Half-baked ideas: A Meditation on Autism and a Little Bit on Children’s Books

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(Image courtesy California Lightworks)


There are books—there is art of all kinds, really—in which it seems that the person creating does not see the limits the rest of us see. The writer will have the child party with the monsters or walk through the back of the metaphorical wardrobe or let the pigeon drive the bus. (Yeah, that's right, they're examples and metaphors, baby.)

For a long time, I have watched someone close to me move through the world bearing with her the clanky burden of her autism, at least that's how I have seen it. It's part of her, and it makes so many things more difficult. What for me is easy—trying on shoes in a store, making small talk with a neighbor (OK, that can be brutal but I can still do it), staying through to the end of dinner. When social cues, and rules, and reality don't register in your vision, it's like missing a spectrum of light: you bump into things you didn't even see were there.

But. Here is the thing. While missing that whole spectrum of light makes things like, say, trying on shoes in a store, difficult, that wavelength, those social constructs, those invisible ties that they rest of us can see and negotiate, are also boundaries. And we see them and instinctively avoid them, duck them, go around them—we don't press against them, because we can see something there.

So: I'm thinking that there is a reason that being on the autism spectrum is so often associated with people who have broken through artistic and scientific walls—because those social constructs the rest of us happily, freely negotiate are those barriers. Social constructs are the box in the "think outside the box." That Edison and Turing and Austen—all rumored to have autism, though who the hell knows—blew the world away is because of their autism, not in spite of it. That the ability to block out social expectations and constructs is a superpower of sorts, not only the clanking burden that it is in shoe stores and restaurants but a turbo-powered engine that can blast people through beyond what anyone expected or envisioned.

I have been thinking about this a long time; I read Neurotribes by Steven Silberman, which I highly recommend. I am thinking about it all still.

How Magic Works*

We are still on some poor publicist's list of "hey, blogs might help marketing books!" list from 2008, and so we get a steady drip drip drip of books that…I would not have predicted we would get. A lot of them seem to be from a Christian imprint within HarperCollins, though that only shows up on the box? More copies than I can quite believe of Stick Dog, Stick Cat, Stick Whatever. The occasional adorable picture book. And, quite recently, this:

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And, on the same day, this:

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As happens nowadays, Chestnut read them both pretty much before I had my coat off. And then, she wanted me to read them. "Read them both," she said. "Together. They're kind of about the same thing, they're both about anxiety."

Well, we here at The Diamond in the Window know a thing or two about anxiety. So I promised.

But first I had to finish rereading a few other books, coincidentally also about anxiety (IT and The Handmaid's Tale), and then there was some stuff to take care of, and then I was busy—.

"READ THEM," Chestnut said. So I did.

And here's the weird thing. They are both about anxiety, at least a bit. They are both about a friendship between two girls. They are both about important summers. But even with all that, they are very different books—Bad Ideas is funny and romantic and silly, while Swing Sideways is more sad and dramatic. (Warning to those it may be an issue before: Swing Sideways also contains cancer and death.)

But the strangest thing about reading two different books so close together is that you get an up close and personal view of the weird magic that is reading. Because for me, the heroine of The Summer of Bad Ideas came to life—easily, clearly, no matter what was going on in the book. When she saw the cute boy, he seemed cute. When she got confused and overwhelmed, I felt it. I was there with her in that instantaneous and (sorry) magical way that books can make happen. And when I was reading You Make My Heart Swing Sideways—it didn't work that way.

Why is that? Is it the writing? The story? Is it even true for all readers? Probably not. But it was inescapable, and it made me think about it all over again—something I already think about quite a bit. Why does some fiction, why do some characters, spring to living breathing reality, making the words disappear and a new world open up and let you in? How exactly does that work?

I am not sure. But I would tell you, if you're looking for something for someone who is looking for a book to read, something fun and silly but also sweet and nerdy, you might consider getting that person The Summer of Bad Ideas—especially if that person happened to be a bit nervous about snakes, for instance (like myself). And in a small and interesting side note, there is a brief brush on special needs kids, and selective mutism, which is kind of great, I think.

And bear in mind that the greatest book on anxiety ever is, and always will be, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Just so you know.

 

*I don't actually know how magic works.

Do It Yourself, or Books for Kids Scared of Halloween (or Both!)

Once upon a time, a long long time ago (OK, about nine years) there was a little girl named Chestnut (OK, that's an alias) and she was terrified of Halloween. The candy aisle. The kids with pumpkin carriers. Worst of all, the giant, wheezing blow-up monsters hovering outside peoples houses (also, if it was around, the Scab-Busting Rat, though he's not specifically Halloween-related).

Whenever we passed any of these things anywhere (for some reason CVS's display was the most terrifying), she would more or less melt, and would need to be carried out, sobbing.

It was great!

Anyway, none of this seems at all relevant anymore. Now she is scared of not passing Mandarin. And maybe also scared of the spooky specter of applying to college. And, you know, climate change. However! When I saw this excellent post, I remembered that as long as there are kids and Halloween, someone, somewhere will be crying. And that having a book about it would have been oh so helpful. Oh, if only!

This is such an excellent idea, and so fun and silly, and I wish I could read it to 5-year-old Chestnut, but alas that time has passed. But perhaps for you, or someone you know, it has not passed. If so, how excellent! You can make a book yourself! Or get this one that she made! Or just write something down on regular paper, and then eat some candy corn! No matter how it works out, it seems it's a win.

I wish you all a totally un-scary halloween that still involves candy corn in some way.

Thank You, Alex Rider

So there's this guy I know. He's a nice guy. He's 10. He's good at building things, great at figuring out how things work, not such a champ at reading.

It was really a drag for a while. The letters didn't make sense to him as sounds. The pieces never melted together into meaning—not easily. He got by, as people do, with context and faking and hating reading. Then he met this other guy:

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Now? He likes reading. For real.

And it's not just confined to Alex Rider books either. When he ran out of those, he found something else, and liked it. It doesn't have to be a technical manual anymore, or a book with lots of pictures and barely any text.

The best analogy I can come up with is if you weren't so into eating, and then someone gave you chocolate, and you figured, "Hey—if this is around, I shouldn't give up on chocolate all together."

It's true that it's not just Alex Rider that changed things. He's been getting reading help. And he's growing up and getting older. And something was going to break through one way or another.

But really? While I know all that, all I can think is: Thank you, Alex Rider. You are a gateway drug in the best possible sense.

We Recommend: Fantasy for 14-Year-Old Aspie Girl? NO ROMANCE!

It's We Recommend! So here's how it works: a person writes in with a request for a book for someone, and we, who used to be believe we had superpowers in this area but have since been humbled, try to find the perfect choice. Need a recommendation? Tell us the age of the reader, likes and dislikes, and anything else you think we might need to know. You can write to us at thediamondinthewindow (at) gmail (dot) com. Here's the key: the best suggestions are in the comments.

OK, people, I've got one you can really sink your teeth into. Which actually sounds much creepier than I meant it, but I am tired so I am leaving it there. Here we go:

I insist on buying all my nieces and nephews books for Christmas & birthdays every year, and I put in a lot of effort to pick things I think they'll like.

Lately I've been striking out with my 14-year-old niece though. She's very smart, reads at a good level, but I am having trouble picking books for her. She hasn't been officially diagnosed but fits the Asperger's profile. She doesn't have any friends, nor really mind that too much. She really likes fantasy books – primarily with talking animals or magic. She is NOT into romance etc, since she's really not into that in real life either. So most YA novels which end up with a girl getting some guy are not really her cup of tea. So, she's mature in her reading ability but not in her content capability. I've broached the subject of classic literature – given its tendency away from hot & heavy scenes – but she has given me a flat "not interested." I do like to get her books with female protagonists just as a role-model/aspirational type of thing. She also doesn't like anything scary or too gritty — books are her place to escape. Google searching suggestions for "books for girls with Asperger's" just brings me books ABOUT girls with Asperger's.

Would love any help!

Well. Fantasy, but not too scary. Grown up, but no romance. Solitary, but welcoming. This is a girl after my own heart.

So I read this out loud on the couch, and Strider said "Discworld!" which makes a lot of sense. But. But!

I knew I had to ask Diana. Because I had a hunch she would just KNOW.

And I think she really did. Ta da!

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Bonus: Down the road (it's the first in a series), one of the books follows a boy who is autistic. But truthfully, it doesn't matter who you are or what you read, per Diana: this series is awesome. AND, she notes, romance is delayed till later on in the series (phew!). And even then, she says, it's not so bad.

But the truth is: this is all Diana. I am following (and trusting) in her eminently good path. But what I'm really excited for? Are your suggestions in the comments. Think of it! There's a solitary 14-year-old girl who needs something great to read! To arms!