Autism is a developmental condition that impacts social interaction, imagination and communication in a child. Some children show a difference in development from birth, yet others hit all developmental milestones until 15 – 18 months. Parents begin to observe their children stop responding to their name and isolating themselves in their own world. Many children also have repetitive behaviours – they might line up objects compulsively, switch light switches on and off for long periods of time, etc.
At one point, researchers thought that there was one cause for autism. Right now, informed scientific opinions seem to have converged to say that this is a complex condition that can have several causes, genetic and environmental, that could differ from case to case. In short, we are still not sure what causes autism.
This is of concern given the huge numbers – CDC’s 2018 figures say that 1 in 59 children (1 in 37 boys/1 in 151 girls) are diagnosed with autism. Reliable data for India isn’t easily accessible but there is no reason to believe that we are that different from world averages.
A child with autism does not look different. Any differences are from behavior – eye contact is hard for many children on the spectrum because their bodies do not prioritize sensory inputs to filter out unimportant ones.
Imagine sitting in the middle of a major intersection and reading a book. There will be smells, noises, movement, need to watch out for traffic, etc., making it next to impossible to focus on your reading. In regular life, our sensory systems can tune out traffic noises on the road so that we focus on our work. A child with autism might feel something similar to sitting in the middle of that traffic intersection.
Not making eye contact is usually how a child or adult with autism regulates their visual senses in order to pay attention to what is being said. In a neurotypical world, we may equate someone looking away as a character flaw: that they aren’t being respectful or are not paying attention. It is often the reverse when autism is in the picture. Another way that people with autism attempt to manage sensory stimuli could be flapping their hands, humming, making sounds that echo in their heads, etc.
Skills that children usually learn may need to be specifically taught to kids on the autism spectrum, viz. responding to someone who is trying to talk to them, how close/far to stand from someone we have a conversation with, initiating a conversation, reading non-verbal gestures that also give clues, etc.
The term to use is ‘a child/adult on the autism spectrum’ or ‘a child with autism’. The person is put first versus focusing on the difference. Autism is a spectrum condition because it is a range of skills. Some skills might be neurotypical or gifted (sometimes) while others might require more work to master.
I equate it to a range of abilities I have – I might cook on an average level but be exceptional at my work. My ability to organize myself might be between excellent and average and my interest in parties might be between average and poor. In other words, life. For those with autism, these skills are at levels that hinder their routine functioning, making it a diagnosis.
The best approach to take is one that presumes competence. The fact that someone is not able to speak does not mean that they can’t think or express themselves in other ways. Where there are difficulties, children and adults with autism will require assistance. In other skills, they teach us. A person with autism finds it hard to lie, honesty is a way of life. When they like someone, they like them and accept them as they are. Won’t the world be a fantastic place if more of us were like that – that we say what we mean and mean what we say?
Inclusion in society comes with information and good intentions. How can we inform ourselves? There are many heavy, technical tomes one can read (if there is interest, there can be another list! :-D). Luckily, there are many fun books we can also get informed and entertained by – as adults and children.
Picture book recommendations on autism/with characters who are on the autism spectrum:
Magesh has difficulties with words. He gets upset when he is misunderstood. Does he get to take his cat along when he begins school?
This is unfortunately the only picture book I could find that was published in India. I guess that gives us a clue of the general levels of awareness around us?
Clumsy by Tulika books is often recommended but isn’t specific to autism. A good book on children who have motor issues, no question but not specific to autism.
You can buy the book here: Vibhuti Cat by Shikandin, Duckbill Publishers
Detailed, long, good as a guide to prepare a child/class, poignant, has differences and similarities. Looks at the condition in its entirety, strengths and differences. Adults will learn a lot as well.
You can buy the book here: All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome
3. All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer, Magination Press
An ‘autism stripe’ is identified in a strengths based approach by Zane’s mom, making him better and love himself again. Message: You won’t be you without all kinds of qualities. The book touches on how those with autism focus on literal meanings (e.g. float your boat), difficulties in conversing and sensory sensitivities with texture (paint) and sound.
You can buy the book here: All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism
A book that explains why children with autism behave in ways that they do. This is a great book for classrooms, homes and libraries in inclusive set ups. Or otherwise so that inclusion becomes an option!
You can buy the book here: Why is He Doing That?
Zak was obsessed with trains. That passed and now it is watches. He owns several and tells people everything about them. A book that shows the world from Zak’s viewpoint and gets us to understanding.
You can buy the book here: Uniquely Wired: A Story about Autism and its Gifts
Matthew isn’t sure if he wants a friend like Simon, until a trip to the fun fair changes his mind. A good one for children without Autism, showing them that friendship transcends wiring differences.
You can buy the book here: A Friend Like Simon
Ian’s sisters go for a walk and Ian wants to go along. The book talks of Ian with compassion and understanding from the point of his sibling. It talks of how he reacts to sensory inputs, how sometimes he makes them mad, et al. She was supposed to hold his hand and when she doesn’t, he runs off. Where could he be? A sister thinks like he might and finds him. Great for families living with autism as well as to others to understand children with autism.
You can buy the book here: Ian’s Walk
Callie and Charlie are twins. Charlie has autism and Callie talks about how they found out they were different. She talks about Charlie’s gifts – how he knows the names of every US President, how well he swims, how he loves their dog and plays the piano among other things. Holly is a mother of a child with autism and has written the book with her daughter. The book is notable in showing a family of color in addition to talking about how a doctor’s prediction of a child’s abilities does not always limit the child in life.
You can buy the book here: My Brother Charlie
9. The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin (Amazing Scientists) – by Julia Finley Muska, Innovation Press
Written in verse, the book chronicles the life of Dr. Temple Grandin, a scientist who was born with autism. A complete biography, an illustrated timeline and a note from Dr. Grandin are also included. A great book to talk about the many achievements of those with autism.
You can buy the book here: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin
Logan overhears his grandmother tell her friend about his autism. What follows is just-right detail on what it could look like and why.
You can buy the book here: Autism is ?
There is a saying in autism circles: when we know a child with autism, we know ONE child with autism. Books generalize in order to cover as much about the condition as possible. So, it isn’t necessary that every child on the autism spectrum has to have all of the difficulties described in books.
All children are different and this is true of children with autism too!
Bio: Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, passionate about children, books and inclusion. She consults with several schools as well as works with children on the autism spectrum one on one. She founded The Teachers Collective with a couple of teacher-friends, conducting several hands-on, fun workshops.