A growing public visibility of autism has given rise to numerous books aimed at supporting family and friends of autistic children; yet, few books have been written directly for autistic children. It is surprising that children's literature has not been better used to help autistic children more positively understand autism. Elaine Marie Larson, a teacher and grandmother to a child with Asperger Syndrome, sought to fill this void with children's books of her own. I am Utterly Unique: Celebrating the Strengths of Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism (2006) highlights strengths of autistic children in an alphabet book, and The Kaleidoscope Kid: Focusing on the Strengths of Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism (2007) explores autism through short poems. These books remind children of their strengths, and Larson also raises concerns for the autistic community about how autism is represented and how autistic children may respond. Six years later, autistic self-advocate Landon Bryce published I Love Being My Own Autistic Self: A thAutoons Book (2012), reflecting a growing understanding of diversity within the autistic spectrum. Larson and Bryce reveal the complexity of representing children with autism, and their literary representations raise questions about characteristics of autism, the narrator's point of view, and the author's positionality.
Books for children with autism can indelibly shape how children define their autism and identity. Larson translates the DSM diagnostic criteria to simplified language that children can comprehend. She integrates autism into these children's books with the intention of "focusing" and "celebrating" autism's strengths. Both stories share similar characteristics, describing how autistic children are "detail-oriented", "truthful," and have a "busy brain" (The Kaleidoscope Kid 17, 1; I am Utterly Unique letters B, T, D). These traits align with aspects of autism diagnoses, for Larson strives to connect with autistic readers by highlighting "symptoms" (or, personality traits) so that children can recognize and relate to their diagnoses. At the same time, this reliance on medical symptoms can be problematic in its narrow portrayal of autism.
For example, calling autistic children "animal lovers" hints at the larger controversy about autism and non-human beings (I am Utterly Unique letter A). Influential representatives of the autism community such as Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince have acknowledged similarities between autistic people and animals; nonetheless, Larson's use of this phrase as characteristic of all autistic people reinforces an unqualified stereotype. She validates common prejudices about autism as intertwined with savant skills, claiming that autistic people have an "eXtra eXtra large memory" and a "Vivid Vocabulary" (I am Utterly Unique letters X, V). This portrayal may confuse and distress autistic individuals who are not savants and especially alienate those with intellectual disabilities, leading them to question how they can be autistic without any extraordinary superpowers.
Bryce's book, on the other hand, introduces the reader to an entire cast of people with autism. He seems to recognize that singular, stereotypical illustrations might make autistic individuals feel as though there are traits they must embody if they are truly autistic. He highlights autism as a "disability" and a "difference" and explores the good and the bad of autism, and this holistic representation more realistically portrays autism as part, but not an all-consuming aspect, of an individual's identity (Bryce 1). Bryce not only engages the reader with numerous characters like Vector, Ramikin, and Marko (who are respectively diagnosed with PDD-NOS, Asperger's Syndrome, and Kanner's autism); he also illuminates other aspects of their lifestyles such as Vector's long walks and Ramikin's phone calls.
Narration and structure function differently in Larson's and Bryce's books. Larson's alphabet book and poem collection dedicate a letter or poem to various facets of autism. As compilations of autistic characteristics rather than cohesive narratives, Larson's books omit story elements such as plot or conflict. There are no characters — only "I." Since the first person tense is not tied to a specific character but to the autistic reader, she invites generalization about autistic individuals that obscures the broad spectrum of autistic characteristics in different people. Larson does, however, highlight the individuality of autistic people with the alphabet book title "I am Utterly Unique." This title emphasizes that amidst the other alphabet characteristics, individuality is a fundamental trait of all autistic people, just as with non-autistic people. Larson boldly declares, "I'm me. / I'll always be/ the best at/ what I'm best at, / which is being/ Excellent Me!" (The Kaleidoscope Kid 29). First person promotes self-assurance in the autistic reader, but it also reinforces assumptions by collectively addressing a diverse body of readers.
Conversely, Bryce creates a world of thAutoons, colorful cartoon characters that liberate him from pinning autistic characteristics on the autistic reader. These characters are brought to life from a first-person and third-person point-of-view through three different layers: third person narration, first-person speech bubbles, and first-person thought bubbles. While Bryce's narration is primarily in the objective third-person, his speech and thought bubbles expose new dimensions by communicating intimate characters to the reader. This intertextuality entrusts the reader with insight into the minds of different characters, empowering thAutoons to resonate with autistic readers.
While resisting autistic stereotypes, Bryce negatively depicts neurotypicals by overlooking their sometimes diverse perspectives about autism. This portrayal impairs his own advocacy for autistic diversity and reinforces stereotypes of neurotypical misunderstanding. Although he is careful to include the clarifying term "some," all neurotypical characters in Bryce's book have flawed perspectives on autism. From Vector's friend Pang (who does not understand stimming) to his sister Manta (who hates his autism) to Dr. Chip (who is trying to prevent his existence), prominent neurotypical people in Vector's life are evenly ignorant individuals. As a neurotypical who is actively interested in the neurodiversity movement, I was disappointed by this portrayal of neurotypicals. It makes sense that representing neurotypical allies may be outside the scope of a book primarily targeting autistic readers, and this negativity certainly bares truth in many challenges faced by the autism community, but it fails to acknowledge growing neurotypical awareness and support.
These children's books reflect a need to further consider how literary representations of autism can influence readers, especially children with autism who have yet to understand their conditions. There may not be an ideal way to represent autism in this nuanced genre of children's literature. Nevertheless, recognizing the implications of existing books will pave the way for further conversation and more literary representation in the future.