn't think she should play a game that is predominantly played by boys (although an increasing number of girls are playing baseball, too). So another part of her story is convincing everyone else that she belongs on the field. Most baseball stories end up with the hero getting the big hit in the big game. I knew that Vivy's story would be different. She wants to win just as much as anyone else, but baseball isn't only about winning. She just wants the opportunity to play. Another cliché is that baseball stories are a metaphor for life. For that one, I cop to being guilty.
Yes, baseball is a metaphor for life in my story.
And the ultimate lesson here is the same: autistic people deserve to play on our own terms.
Sarah Kapit is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Currently she lives with her family in Bellevue, Washington. Her first published novel, GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN!, was published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2020. Another novel, THE MANY MYSTERIES OF THE FINKEL FAMILY, is forthcoming in 2021.