Blogger Chelsey Roos

In Search of Autistic Representation in Children’s Literature

Try this when you’ve got a spare ten minutes: open up your library’s catalog and search for “autism.” Imagine that you are autistic (if you aren’t), and you’re looking for books about people like you. What kind of books do you see? How easy is it for you to find positive autistic representation in your library?

You might see a lot of nonfiction, and a lot of books for parents, but what about books for autistic children? Is it hard to find fiction with an autistic protagonist? While you look at the titles and descriptions, imagine how these books might make you feel about yourself. Would you feel seen, or overlooked? Supported, or misunderstood? Would you feel loved and valued, or like a burden or a problem? Unfortunately, you may have a very hard time finding positive representations of autistic characters. How can we improve our collections? Let’s look at some questions to ask when you’re evaluating your collection for positive autistic representation.

Questions to Ask about Autistic Representation

Whose point of view is the story from?

First, look to see how many books in your collection feature an autistic main character. Many books that claim to tell autistic stories are actually from the perspective of the parent or sibling of an autistic child. Often, these books contain storylines about how difficult it is to have an autistic sibling or child. Sometimes, they focus solely on how disappointing or upsetting the other characters find the autistic character to be. Can you imagine how that would feel to read as an autistic person?

Not all stories from a family member’s perspective are negative, and there is a place for them in the collection. However, they aren’t what we’re looking for right now. We want stories with an autistic main character, where the autistic character’s perspective is emphasized, and their thoughts and actions are portrayed as understandable and reasonable. Author’s notes, forewords, and afterwords often give you a clue about who the book is truly written for. 

Is the character explicitly autistic?

Many books with autistic characters shy away from labeling their characters outright. There can be compelling reasons for this, but it leaves an autistic reader guessing as to whether they will find themselves reflected in the book. In your collection, do you have books that use the word autistic explicitly in the story, or is it only used in the blurb, author’s note, or subject headings? If the autistic character is only described using words like odd, different, or special, then this isn’t the explicit representation we’re looking for.

Are the autistic characters diverse?

Info graphic on 4 areas to evaluate for autism diversity: race and religion, gender and sexuality, economic status, and other disabilities.
Unfortunately, this level of diversity is closer to a wish list than a reality in publishing today.

When it comes to autism, people of color and girls are severely under-diagnosed when compared to their white male peers. This means they get less support and fewer academic accommodations. Historically, this bias has also been reflected in children’s literature, where the majority of autistic characters are white, middle class boys.

When I surveyed over 100 children’s books with an autistic character, fewer than 10 characters were non-white. The representation is a bit more evenly divided between girls and boys, but boys are still more heavily represented. It’s even rarer to find a positive autistic representation of an LGBTQ+ character, or a character with an additional disability.

Some fantastic diverse books featuring characters that can be read as autistic include Thunder and the Noise Storms, by Cree authors Jeffery and Shezza Ansloos (featuring Native main characters), My Rainbow, by Trinity and DeShanna Neal (featuring a Black and transgender main character), and Talking Is Not My Thing, by Rose Robbins (featuring a non-speaking main character).

Is the autistic character a stereotype?

Unfortunately, some books featuring autistic characters trade in stereotypes. Not all autistic people love math and dates, trains and space. Not all autistic people are savant-like. One very harmful stereotype is that autistic people are somehow unempathetic, or unloving. But these are some of the common stereotypes we see about autistic people in the media.

The reality is that autistic people are all different. Autistic people have different interests, different areas of socializing that they find difficult, and different ways to express their love and concern. It’s not that there’s no place in the collection for books about autistics who memorize dates or know all about space – the problem is when this is the only kind of representation available.

Does your collection include autistic authors?

The majority of books written about autistic characters are not written by autistic authors.  It is much more common for an author to be a parent of an autistic child, a children’s therapist of some kind, or a special education teacher. It isn’t that these books are necessarily bad, but we also need books from autistic voices.

Of course, you may not know whether a specific author is autistic. They may prefer not to say, they may fear discrimination, or they may not be professionally diagnosed. This is perfectly valid and does not mean that there’s anything wrong with the book. However, you can check to see if your collection includes any publicly identified autistic authors. Samantha Cotterill, Sarah Kapit, Lyn Miller-Lachman, Jennifer Malia, Elle McNicoll, Trinity Neal, Nicole Panteleakos, Sally J. Pla,  Libby Scott, and Susan Vaught are all authors who publicly identify as autistic.

4 books by authors who are actually autistic: It Was Supposed to Be Sunny, I Am Odd I Am New, My Rainbow, and The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family

Is the autistic character reduced to a burden, a tragedy, or an inspiration?

Many children’s books about autism actually only include a secondary character who is autistic. Often, that character is a burden to the main character, or (just as bad) the autistic character is meant to be a source of inspiration to the main character. Both of these narratives are troubling, especially if it is the only kind of representation in a collection. Autistic characters should get to be happy on their own terms. They should get to ride dragons, go to magic school, and time travel, just like all our favorite allistic characters. Autistic people do not exist to teach a very special lesson.

One More Look at Your Collection

Take another look at the books in your collection. See where the gaps in representation are. Walk through your library. Are any books featuring autistic characters on display? Put one face out. Check one out to read yourself. Most importantly, remember that all autistic people are different, with different reading interests. Your collection can be as beautifully varied as the children who use it.

Blogger Chelsey Roos

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for the Santa Clara County Library. All images in this post were created by the author using Canva.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, and IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials

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