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Embracing Diversity During Autism Acceptance Month

Happy Autism Acceptance Month! When you think of an autistic person*, who are you envisioning? Maybe Sheldon from Big Bang Theory? Or Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man? In popular culture, we tend to have a stereotype about who is autistic. That person is usually white, male, heterosexual, and cis-sexual, but in reality, the autistic community is incredibly diverse! Take the time this Autism Acceptance Month and update your recommended reading lists, your displays, and your storytime selections to reflect all kinds of autistic experiences.

Who Is Seen As Autistic?

When we don’t know much about an experience, we often formulate our ideas off of what we see in the media – tv shows, movies, books, and even things like stock images help create who we think of when we think about autism. As youth advocates, we don’t want to succumb to stereotypes when it comes to autism.

Girls Can Be Autistic

Autism is often thought of as a neurotype found mainly in boys (at one point it was even theorized that autism was a form of “extreme masculinity” in the brain!), but research is showing us this isn’t the case. Boys are simply more likely to be referred in for an autism evaluation – ten times more likely, according to UCLA. According to recent research, 80% of autistic girls and women are not diagnosed until after age 18. This is important for us as youth library staff to know, because it means that the majority of autistic girls we serve will not know they are autistic. They will still need support and accommodations from us, but their caregivers may not even realize that they can benefit from a program like sensory storytime, or books featuring autistic characters.

People of Color Can Be Autistic

In most of our books and movies and tv shows, autistic characters are depicted as white. However, this doesn’t reflect reality – people of color are just as likely to be autistic as anyone else. Autistics of color also face difficulties in getting a diagnosis, just as autistic girls and women do. White children are 19% more likely to get a diagnosis than black children, and 65% more likely than Latinx children. Once again, this is important to us as library staff. Families of color may not realize that they can benefit from the programs and accommodations we can offer. When we advertise a sensory storytime as designed for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent children, we may be missing BIPOC families who really need our support, but don’t yet realize they belong to the autistic community. When we are choosing books to recommend, we may leave out options with autistic characters, because we may unconsciously believe these books aren’t relevant to our BIPOC families.

The LGBTQIA+ Community Can Be Autistic

Many people don’t even think about sexuality and gender when it comes to autism, but in actuality, there is a very large overlap between the LGBTQIA+ community and the autistic community. 70% of the autistic community identifies as non-heterosexual. And while only about 5% of the allistic (non-autistic) community identifies as gender diverse, 24% of the autistic community identifies as gender diverse, or trans. In our library work, we want to be thinking: are our Pride events accessible to our autistic families? When we’re choosing books for sensory storytime are we including LGBTQIA+ representation? What about when we visit autism preschools or special education classrooms – are the books we’re bringing representing all kinds of gender identities and family structures?

Great Books with Diverse Autistic Representation

With all this in mind, it can be a challenge to find truly diverse, enthusiastic representation to use in children’s literature. Publishing, as we know, prioritizes white, straight voices. Additionally, some identities are particularly difficult to find – there are a handful of black autistic characters in children’s literature, but I’ve yet to find positive depictions of Latinx autistic characters. Queer autistic characters are most often either girls, or nonbinary, but rarely boys. As we continue to support diverse autistic stories, hopefully more will be published.

Use the books below as a starting point. Go through the following lists and start working on a diversity audit to see where there might be gaps in your collection. Be sure to update your:

  1. Recommendations for Autism in Children’s Literature, whether they are online, on paper, or both
  2. Books for Sensory Storytime
  3. Books for regular storytimes
  4. Displays for Autism Acceptance Month
  5. Prepared book talks for class visits

Children’s Literature featuring BIPOC Autistic Characters

Covers of the five books described below featuring autistic BIPOC representation
  • The Infinite, by Patience Agbabi. Elle, who is black, is a Leapling, meaning that she was born on Leap Day and has the ability to leap through time. This is book one in an adventurous middle grade series, featuring multiple autistic characters, including Elle.
  • Thunder and the Noise Storms, by Jeffrey and Shezza Ansloos, and illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley. Written by Cree authors, this picture book follows Thunder, who reads as autistic, learning strategies to deal with the overwhelm he feels in school throughout the day by connecting with nature and his grandfather.
  • It Was Supposed to Be Sunny, written and illustrated by Samantha Cotterill. Laila, who is depicted as black, is struggling to cope with a change of plans when rain threatens her party. This is part of the Little Senses series of picture books, created by Cotterill, who is autistic.
  • How are you, Verity?, by Meghan Wilson Duff, and illustrated by Taylor Barron. In this picture book, Verity explores the different things people in her neighborhood might mean when they ask, “How are you?” As a bonus, Verity is also a nonbinary character, in addition to being brown-skinned.
  • A Day with No Words, by Tiffany Hammond, and illustrated by Kate Cosgrove. This picture book shows a black mother and son happily moving through their day, while communicating with their AAC devices.

Children’s Literature featuring Autistic Characters on the LGBTQIA+ Spectrum

Covers of the five books described below featuring autistic and LGBTQIA+ representation.
  • Dear Mothman, by Robin Gow. This upper middle grade title delivers a beautiful rendering of a young, trans autistic boy working through grief after the loss of his closest friend.
  • The Trouble with Robots, by Michelle Mohrweis. Autistic Evelyn and allistic Allie are opposites who must work together to save their robotics team in this middle grade novel. Evelyn is depicted as having crushes on both boys and girls.
  • My Rainbow, written by Trinity and DeShanna Neal, and illustrated by Art Twink. This rare picture book shows black Trinity looking for the perfect hair to make her feel like her best self, both as a transgirl and as someone with strong sensory needs.
  • Izzy at the End of the World, by K. A. Reynolds. In the face of an alien invasion, autistic Izzy is one of the few people left to fight back in this middle grade adventure novel, which also tackles issues of gender and sexuality.
  • Ellen Outside the Lines, by A.J. Sass. On a school trip to Spain, autistic Ellen begins to explore her nonbinary identity while also attempting to balance friendships old and new.

Diversity Does Not End Here

While gender, ethnicity, and LGBTQIA+ identities are all important parts of diversity, they are only a part. As we expand our collections for broader, more representative depictions of autism, we also need to consider other types of diversity. Diversity in speaking abilities – does the character communicate mostly by saying words with their mouth, by using ASL, or with an AAC device? Diversity in intellectual abilities – do we have books that represent autistic characters with all kinds of intellectual levels, and a variety of strengths? By curating a collection that truly represents all kinds of autistic people, we will have a strong tool to build connections with the autistic community.

* I write with what’s called “identity-affirming language,” meaning that I use “autistic person” instead of “person with autism.” This reflects the vast preference of the autistic community, as well as my own personal preference as an autistic adult. We can only reduce stigma around the word “autism” by being comfortable enough to say it.

Chelsey is a smiling, white librarian with short hair and glasses.

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey is an autistic children’s librarian for Santa Clara County Library. They have served on ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and currently serve on the Library to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee, and the Stonewall Young Adult Literature Award.  While images were created by the author using Canva, individual book cover images belong to the publishers.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client GroupIII. Programming Skills, and IV. Collection Knowledge and Management.

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