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Another view of Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

7 Aug

While I was nosing around looking at what other reviewers wrote about Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin, I came upon a review by Ulyyf “Connie” on Amazon reviews (http://tinyurl.com/256fekc) Connie raises a good point; books written by neurotypical people about people with autism run a huge risk of being inaccurate and/or insensitive to people with autism

Many authors who write characters with autism have some real life experience with  ASDs. Kathryn Erskine, author of Mockingbird, (http://wp.me/sYHNm-18) has a child with ASD and Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time taught students with ASD.  I think that  for those of us who  work and live with people on the spectrum, caution should be taken when reading anything written about ASDs or purporting to be from the point of view of an autistic character.  It is probably not a bad idea to keep in mind that even a book written by a person on the spectrum speaks only for that particular person and not for the whole population. In my experience, people with autism spectrum disorders, while sharing some common characteristics in widely varying degrees, come in all flavors and sizes–just like everyone else.

Connie brings up several interesting points in her review:

“Well, here’s my big problem. I’m concerned that people are going to read this book, they’re going to read that Dog in the Nighttime book, and they’re going to say “Autism, if it doesn’t make you like Rain Man or Susan in that BSC book then it makes you like those asocial losers”.

It is true that a new stereotype has emerged,  surrounding ASDs. Connie says it well. We do need to use caution and common sense and not paint all people with ASDs with one brush. In addition, I recommend having conversations regarding possible stereotypes and similarities.  If there is someone with aspergers in your life–ask if they agree with the portrayal of ASDs in a book.

“This book claims to be in the mind of an autistic boy. I say claims to be because, after reading the author’s website and watching her video on the book, I am certain that the author is not, herself, on the spectrum. So what this book really is a book about a NT trying to pretend to be realistically autistic enough to write a book from the perspective of an autistic boy. A daunting task to be sure, and I start to ask myself – why? Why aren’t there more books by autistic authors? It’s not that there are no autistic authors at all – off the top of my head I can count seven or eight, and I know there are many more. If anybody is qualified to say what life is like as an autistic individual, surely it’s somebody who actually knows? “

Connie has made me commit to reading more books written by authors on the spectrum.  Because I work with these students every day, I sincerely want to understand, as best I can. I found a nice list of autobiographical books and non-autobiographical books written by people on the spectrum (http://tinyurl.com/342q8eh) . I also found Lindsay’s blog to be really interesting and will be reading it regularly from now on.

I brought up a similar subject in another blog post  (http://wp.me/pYHNm-19) regarding straight writers writing from a GLBT point of view.   I hope that as more and more traditionally marginalized authors write from their own point of view that it will inform those of us who want to understand better.  I also will continue to read and enjoy books that are well-written, by anyone who chooses to tackle difficult topics and various points of view.

Connie also writes:

“In addition to the number of books that purport to be written from an autistic perspective, there are a number of books with main characters who – if you know what you’re looking at – are almost *certainly* autistic, but the word is never mentioned.
As a rule, this latter category of books tends to be better. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the focus is on the story rather than the message? “

I have often found the same thing to be true.  When my son was reading An Abundance of Katherines by John Green for his summer reading, he brought the book to me and told me I needed to read it because the kid in it looked like a kid with aspergers syndrome.  The book was engaging and interesting, in its own right, and the character of Colin is a multi-dimensional character, who also shows a lot of characteristics of a person on the spectrum. Connie mentions The Lemonade War by Jaqueline Davies and Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell out of the Tree by Lauren Tarshis as books which have characters who are probably on the spectrum, but with no mention of ASDs. in the books.  I’ve put both on my to-read list.

Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

3 Aug

Jason considers himself to be atypical, but in many ways, he is like a lot of kids his age.  The story is a fairly simple one with no unusual twists or amazing adventures, just (dare I say?) typical sixth grade confusion and social life and crushes. Jason, a sixth grade boy with aspergers syndrome, struggles in school to fit in and make friends. He enjoys writing and posting his stories on an internet writing site called Storyboard and makes a friend (possibly a girlfriend?) online. When his parents surprise him with a trip to the Storyboard convention, Jason must face his terror of meeting his online friend in person.  A secondary theme is his relationship with his mother, who is sad and confused by his autism. As they travel together to the convention she learns to depend on his strengths to help her cope with her own traveling anxieties.

As an adult reader, I didn’t find the storyline to be particularly exciting, though I can see that for preteen kids for whom just fitting in and making friends is the main dilemma in life; it might be a perfect book. For an engaging story with a main character with autism spectrum disorder, I enjoyed reading Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (http://wp.me/sYHNm-18) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon much more.

I did enjoy how the author attempted to capture the voice and thought processes of Jason.  This is the most interesting part of the book for me. As a teacher, I could see my students in many of the situations that caused Jason to behave in seemingly inexplicable ways. It was a good reminder to me that what I see on the surface does not give the whole picture. My students may not be thinking the same things that Jason is thinking in a given situation, but they are thinking something that is very logical to them and have perfectly explicable explanations for their behavior.

I would recommend this book for adults who work with or live with kids with aspergers syndrome and for all tween kids (on the spectrum and not.) I think it would be a great way for a parent or teacher to begin a conversation with a child about differences in thought processes and communication styles. It might give a child with aspergers the language to discuss their own thought processes by comparing and contrasting them with Jason’s.  I’d really enjoy a conversation with someone on the spectrum about the authenticity of Jason’s voice.  I’d like to ask: “Does this seem real to you?” and “Does this ring true to your experience?”

Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin is recommended for ages 9-12 and is published by Simon and Schuster. I particularly enjoyed the cover and page illustration on the hardcover edition, which cleverly depicted Jason’s thoughts.

The Demise of the Read-Aloud

21 Jul

I was having coffee last week with one of my favorite teachers and a dear friend., Ms. K.  We reminisced about the book “Walk Two Moons,” which she always reads at the beginning of the year because she likes how it teaches about empathy. I remembered the year that my son was in her class; he brought me the book and told me I just had to read it.  He not only loved the book, but he became an evangelist for it!

Ms. K lamented that, at her school, reading aloud is not a part of the current curriculum. The literacy program uses leveled readers and there is no place—or time for literature.  Ms. K is a tenured teacher with union backing and she just shrugs and says: “What are they going to do to me?”  She cuts into math instruction time in order to read aloud to her students every day. This is not the first time a teacher has told me that she has been told by administration that reading aloud to students in not useful or necessary.

When my kids were young, we had an elaborate reading ritual each night. My kids were spaced roughly two years apart and so we had a range of reading and comprehension levels. Typically, I began with my youngest two, reading a few board books that they had memorized and could “read” to me, then we’d move on to several picture books. Sometimes the older kids read to the younger ones.  As the younger kids drifted off my lap and played with toys on the floor at my feet, I gathered the older kids around and we’d read from chapter books.  We never seemed to be able to stop at one chapter and often, reading sessions lasted an hour or more. Sometimes I read and sometimes we took turns reading. In those years we read the Harry Potter books, The Secret Garden, His Dark Materials trilogy, The Little House books and many, many more books.  As each kid got to be about thirteen they would decide that they would rather read alone and gradually, our nightly gathering diminished in size until one day, it was gone.

Whenever other parents would ask me how I got such articulate kids, I told them how much we read together. Other factors came into play as well, I am sure, but I am convinced that my children’s success in school and life is largely due to those hours and hours we sat reading together and talking about books.

Research studies corroborate what I believe strongly about vocabulary and reading. Kids learn the majority of new and unusual words from reading. Struggling readers are at a disadvantage, because the vocabulary that they are able to decode is not as rich as they are capable of understanding. Children who are not fluent readers also read a great deal less than strong readers do. Reading aloud levels the playing field and makes interesting and varied vocabulary accessible to all students. According to Warick Elley “Vocabulary is the single best indicator of intellectual ability, and an accurate predictor of success at school.” (Elley, Warick. “New Vocabulary: How do Children Learn New Words?” Reading Forum NZ. June 1987, pp 2-4)  Elley’s article goes on to recount a study of vocabulary acquisition during read aloud, which shows convincingly that reading aloud and discussing new vocabulary is an effective way for children to learn new vocabulary.

I am very grateful to teach at a school where the needs of the child come before strict curriculum schedules, however, as an interventionist, I have limited time with students and the time I do have needs to be used as efficiently as possible. The regular classroom teachers have a lot more leeway. Although most teachers I know hate the way standardized testing dictates our teaching, we are nonetheless slaves to it. Our jobs depend on it. Not all schools dictate that teachers can’t do read aloud time, but many teachers just don’t have the time after meeting all the curriculum requirements.

Reading aloud is particularly important for kids who are at risk for academic failure.  Reading to children on the aspergers/autism spectrum, or with behavioral and emotional disorders gives parents a chance to discuss nuances of language and emotion in a non-threatening and non-personal manner. Exposure to idioms and figures of speech and discussion along the way is very helpful to kids who are literal thinkers. Children with reading disabilities typically can understand much higher levels of complexity in literature than they are able to decode on their own. Reading aloud gives them incentive to go to all the hard work of learning to read well—so that they too can read wonderful books. it is also much easier for a struggling reader to decode a familiar word or phrase. Continual exposure to dry leveled readers that are developmentally and thematically immature, with no exposure to rich language, theme and plot would discourage reading in anyone! Kids with ADHD need one-on-one reading time, which allows for movement breaks. Reading high interest books to kids with attention deficit disorders gives them practice in focusing. Gifted kids, especially younger ones, may not be able to read the books that will capture their imaginations and drive them to learn more.

I stand by my assertion that reading aloud to kids is vital, and research backs me up. I believe this move toward shoveling in standards and curriculum like we are stoking a furnace is detrimental to our kids development in life and in literacy. In the long run, we all lose out and I fear that the sheer joy of reading will gone for these kids. Given the time restraints we have in schools it is even more vital that parents read to their children every day and in copious amounts.  If you have a primary school-aged kid, your child’s teacher may not reading aloud to your child. They may not have the seniority that Ms. K has to go against the dictates of administration. This means that sharing the love of reading and books and literature and rich, beautiful language is up to you.  Read to your kids.