It has only been recently (at 7 and a half) that my son has begun to notice that he is different from other kids. He is noticing that he goes on breaks at school and other kids don’t and wants to know why. The best answer to that has come from him, “to get my energy out.” Though I don’t remember what my answer was, I am sure it was a more long winded form of the same idea. Wondering if he is concerned about being different, I asked if he was interested in not going on breaks anymore and thankfully his reply was no. He loves his breaks and really needs them and I’m glad he instinctively knows this.
We have talked about autism and aspergers in the past, but he hasn’t had a real depth of interest until now. As a librarian, my first response to help him understand is to turn to books. I got as many books as I could from the library and have been reading them to him. I have been surprised how much he has enjoyed reading them and being able to see a little of himself in them.
Our favorite has been, Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome by Clarabelle van Niekerk (a special needs educator). Of all the books, it is the one with the most developed story as it is a fiction picture book. It really develops the main character as a fun, lovable kid with talents who also has some differences. There is a lot of traits to talk about while reading the book and my son loved being able to see some of himself in Sam, the main character. It delivers the message that “working together to understand Sam will make will make life easier for him and everyone else.” It also ends with Sam being very successful and sharing his talent for music with his school.
Autistic Planet by Jennifer Elder (parent of an autistic child) was not my favorite at first because it is written in a kind of hypothetical style and I wasn’t sure if, since autistics can be quite literal, that my son would understand it. He did, however, and enjoyed the book and it is his second favorite. It is the story of an autistic girl who makes a clay planet and when asked by a classmate if it was the moon she replies, “This is the planet where I’m from.” She then describes what things are like on her planet: things are always on time, people use rocking chairs, fixate on a task, play chess or music, have sensitivities to food and textures, and repeat words. When her friends asks if it is real, she replies, ” It’s how I feel.” It ends with a message of acceptance from her classmate.
Another that I really appreciated is, I am utterly unique : celebrating the strengths of children with asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism by Elaine Marie Larson (grandparent of an autistic child). It is an alphabet book that goes through each letter declaring the many strengths of those on the spectrum. I love the focus on the positive. It is filled with lots of large words that required explanation to my son, but since he loves learning about words and we were discussing how each thing was the same or different from him, it was just one more thing to add to the discussion. It is not one of my son’s favorites because it doesn’t have a storyline, but a very nice book to remind us of all the positive traits.
Amazingly… Alphie : Understanding and Accepting Different Ways of Being by Roz Espin (parent of an autistic child) is another book I wasn’t sure if my son would understand because of its allegorical style, but again, he did understand it and enjoyed it. There are several computers that just do not work like the rest; they are different. Most of the people in the book don’t understand these different computers. In the end there is a human, Chris, who is also different, who is finally able to figure out what the different computers are good at and how to make them work. In a letter to the readers at the end of the book, Chris talks about how he felt different growing up. It describes how his brain was “wired” differently and that his brain had a hard time understanding what is or isn’t socially appropriate, but is really good at other things. It never specifically mentions aspergers, but just explains it as different ways of being. This book could also be used to encourage acceptance of other disabilities as well as it talks about, as it subtitle says, “Understanding and Accepting Different Ways of Being.”
This is Asperger Syndrome by Elisa Gagnon (an autism specialist) describes a different trait of its main character on each page and ends each page with “This is Asperger Syndrome.” My son didn’t really understand the concept of a sydrome, so we just said this is aspergers. It puts all of the traits into a descriptive scenario, so kids can relate the way the act to specific situations. Being in black and white, it is not as visually appealing as some of the other books, but it certainly provided lost of opportunity to discuss which traits were similar to my son and which were not since there is not only one way that aspergers affects people; aspies are all affected differently.
What it is to be Me! An Asperger Kid Book by Angela Wine (parent of 2 autistic children) is a nicely balance book with positive traits and their corresponding difficulties described alternately. For example on one page it talks about having “superhero” senses, but on the next page it talks about those same sounds can hurt or scare. It is a short book that would be especially appropriate for younger children. It ends with the message that what makes those with aspergers different also makes them “cool” and to have pride in being themselves.
A chapter book, Adam’s alternative sports day : an Asperger story by Jude Welton (child psychologist and parent of an autistic child) was a fun read. Because it is a longer story, we didn’t stop along the way to talk about various traits, but they were definitely identifiable throughout the story. The main character, Adam, who has aspergers, dreads the annual sports day at his school because he is not particularly athletic. This year the principal changes sports day to an alternative sports day where the students participate in a variety of challenges such as hieroglyphs, math, riddles and puzzles. Throughout the challenges, Adam’s strengths and weaknesses show. Learning how to get along with others and how to loose and be a good sport are two of the messages throughout the book. There are two different endings, but each are positive in its own way. It was fun to watch my son try to solve the challenges along with the characters in the book even though they were a bit advanced for him and to see him be so excited when Adam succeeded.
It was harder to find books written by autistic people available through the libraries as they are mostly self published, but I did manage to get my hands on two: It’s Good To Be Different! by Michele Danae Stedman and My Name is Emily I am Ten and I have Aspergers Syndrome An Autobiography Typed By My Mom by Mary Restivo and Emily Margaret.
It’s Good To Be Different is a simple book that explains what life was like for a girl with aspergers as she was growing up. She spoke late, read early, isn’t good at being social. She talks honestly about some of the traits she has like flapping and a funny stare that people notice. She shares her love for animals and her sister and mother who help her and ends with “It’s good to be different! Everybody is different in some way. If I wasn’t different I wouldn’t be me!”
My Name is Emily I am Ten and I have Aspergers Syndrome An Autobiography Typed By My Mom is as she says “a little all over the place, but you have to understand people with Asperger’s to know that’s how we talk.” She talks about how she experiences emotions; she is never mad, but is often sad and shuts down. She talks about things that are hard for her like noises, not having her things around her and paying attention. She talks about her sister, her grandma, her aunt and a few of her friends who have all played special roles in her life. She talks about things she likes and dislikes and things she has done. There are also lots of pictures. It is a great book to show kids with aspergers that there are other kids with similar challenges as theirs, but that they are also unique. It is long, however, so not really readable in one sitting. I hope I can use this book to encourage my son to write about himself someday.
We also have been reading several books about handling meltdowns since that has been an issue for us lately.
When My Autism Gets Too Big! A Relaxation Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Kari Dunn Buron (an autism specialist) is a workbook that uses a five point scale to identify whether emotions are calm “1” or “way too big” “5”. Since this is a scale that a lot of schools use, it can be familiar to kids. Because it is a workbook, it gives the readers time to reflect on what they are good at, what makes them calm and what makes them upset. It gives a few practical tips on what to do when emotions get too big like, squeezing your hands together, breathing deeply, thinking happy thoughts or going for a walk or to a safe place. My son has been taught all these things, but we are still at the point where it is challenging to really get him to implement them before or after his emotions get high. It is an important foundation to lay nonetheless.
The Chameleon Kid: Controlling Meltdown Before He Controls You by Elaine Marie Larson (grandparent of an autistic child) was confusing to me. It has a meltdown monster that kids are encouraged to chase away. It uses lots of idioms and explains them such as “save the day,” “true colors show,” and “have a cow.” Many of the idioms are ones I rarely hear, such as “cook his goose” “no dice” or “stay out of the pot.” Any useful tips for actually chasing the meltdown away have to be inferred from the pictures and include simple things like listening to headphones, taking a walk, pushing hands together, playing with a favorite toy, writing or drawing. It is unclear in many of the pictures what the kid is doing to help them chase the meltdown monster away. There is a list at the end of the book with other ideas, but it is not a part of the story. The refrain, ” Be A Chameleon Kid,” is also not explained in the story, but only in a note to readers at the beginning of the book. It explains it as changing your mood to adapt to different situations as a chameleon changes colors. I am not sure my son really understood what that meant. So, while useful in teaching idioms, I did not find it very useful in dealing with meltdowns.
The Red Beast: Controlling Anger in Children with Asperger’s Syndrome by K.I. Al-Ghani (mother of an autistic child and special education teacher) is the story of a boy who gets angry because he was hit by a ball on the playground. His anger grows into a “Red Beast.” The child looses control and is taken to a quiet place where he uses a stress ball to shrink the beast. Once he is more calm, he is given choices of some other calming activities. Once even more calm he is able to return to class and apologize to his friend for hitting him. The friend congratulates him for taming the “Red Beast” It was a nice story that my son enjoyed. It was not critical of the child for loosing control and lists other strategies for parents at the end to help avoid meltdowns, use minimal language during meltdowns, have a safe place a child can to, replenish blood sugars, give physical jobs and other tools that may help a child calm. While my son enjoyed the story, it is too hard for him to transfer what is read to him in a book to real life situations. The book’s real value seems to be in validating to the child that it is ok that they have meltdowns and to remind parents of a variety of techniques to use; now if only I can remember them in the heat of the moment too…
If you have any other books you have read with your kid(s), please share them in the comments.