Sunday, July 29, 2007

Autistic Planet

I've been reading lots of wonderful posts lately about Jennifer Elder's new children's book, Autistic Planet. Estee has good things to say; so do Kyra and Gretchen. Here's my take.

Autistic Planet is a picture book geared to children 6-10. In it, a little girl with autism makes a sphere out of clay and tells her friend that she has made "the planet where I'm from." She goes on to describe what makes her "planet" different:

People work in offices, where
Every seat's a rocking chair

We don't do something one time, when...
We can do it over and over again!

In brief rhyming couplets, the book addresses a full range of issues that are instantly familiar to those familiar with autism: sensory integration, limited food preferences, echolalia, hand flapping. But because these quick references seem to presuppose a familiarity with autism, I found myself wondering about the book's target audience. According to the dust-cover flap, "this book will be much loved by children, particularly those on the autism spectrum." I only have Bud as a point of reference, so I'm not sure how other children on the spectrum would react, but I think that in order for the book to resonate with Bud, he would need to recognize himself in its pages, which would require that he 1) recognize that he does many of the things in the book (uses echolalia, flaps his hands when he's excited, etc.), and 2) recognize that most of his peers do not do these things.

I may be wrong - I could certainly be wrong - but I don't think it has occurred to Bud that either is the case. I imagine that this level of self-reflection, self-assessment, and comparison with others is in Bud's developmental future somewhere, and that Autistic Planet could provide some of the fuel to get that process in motion - but I'm just not sure that Bud needs me to hurry him along to try to get him there. But, then, I also imagine that by the time he gets there on his own he may consider himself "too old" for rhyming picture books like Autistic Planet.

I thought, too, about Bud's neurotypical peers, and about whether or not this book could help them understand Bud a little better. I think that it could, if it were used well - but only if it were used well. Those of us who understand the many ways that autism manifests can quickly recognize that "And at the end of every day, we flap our hands and fly away" is a sweet reference to self-stimulatory behavior. But I don't think that Bud's friend Kelly, who is familiar with Bud, but not familiar with autism per se, would be able to make much sense of it on her own. On the other hand, I think it would provide a great jumping-off point for a conversation guided by a knowledgeable teacher or parent who wanted to help her understand, and who could fill in the blanks to help her to make meaning of it.

Ultimately, I think that's my overall assessment of Autistic Planet: it is a rich tool and a wonderful conversation-starter that could be helpful for children both on and off the spectrum. It exudes warmth and humor and it frames autism as a difference instead of as a disability. But for it to be most effective - for its warmth, humor and philosophy to really make a difference - it should not be a book that sits on the bookshelf in hopes of being stumbled upon; instead, it's a book that begs to be used intentionally, to be built into a curriculum, and to be presented thoughtfully, in the right way and at the right time, by older, more experienced guides.


kyra said...

yes. exactly. which is why it works for fluffy since this sort of reflection is something he does. but that's not necessarily typical for a kid his age.

he doesn't flap his hands or identify with lots in the book but it's a place from which we can step off and talk. hopefully others will use it in a similar way, that is, if they're clear about who they're reading WITH.

mcewen said...

Both of mine have a variety of tics that come and go, but neither of them are aware that they're doing it.

I also don't think that they would necessarily 'notice' someone else's.

Still it sounds like it's a good start [the book] and at least it's positive.
Nice to hear from you again.

Anonymous said...

In my case, my Aspie dd is overly self-aware and laments constantly about "being different" from her peers. This will be good for her, no? Missy

MOM-NOS said...

Missy, I'd bet it would be great for her!

Daisy said...

In the hands of a good teacher or counselor, this book sounds like it could be worth its weight in gold. I agree that it should be a guided experience if used in a class or small group.

Drama Mama said...

We are at the stage where we are painfully aware of our differences; I'm betting it will be a reassuring conversation-starter.
At least we hope so. We'll see after the Amazon Man makes his drop!