Offering Choices to Children

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Parents often talk about “offering choices” to children. It can be a very helpful technique for building cooperation with your kids, avoiding power struggles, and helping them learn decision-making skills. But, like all the tools in the discipline toolbox, it helps if you know some basic ideas about how to use a tool in order to get the best results.

What Choices are Available

It is the parent’s job to decide what options are available. Then the child chooses between those options.

On a busy morning when we’re in a hurry to get out of the house, it would be unfair of me to tell my son “pick anything you want to eat for breakfast.” Because if he chose waffles and we ran out yesterday, that’s a bummer. And if then he chose a fruit salad, I’d say “I don’t have time to make that.” If then he said mac and cheese, then I’d say no, and then we have a power struggle on our hands when I describe all the rational reasons these choices are not an option, and he’d say “but you said I could choose anything.”

It’s just setting us up for frustration on both sides. (Or I could just give in and say yes to anything he demanded, but then I’d be cranky and resentful and he’d learn he gets anything he wants if he complains enough.)

Instead, before I offer a choice, I need to decide what acceptable options are. I can’t expect a young child to remember what food we have in the freezer right now, to know how long it would take to prepare food and whether that would make us late to school, or any of those other details I’m taking into consideration. So… first, I think about these things, I think about what options are possible, and then when I say “what do you want for breakfast – cheerios, yogurt, or an apple and peanut butter?” I know that all of these things are possible and that I would be fine with him making any of those choices.

I control what options are on the table, he decides which one of those to choose.

If he then asked for waffles, I could say “sorry buddy, we’re out of waffles – you can choose….” and reiterate the reasonable options. If he said “can I have grapes and string cheese?” I’d say “hmm…. that wasn’t one of my options, so I have to think about that… it is a lot like the apple and peanut butter option, and I know we have those things, so yes, you could choose that.” (Notice, I let him make a choice that wasn’t in the options but I was still the one in control of deciding whether that option was available. I set the limits that would work for us both and gave him some insight into my decision-making.)

How Many Choices to Offer

Some parents make the mistake of offering too many options, which can be overwhelming for a little one. Too many overwhelming choices in one day will lead to meltdowns. A good rule of thumb for little ones is to offer just one decision at a time, and for that decision, offer as many options as the child is years old. A 2 year old chooses between the red shirt and the blue shirt. (And you just put a pair of pants on them without them having to also make that decision.) A 3 year old chooses between cereal, toast, or yogurt. (You decide what dish to use, and where they sit.) A 4 year old has four bedtime stories to choose between. (You decide that they’ll brush teeth before you read the story.)

With More Choices, Offer More Guidance

As the child gets older, you may offer more choices, but give them criteria you would use to help make a good decision. For example, an 8 year old can go to a full closet of options and choose all their clothes (pants, shirt, socks, underwear), but the parent might offer guidance. “I know yesterday was super warm and you wore shorts, but today will be much cooler, so you’ll probably want to choose long pants. And you may want to wear your flannel hoodie this morning till it warms up.” Or “I know you want to play with Legos today. The other two things you need to do before dinner are bring in the trash bins and do your homework. You can choose what order to do them in, but they all need to be done. I’d probably do the trash bins first because it’s quick and easy and you’ve still got your shoes and coat on.”

Talking through this decision-making process helps them build the skills to do this independently later on.

When To Offer Choices (and when not to)

Don’t offer choices to a child in the middle of a huge meltdown. At that point, they’re in their “downstairs brain” and not capable of having a rational discussion and making decisions. I was once in the mall parking lot, and a child was having a massive meltdown, and the mom kept saying “You can’t run in the parking lot. You have three choices – you can ride in your stroller or I can carry you or you can hold my hand while we walk.” This was a kid in full meltdown – he wasn’t processing anything she was saying, even though she said it over and over. It would have been better to say “it’s not safe for you to be here, so I need to carry you” and when the child starts to calm down, then offer the other options.

An even better approach was to offer the choices before the situation and long before the meltdown. While the child was still buckled in his car seat and calm, she could say “Remember in the parking lot, it’s not safe for you to run off. You have three choices….” (Or actually, I would have offered two choices – three is a lot at that age, even when the child is calm.

Don’t offer choices to bribe your child out of a tantrum. Imagine you’re in a store and your child asks you to buy an expensive toy, and you say no, and they meltdown, and then you say “OK, fine – you can have one of these cheap toys – do you want the dog or the monkey?” Your child has now learned an effective technique to bully you into getting them something. Instead, if you’re willing to buy a cheap toy, say that going in. “In the store, if you can behave well while I do my shopping, then I will let you choose one toy. But it has to be something little and it has to cost less than _____.” If you’re not willing, don’t offer. Say “We have to buy a birthday present for your friend today, but we’re not buying anything for you. But if you can behave well, and we can do this quickly, then we’ll be able to play in the playground for a little while when we’re done shopping.”

Again, you’re in control of what options are on the table. They choose between those options.

Let Them Make Bad Choices

Now, we obviously can’t control everything our kids do. And we wouldn’t want to. They need to have plenty of times where they’re making their own decisions (in environments that are reasonably safe for them to do this in.) And when given freedom, sometimes children do dumb things. They make bad choices. You gotta let them do that sometimes. You can’t protect them from all dumb things and from the consequences of all bad choices.

If you rescue them from the consequences, they never learn to make better choices. So, some times, you should let them suffer some consequences. I empathize, but I don’t immediately rescue. (But I do have a plan for how we’ll move out of this.)

For example, my child wanted to wear her slippers to play outdoors. I would say “it’s wet out there – your slippers aren’t waterproof. Your feet will get wet.” One day she begged and begged to wear the slippers to the park before story time. Her feet got wet. I said “I’m sorry, I know you hate wet feet.” But I didn’t fix it. We played in the park with wet feet and she hated it. When it came time for story time, I said “I brought shoes and dry socks along for story time – would you like to change into those now?” Her slippers were too wet to wear when we got back home, so she had to go without the, for a day. After that, she knew not to wear her slippers outside.

Learn more about natural consequences and about other tools in the discipline toolbox.

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When Should You Introduce Your Child To [your favorite media]?

small child with light saber and Ben Kenobi costume

The TL;DR summary:

Don’t rush to introduce your child to your favorite book or movie. Why?

  • There may be mature content the child is not ready for that might frighten or concern them.
  • You’ll all enjoy something more if you wait till they’re old enough to actually get it and enjoy it!
  • There’s plenty of fabulous media aimed at young kids. It’s OK to stay in the kiddie pool for a while… I promise, there will be time later on to introduce all the great stories!

My Rationale for Waiting:

As a parent, I’ve had lots of time to reflect on this. As a parent educator, my students ask me about these topics from time to time, but I’d never taken the opportunity to write up my thoughts till now…

Recently, a friend on Facebook asked for recommendations on which novels to read next to her 5 and 6 year old. Some folks recommended Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, the Percy Jackson books.

And I said no! Wait! Not yet!

Today, on the /Filmcast, a host (Jeff) was talking about when he would first show Star Wars to his kids, saying “I’ve got years before I can show it to them and really have it land… and be meaningful”. He said “even three is probably way too young… 4 or 5 is probably the right age?”

And I thought: No! Wait! 4 or 5 is way too young!

Whatever your favorite movie / book / play / music is, you may be anxiously awaiting the day you can introduce your child to it. But if you really want to “have it land” and be meaningful for your child, it is better to wait till they’re really ready. It’s hard to be patient, but I think it’s more rewarding in the long run. Here’s why:

Mature Themes

An obvious challenge of introducing too early is mature themes. Sometimes there are scenes that might frighten them (For example, although many first graders are plenty literate to read Harry Potter, I think it’s too scary for a 7 year old.) There’s also language, substances, “bad attitudes” and so on. Some of your favorite media may have more of this mature content than your child is ready for… and you may not remember till it’s too late. (I’ve made this mistake plenty of times. For example, watching Footloose with my tweens… I’d remembered all the dancing… I’d forgotten about the underage drinking… and the playing chicken with tractors… and the boyfriend hitting the girlfriend… the dad hitting the daughter… We pressed pause several times during that movie! This ended up being a good opportunity to start some challenging conversations. But it would have been better if I’d done it with a clearer plan!) I have now learned to refresh my memory first by reading the reviews on Common Sense Media, which does a nice job of clearly detailing all the potential issues so you can decide which feel OK to you and which feel problematic. For example, I’m not really troubled by bad language, or by fantasy combat, but I am really uncomfortable with realistic gun violence. Your concerns may be different.

I’m not saying that you should never take in media with your child that tackles challenging issues. I actually recommend that parents read books or watch movies where characters face a variety of challenges, make difficult decisions, and cope with grief (read my posts on how to talk to your child about death, scary topics, sexuality, and more). Reading sad books or watching sad movies with your child and then discussing them helps to build emotional literacy and build decision-making and problem-solving skills (as they watch characters manage situations that they have not yet had to face.) But, do this intentionally, not by accident. And do it with media that is developmentally appropriate for your child.

Will It Land?

My reason to wait isn’t just about avoiding mature themes. It’s also waiting till they’re ready to grok the material. Really ready to engage, enjoy, and get meaning out of it.

When I was a kid, I hung out in the public library and the church library by myself a lot. (Mom must have been in the building somewhere? I don’t really remember… I remember having full access to any book I wanted to read.) I read the Hobbit and LotR, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Wrinkle in Time all around the same time. Probably 8 or 9? Now, my reading skills were totally up to deciphering all the words (and to looking up tesseract in the dictionary).  I probably understood all of the Hobbit, and much of Narnia. But there was so much I missed. (Yeah, like that Narnia had any relation to Christianity.) And the thing was, once I’d read them, I didn’t want to go back and re-visit them when I was a little older, because I’d been-there-done-that. I didn’t go back to them till my own kids read them. So, my experience was fine, but it could have been better.

With my kids, we’ve mostly waited… With my youngest, we waited till he was 8 to show him Star Wars. Before that time, he’d read Star Wars themed beginning readers, he’d played Lego Star Wars video games with his dad, and he’d dressed up as Obi Wan. He’d even watched parts of the movies at family parties at his uncle’s house. But when we finally sat down to watch the original trilogy, he was ready to follow it, enjoy it, and understand it much better than he would have been at a younger age.

Spoilers

Spoilers float around in popular culture and discussions, so some parents worry that their child will be spoiled about key plot twists. And they will be. My kid knew who Luke’s father was long before he watched Star Wars! So, no, I didn’t have the opportunity to film his reaction to that revelation. (Yeah, that’s its own genre of YouTube videos.) But instead, I got to see his glee at finally learning the whole story related to that fact, and understanding why it is such a famous plot twist.

Although I had seen all the MCU movies, my son had not. I saw Avengers Endgame on opening night. Then I went on a binge of watching every YouTube video and listening to every podcast about the movie and all the Easter eggs. And my son rides in the car with me, and hangs out in the room while I do my morning workout. So, guess what – he knows ALL the spoilers even though he hasn’t see the movie. Over the past month, we’ve started to introduce him to all the movies (starting with Spider Man Homecoming and Ant Man movies, because those felt like the most kid-appealing choices). At 8.5, he’s actually in a really good sweet spot for these movies. Well… for watching them at home! Where we can talk during the movie when needed to explain something to him, we can answer his questions, and we can pause for a break to process if needed. We’re not going to take him to an MCU movie in a theatre this year or maybe next. Being in a dark room with the sound all the way up and having to be quiet and not able to pause can make a movie feel way more intense to young kids. (And if he asks questions he would disturb others.) We’ve also started pulling old Marvel comics out of the stash in the garage to entertain him till then.

We as adults may dislike spoilers, and like the moments of surprise. I find that children often go the other way. They like knowing information ahead of time because it makes them feel smart and powerful, and they may actually get more excited by the story that leads them to a known destination than they do by watching something when they have no idea where it’s going.

Stay in the World of Children for a little while

Another reason to wait on more “grown up” stories is that if we rush to that, we could miss out on the pure and sweet delight of children’s media.

When my oldest was in kindergarten, he came home from a playdate at a friend’s house singing ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ by Britney Spears. And telling me about all the music videos he’d watched. Some people might have been offended by the child’s mother letting the kids watch mature content… I didn’t really care about that. But I was sad at all the things that child might have been missing out on.

At that time, my son was listening to kids’ music – and there is SO MUCH great kids’ music out there! His favorite singers at that point were: Tom Chapin, Tom Paxton, Priscilla Herdman, and Anna Moo. So many delightful songs to sing! We decided ‘Oops I did it again’ could wait.

If I’m showing Star Wars to my four or five year old, we’re not making time for Kipper, Toy Story, Lion King, Iron Giant, Ponyo, and Sid the Science Kid. In rushing toward Harry Potter, let’s not skip over Winnie the Pooh, Dr. Seuss, Henry & Mudge, Frog and Toad. Take the time to do kid stuff while they’re kids. You can always watch everything else later on, but it’s hard to talk your teenager into going back to all this great kid content.

Context Matters

As I’ve hinted above, there’s a difference between watching a loud movie in a dark theater full of strangers vs. at home. What your child might be up to in one context might be too much in another context. We love live theatre, but we start with kid focused shows where we practice our “theatre rules”, then we try outdoor theatre where if the kids move or make noise, it’s no more disruptive than the airplane flying overhead. Then we go to school or amateur productions indoors. We wait on those expensive tickets to the Nutcracker or to Lion King’s national tour till we know they’re ready to get the most out of it!

So, if you can’t wait to introduce a particular story, think about what context it is best to introduce it in. For example, if you’re worried about a movie being too scary, you can read the book together in advance (or tell them the story from a plot synopsis), and show them still pictures from the movie ahead of time so they know more about what to expect? (Yes, it’s spoilers, but remember that’s OK for kids.) Would it work better for you to “serialize” a movie and watch it in lots of short 20 minute segments with time to discuss along the way? Could you just skip scenes or fast forward through some for now? Do what you think is best.

For books, often once a child learns to read independently, the parent stops reading to the child as much, and eventually even bedtime stories fall by the wayside. There are all sorts of benefits to continuing to read to an older child (including building their skills at interpreting what they read, increased empathy, and an entryway into those challenging conversations.) When my older kids were tweens and teens, we would listen to audiobooks in the car and then have common ground for a discussion of something we were all engaged in. So, reading to your child or listening to audio books can be a great way to introduce some of your favorite tales.

It’s In the Water

Some things we don’t wait on. Some things are just part of the water that our families swim in. When I was growing up as the youngest of four kids with a dad who loved science fiction, Star Trek was on the screen in the living room every week when I was a toddler, and then reruns were watched for the rest of my childhood. So, the vision of a future of scientific exploration was just a part of my life. Seeing people of all ethnicities working together, seeing a black female officer – was all normal to me. Not the radical experience that Star Trek TOS may have been to some. And I absorbed lots of other science fiction and fantasy from the rest of the family – I think my sister told me shortened versions of some of her favorite fantasy tales. And I think all our kids absorbed the ethos of “with great power comes great responsibility” long before watching Spider Man. My older kids grew up hanging out in the room while I played roleplaying games with friends, and they joined in as they got old enough. My youngest is just starting to join my oldest and his friends in playing Magic the Gathering. So your favorite stories and characters can’t help but be an on-going part of your family’s life.

But, if you’re asking “When do I let my kid read…” or “When should I show my kid….”, or “is it to early to expose my child…” here are my completely personal biased recommendations for when the right time is for some properties (mostly from the geek universe cuz that’s the way I roll.)

Recommended Ages

(For more details on the kid appropriateness of ALL of these properties, use Common Sense Media to learn more.)

  • Chronicles of Narnia – Read to kids (or audiobook) at 8 – 10. Independent read at 10+. The 2005 movie of Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is mostly good for ages 6 and up, but there are some scenes that could be frightening for kids under age 10. The 1988 BBC Chronicles of Narnia may work for younger kids, but is very long, so break it up into pieces.
  • DC Movies: Shazam should have been a GREAT kids’ movie. And 90% of it is. But the beginning drags, is confusing and scary, and the intense scenes are really INTENSE. I’d say 12+. Wonder Woman is great for 12+ but I wouldn’t go younger – the World War 1 scenes are scenes of warfare. Aquaman is probably fine for 10 and up, though parts of it would hold no interest for them. (Note: I would not show Man of Steel or BvS to anyone under 15, and I opted out of Suicide Squad myself.)
  • Dungeons and Dragons (and other table-top roleplaying systems): My older kids could play as the kids in a group of patient supportive adults (with an adult DM) starting at about 9 or 10. I’m guessing groups of kids could play at around 12? We’re trying to start a group of 7 – 9 year olds on a simplified D&D now with an adult DM, and thought it was going well, until today’s character design led to a series of meltdowns – one child due to a lost character sheet, one because they were having a hard time understanding the spell options, and one because his character is not as strong as the others. (Being told that he was smarter and had higher dexterity than the others did not resolve the meltdown.)
  • Harry Potter. The series starts on the scary side, and gets much darker as you go along. And for most kids, the movies are scarier than the books.
    • My oldest read the first few books when he was 10, then read the last three as they came out, when he was 10, 12, and 14. He recommends this as the appropriate timing. He says movies starting at age 12 or so.
    • Another approach: Kids read the book when they’re the same age as Harry is in the book – so book 1 when the child is 11, book 2 when the child is 12… When it’s almost time to read book 2, you could watch movie 1 for a reminder of the general plot of book 1. (Tip: never read the book then IMMEDIATELY watch the movie… I did this for Goblet of Fire, and I was painfully aware of every minor variance from book to movie.)
    • Common Sense Media has a helpful Harry Potter Age-by-Age Guide which addresses which books to read and which movies to watch by age, and includes the new properties like the Fantastic Beasts movies.
    • In reality though, I know it might be hard to keep these books away from my youngest for that long, as he’s got lots of friends who have read them. He’s already played Lego Harry Potter and put together Harry Potter Legos, and seen the attractions at Universal Studios, so he is familiar with the characters and the broad story lines. I suspect we will start by listening together to all the books on audio – the audio versions are narrated by Jim Dale and are absolutely stellar! Then he can read the books if he wants, then we’ll watch the movies.
  • The Hobbit – read to a child at 7 – 9. Child reads independently at 9 or 10. But wait on the rest of the Lord of the Rings books till 12 or so. I’d watch the animated version of the Hobbit from 1977 with a 6 – 8 year old, but I’d wait on the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies till age 10 – 12, and wait on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings till 12 or higher. (Partially due to the violence but also I don’t think younger kids would follow the plot well.)
  • Magic the Gathering – My oldest is introducing a simplified version to the 8 year old now, and that’s going well.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’d say start at age 8 with careful forethought and the ability to pause and explain. Older for in-theater. And maybe 10 and up if the child is likely to imitate combat behavior. But also pick and choose – some are more appropriate than others for younger kids. (That’s why we started with Spider Man Homecoming and Ant Man / Ant Man and the Wasp, not Iron Man 1 which starts out with some real-world violence.) In other Marvel: X-men movies for tweens. Deadpool – yeah, it’s R rated for a reason – the violence was uncomfortable for me!
  • Percy Jackson. I’d say 10 and up for the books. The characters are teens, who tweens could identify with well. I saw the first movie, and I’d go 13 and up on that one – read why.
  • Princess Bride. The movie is actually less intense than the book – although the ROUS and the torture scene might be distressing to kids. I would generally say 8 and up, though we took our son to outdoor movies in the park when he was 6 and 7. Scary moments don’t feel too scary when you’re sprawled on a picnic blanket on the grass. The book is probably for 10 and up as independent readers, but the audio book would be great for a 9 – 13 year old on a road trip.
  • Star Trek – If you tell your 6 year old “I have a show you’re going to love!” and  you turn on Star Trek, they may not think it’s for them. But, if the adults are watching Star Trek and the kids are watching along, they’ll probably like (and role play) many aspects while missing other concepts. All the TV series are probably fine to have playing around younger kids, some of the recent movies might be better around older kids. Of the series, TOS and TNG are more accessible to younger audiences and better to start with. They also have a really nice culture of optimism about the future. DS9 and Enterprise skew older; Discovery has some interesting conundrums for teenagers about when do you obey authority and when do you question it.
  • Star Wars
    • For this post, 19 dads were asked when to introduce Star Wars. “Conclusion: Fathers answers ranged from “in the womb” to “never”, with an average suggested age of somewhere between 5 and 6. Fathers also cited innumerable variables to take into consideration which were not consistent from child to child, or from family to family. There was consensus among the sampled fathers that exposure should be determined on a child-by-child basis, taking into account that child’s emotional, intellectual and social development, and always under parental supervision.”
    • My husband and I lean toward waiting till 7 or 8 because we think they’ll appreciate it more then. (If you’re wondering what order to watch movies in, read Machete Order – Explained.)
    • Release dates of new movies may skew your decisions… Someone told me she would have waited till age 8 or 9 to start these movies, but her mom took her to the opening of New Hope when she was 4, and when it turned out Force Awakens was going to come out when her child was 4, she decided to take her. But, they sat in the back row and had a stuffed animal and the iPad so if the child wanted to “opt out” of watching the movie, she could.
  • Studio Ghibli Films – I agree with these recommendations: My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo for age 5 – 7. Cat Returns and Kiki for age 8 – 10. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle for tweens. (More recommendations here and here.)
  • The Martian – for ages 11 – 15. I have a whole post on the Martian… which was also inspired by a Jeff Cannata comment on the /Filmcast…
  • Willie Wonka – read the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at 6+. Watch the 1971 movie at 7 or so. (There are a few frightening moments of “children in peril.”) I think you can skip the Johnny Depp version.
  • Wizard of Oz – read the book to ages 6 and up. Independent read a little older than that – some archaic words. When I was 4 – 6 and watched the movie, I was terrified of the witch and the flying monkeys and hid behind the couch. But my kids all watched around age 6 – 8 and handled it OK – I had prepped them for the fact that it might feel scary and warned them when those parts were coming up.
  • Wrinkle in Time – Yeah, I read it at 8 or 9. I’d recommended 10 – 12 to get more out of the book. (Although again, you could read it to them younger than that.) The 2018 movie is appropriate for 10+, but it’s not as good as I wanted it to be.

Note: if you have multiple children, this all gets more complicated. Our older two were 3.5 years apart, so if I say something is good for ten year olds, that probably means we ended up watching it when the older one was 12, and the younger one was not quite 9. It worked for us because the older one was OK with “kiddie things” for longer, and the younger one wanted to be as “mature” as possible and had more tolerance for scary content.

What if they hate it?

And what if you’ve waited and waited for something, and then you show it to them, and they hate it?? Or what if they say “meh – it’s OK but not really that great?” Well, it’s a good lesson that our children are different people than we are, and we can all have different opinions. And maybe someday they’ll like it more… and maybe not.

I LOVE the movie Creator, a truly obscure 1985 romantic comedy with Peter O’Toole. It just makes me happier than almost any other movie I’ve seen. I waited till my older kids were in their late teens… it’s an R rated movie with some shower almost-sex and similar mature content. And I showed it to them, and they said “meh… I mean, I’m sorry Mom, I don’t want to make you feel bad, but maybe it’s just not for me?” And you know what? It was disappointing, but it’s OK. I still love the movie.

I had a dad tell me recently that there’s so many GREAT books he wants to share with his 12 year old daughter, but she’s only interested in YA romances and isn’t interested in any of them. I suggested to him that they listen to audiobooks together and that they take turns. She picks out one of her favorites, and he listens and gives it a fair chance and asks her what it is she loves about it. He may well end up liking it and even if he doesn’t, he gains new insights into her. And if he gave her book a fair chance, then hopefully she’ll give his book a fair chance.

Stephen Thompson, of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, has shared stories about how he’s been trying for years to sell his kids on all the things he thinks are great, and now as teenagers, his daughter is into horror movies, which have never been his thing, but she’s sold him on a few of her favorites, and his son has convinced him that some video games are actually enjoyable to play – even if he’s very bad at them. For both parties in these exchanges, it’s a chance to be exposed to new things, to learn to appreciate each other’s perspectives, and to connect over a shared experience. And that’s the real value in sharing our favorite stories.

Please add comments – agreeing or disagreeing with me… and what properties (books, movies, plays… ) have I forgotten that you have strong opinions on?

 

Children’s Books about Autism

cover images for 9 of the books described in the text

As a parent of autistic children, and as a parent educator and children’s teacher, I wanted to find picture books for young children that could:

  • offer insights to neurotypical children to help them to understand the autistic perspective better and how to interact with autistic peers in a supportive way
  • give autistic children the chance to see their experience reflected in a book
  • give adults more insight into the experiences of autistic children (I am a firm believer in the fact that sometimes when an adult is reading a book to their child or hearing a book read at a story-time or in a children’s sermon, they can have a-ha moments… somehow the simple evocative words of a children’s story can give us clearer insights that get past our previous assumptions or biases.)

It is important to me that the books talk about strengths of autistic people and the unique contributions that neurodiverse people can make if their needs are accommodated, not just about their challenges or the ‘inconvenience’ of accommodations. It is also important that the books accept that autism is a fundamental part of who the person is, not a disease that can be cured if someone can just learn not to “act autistic”. (Read my post on Autism Acceptance Month, or materials from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.)

It is hard for me recommend a single “best book”, because they may serve different purposes. Some may be good for an autistic child, some may be better for neurotypical siblings or classmates. Also, autism presents in a very wide variety of ways, so you can’t read just one book and get whole story of autism. I’ll list the books in alphabetical order below, with my review, to aid you in finding the right books for your needs.

A Friend Like Simon by Gaynor.* Ages 4 – 8. Reviewer Macy McArthur says “…great at showing a neurotypical child’s process of being introduced to someone with autism for the first time, being honest about not understanding his differences/hesitant to befriend him, then to growing comfortable and realizing his autism is just a normal part of Simon [and] easily accepting Simon…” Note: The children exclude a girl, Hettie, for being mean to Simon – some reviewers recommend just skipping this last page, so as to not endorse excluding anyone.

A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing With an Autistic Sibling by Abdullah, illus by Tejpar and Abdullah.* Ages 6 – 9. The story is told from the perspective of an 8 year old girl with an older, autistic brother. She makes a list of all the things she likes and does not like about her brother’s autism and when she’s done, she realizes she has written a “manual” for understanding her brother. Endnotes with additional tips. Engaging way of giving a factual overview about autism and how to interact with an autistic child.

All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism by Rudolph & Royer, illus Zivoin. 4 – 8 years. The main character is a zebra with autism, who comes home from school distressed by how the other children view him, and his challenges with interacting with them. “They were talking about a video game I play all the time, but I didn’t know how to start talking to them. I started talking about all the things I knew about the game, but since I was staring at the floor, nobody knew I was talking to them… I started talking louder… How come all anyone sees is my autism stripe?!” His mother tells him she sees many stripes (his pilot stripe, his caring stripe, his honesty stripe and his curiosity stripe). He feels better, saying “[My autism stripe is] just part of me… I love each stripe, because without them, I wouldn’t be me.” Nice book for autistic children or NT, about the strengths and challenges of autism. Great illustrations! Includes a lengthy reading guide for adults where they walk through each of the ideas presented in the book and talk about it in detail to further explain how they reflect the experience of an autistic child. Also includes a lengthy note to parents and caregivers about signs of autism, information about evaluation, treatments, and advocacy for support at school.

Andy and His Yellow Frisbee by Thompson.* Ages 5 – 8. Tells a story of Andy who is non-verbal and spends his recess time spinning a yellow Frisbee round and round. A girl who is new to school notices him. Andy’s sister is protective of him, but clearly accepts and cares for him. Several reviewers praised this book as an effective way of demonstrating acceptance of autism and finding commonalities between Andy’s frisbee and the neurotypical child’s decision to bring a teddy bear to school with her as a comfort item. One reviewer found it stereotypical and another felt Andy was treated as a “novelty act.”

Autism Is…?  by Wideman… Ages 4 – 8.* Written by a grandmother of an autistic person. Aimed at autistic children rather than at neurotypical siblings and classmates. Describes a wide array of symptoms rather than stereotyping to a few. Review ahuser says “clear, easy to understand, somewhat positive light but also touches on explaining some struggles that come along with autism. It does not use figurative language like some of the other books do, which is very helpful because my daughter, and many others who are on the spectrum, take words literally.”

Ethan’s Story: My Life With Autism by Rice.* Ethan Rice was diagnosed with autism at age 4. He wrote this book at age 7 to help kids understand his challenges and strengths in his own words. Good as an introduction to one child’s experience of autism. It would be a good supplement to other books that give a broader view.

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Mosca, illus Rieley.* 4 – 8 years. Sample text: “Unique from the start, an unusual girl. She loved spinning in circles and watching things twirl. But some things she hated, like certain loud sounds, or bright crowded places, large cities and towns.” The rhyming couplets and simple language makes this accessible for young kids. There’s supplementary material at the back, telling more about Temple’s life and accomplishments. A positive description of autism. Also a good example of how to write engaging biographies for young children.

Hello Roar, Little Dinosaur by Reeves, illus Morris.* Written by a mom of an autistic person. Described as celebrating the fantastic characteristics and qualities found in kids with autism. There is more info about this series on their website: http://www.roar-littledinosaur.com/index.html

I Love Being My Own Autistic Self by Landon Bryce. Age 6 to adults. A comic written by an autistic self-advocate with an MS in education. This book offers great insights. Vector, the narrator, says “There are good things about my autism. I have interesting and unusual ideas… I’m very observant… I am able to focus very intensely… sometimes it makes people uncomfortable when I talk about the good parts of my autism… they might think I’m saying I don’t think autistic people need support or treatment, but I think those can be good things… Even though I’m proud of being autistic, autism is very hard for me and I know it can be even harder for other people… it’s hard for me to communicate… I’m scared a lot of the time… I find unexpected changes very upsetting.” We also meet his friends, one of whom has Asperger’s, one is non-verbal autistic, so there are a variety of depictions of the autism experience. We meet his friend Pang, who says things like “if you just tried a little harder, you would seem perfectly normal”, his sister who thinks the best way to help autistic people is to help them be like neurotypical people, and Dr. Chip who wants to prevent or cure autism. Vector says “I think we can help people like my friend Marko by … paying attention to the things they say without using words… I think we need to accept everyone for who they are in order to really help them. I want Marko’s life to be easier but I want it to be his life.”

I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism by Thomas. 4 – 7 years. Written for NT children to introduce autism and the ways that autistic children may behave because their brains work differently. It’s an OK book – if it’s the choice that’s available in your library – I think it does an OK job of explaining autism in a way that, on the surface, is sensitive and caring. But if I were choosing a book to buy, it wouldn’t be this one, because it has a bit of an us vs. them feel to it… here’s what we can learn about those people. The author also seems to have a subtle bias that people with autism are often unhappy. This shows in the illustrations and the words: “do you know what it feels like to be worried or nervous or scared… people who have autism feel these things a lot… people with autism may find big crowds or loud noises very frightening… they may move their bodies in ways that look strange to you… being with more than one person at a time may be upsetting… With love and support… people with autism can learn to feel a little happier and safer each day.” A few illustrations do show happy children playing with a car or lining up pencils or flapping while working on a puzzle or sitting in just the right chair, but none of the words talk about happiness in autistic children. (Check out The Obsessive Joy of Autism for insight on the upsides to autism.)

Ian’s Walk: A Story about Autism by Lears, illus Ritz. Age 5 – 8. Julie wants to go to the park with her big sister, but her little brother wants to come along. Ian is autistic, and on the walk, she notices how different he is – he doesn’t like smelling the things she likes to smell, the noises that bother her don’t bother him but he seems to hear things she can’t, he wants to lay on the ground instead of throwing cereal to the ducks with her. Then Ian gets lost and Julie knows how to find him because she knows what he likes best. On the way home they walk the way Ian likes to walk and Julie doesn’t try to change him, she just waits patiently. Sweet, conveys all the ambivalent emotions siblings may feel, including loyalty and love, so a good choice for siblings to see some of their own experiences reflected. (Reviewers on Amazon felt that Ian was one particular view of autism, and noted that autism presents in lots of different ways.)

Leah’s Voice by Demonia, illus Turchan. 6 – 8 years. (Inspired by two real-life sisters.) Logan is excited to have her friend Abby over for a playdate, but Abby doesn’t understand why Logan’s older sister Leah doesn’t say hi till Logan reminds her to, and why Leah gets up and walks away in the middle of a game. Abby tells Logan that she doesn’t like being around Leah. The family tries to go to a movie, but Leah starts screaming and runs away. The parents sit Logan down because they’ve decided that Logan is old enough now to tell her that Leah is autistic. (Side-note: personally, this is something that I would have been speaking to my child about all along, not saving up for “the Talk”.) They describe it as “a disorder that makes it hard for Leah to talk to us and sometimes things upset her that wouldn’t upset you or me.” They say “it’s not something that will go away, but we see Leah handle things better all the time. And we can try to see the world a little like Leah does.” The book ends with a focus on how Leah is good at creating art. I think the best audience for this book would be a child in Abby’s situation – where one of the child’s friends has a sibling with autism, and the book could help give the “Abby” some empathy and insight into “Leah and Logan’s” life.

Looking after Louis by Ely, illus Dunbar. 6 – 9 years. Tells about Louis, a new boy at school. A few children try to connect with him – he tends to echo words and not connect in the way they expect. But then one day a boy named Sam engages Louis in a soccer game – if his foot touched the ball, he shouts “Great Game Louis”. Louis draws a picture of the game. Louis, a boy, and Louis’ aide go out to play more soccer. Although the book doesn’t call Louis autistic or educate about general tendencies of autistic children, it is a specific story that illustrates how an autistic child would be integrated into a mainstream classroom where they would be asked to participate in some activities to the best of their ability but also exceptions to the rules would be made to accommodate their challenges.

Lucy’s Amazing Friend: A Story of Autism and Friendship by Workman, illus Raynes.* Age 6 – 9. A girl named Lucy sees Daniel, who is autistic, non-verbal and has an aide at school. She befriends him. The teacher describes Daniel in somewhat deficit terms “People with autism sometimes have a hard time speaking and understanding things that come easy to us.” In the sample pages, the other children shun Daniel and think he’s weird. The description says that Lucy tries to change their minds, but I don’t know if she is successful at that or if she remains his only friend.

Maybe Autism Is My Superpower by Ben Blanchet, illus by Lily Blanchet.* “After seeing a superhero movie, Ben Blanchet, a thirteen-year-old boy who has autism, decided that maybe autism is his superpower. This book details a fascinating conversation between a mom and her son who has autism. Ben describes the unique ways he hears, sees, and thinks about the world around him.” There’s not an age guideline or a sample text, so I don’t know what age it is aimed at. Reviewers find it a positive approach to seeing the unique strengths of ASD through the eyes of an autistic person.

My Brother Charlie by Peete & Peete, illus Evans. Age 5 – 9. (Written by a mom and sister to an autistic boy.) Callie and Charlie are twins. Charlie is autistic. This book is written by a mother and a sister of an autistic person, and it shares a sweet and compassionate story that I think will appear to siblings of autistic children. Although she talks about the challenges – “it’s harder for Charlie to make friends. Or show his feelings. Or stay safe.. And there are days it’s hard to be Charlie’s sister – he can ruin the best playdates.” She also talks about all of Charlie’s special strengths – “he knows the name of all the presidents! He’s a fish in the water. He has a special way with animals.” And about the way they connect to each other – “he laughs when we lock fingers in a holding-hands game. That’s Charlie’s I love you.”

My Brother Daniel by Berger, illus Deveau. By a parent of an autistic child. Tells about a little boy coming to terms with his brother’s autism – Daniel flaps, spins, and shouts, and the brother wants people to also notice his strengths.

My Brother is Autistic by Mallinos, illus by Fabrega. Available in English or Spanish. 6 – 9 years. A story of a boy whose brother Billy is autistic. In the lunchroom, another boy steals a cookie from Billy. Billy has a big meltdown that embarrasses his brother who runs from the room. The teacher tells the class about people with autism who were successful or famous, then explained the challenges of being autistic. As Billy and his brother walk home, they play together. This is not a book I would use to introduce autism to NT or autistic kids because it’s more focused on deficits and not on what kinds of support would help autistic kids become successful adults. I might use it with a sibling who was coping with embarrassment at school if I thought it would be helpful for them to have a story to relate to.

My Friend Has Autism by Tourville, illus Sorra. 5 – 8 years. At first glance, this is a sweet story about a neurotypical kid who is friends with an autistic boy named Zack, with whom he shares a huge interest in model airplanes. Our narrator is patient with Zack’s different needs: “When I go to Zack’s house, I bring my own models. It bothers Zack when other people touch or play with his models. Each plane has to be in just the right place.” However, there are problematic issues with this book. Amazon reviewer supremeox says “[on] the third page [was] an offensive and unacceptable message… ‘Did you know? Autism is a brain-based disorder. With autism, parts of the brain don’t grow the way they should. No one knows why some kids have autism. There is no cure.’ … Right away the message is that the autistic person is defective…. it promotes the idea that autism is a disease. Autism is not a disease, it is an alternate brain development.”  Amazon reviewer Christina N, who is autistic, says “The basic message is to like this kid, ALTHOUGH his brain doesn’t work right. There is nothing wrong with autism. Sometimes it’s hard to be autistic. But I want my fiends to like me BECAUSE I am different and because of my personality in general, not ALTHOUGH I am different. ”

My Friend with Autism by Bishop and Bishop.* Age 4 – 8.  Written by a mother of an autistic person. Book description: “Written for classmates of spectrum students and the classmates’ parents… explains in positive ways that children with autism are good at some things, not so good at others – just like everyone else! ‘Notes for Adults’ offer parents more detailed information.” Amazon review by Scotty’s mom says “The book is primarily a picture book, in black and white drawings that can be used as a coloring book. The text is very well written, with particularly good points about ASD kids: lack of understanding of social cues and emotions, hypersensitivity to sound and light, poor ability in talking, and the need and desire for friendship nonetheless. I highly recommend this book for elementary grade teachers to read to and with the class. …The only drawback with this book, in my opinion, is that the ASD child is constantly featured with a smile on his face, and sometimes with good eye contact and body position. As you all know, it is a rare ASD child who smiles that often and who makes good eye contact.”

Nathan’s Autism Spectrum Superpowers by Yarborough, illus. Merheb.* 6 – 10 year olds. Description says “The superhero of this book, Nathan, explains about his Autism Spectrum Superpowers… Each “superpower” includes a Helpful Hints for Friends section that gives ideas on how to help a child with autism in different situations. Nathan’s superpowers include his Supersonic Hearing, a Super Sniffer, Regular Routine Retention, Actual Factual Literal Powers, and many more. This book also contains a Reaction Regulator scale to help your child regulate emotions and a place where they can list their own Energy Drainers and Energy Builders.” Originally written by a mother for her son. A few reviewers voice concerns about “big words” and think the book would not appeal to kids. But, I know several autistic kids that like big words and would find this book engaging as it describes their experience of the world.

Noah Chases the Wind by Worthington, illus Cowman. Ages 3 – 7.  Noah is a child with sensory integration disorder (and maybe autism?). The book description says “He sees, hears, feels, and thinks in ways that other people don’t always understand, and he asks a lot of questions… His books usually provide him with the answers he needs, until one day, there’s one question they don’t answer—and that is where Noah’s windy adventure begins.” The wind picks him up and flies him high above the clouds. It’s a lyrical fantasy story, featuring a neuro-diverse main character, though it doesn’t directly address autism as the other books on this list do. Kirkus review says “An invitation to wonder, imagine and look at everything (humans included) in a new way. ”

Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book by Shally, illus Harrington. 4 to 8 years. “Sometimes Matt doesn’t understand what the coach is saying. It’s hard for him to listen when the gym is really loud. Since we’re friends I show Matt what to do… when the pool is suddenly closed for repairs, Matt is furious. He doesn’t like it when our plans suddenly change… Since we’re friends, I think of a new plan…” I really like that it shows how Matt’s friend does simple things to accommodate Matt without trying to change him or make him act not autistic. This is a good book for neurotypical peers – one parent voices concern that it might not be best for autistic kids because they may not all be lucky to have friends who are willing to accommodate.

Sometimes Noise is Big: Life with Autism by Coelho, illus Robinson.* Ages 5 – 10. Sample text: “Sometimes noise is really big, even when it is small for everyone else. Sometimes I am so excited that I need to scream and run in circles to let it out.” Book description: “Flipping the perspective for neurotypicals, this book explains in simple terms some of the sensory issues experienced by children with autism. It shows situations which can be overwhelming and the ways that somebody with autism might react when there is too much going on.” Helpful to parents, caregivers and peers for explaining the perspective of an autistic person.

The Superhero Brain: Explaining autism to empower kids by Land.* Ages 4 – 8. The description says “This story speaks to children who have autism, and explains to them what it means in a way that leaves them feeling empowered and able to make their dreams come true. The story refers to sensory issues as “special powers” and explains how living with autism can be awesome and at the same time also feel tricky sometimes.” Reviewer Lena says “While every child with autism is different, the book touches on some common challenges around sensitive hearing, taste, smell… in an acknowledging and empowering way. It inspires to go look for your own abilities and what you are good at. At the same time it acknowledges that it will not always be easy, and you need love and support.” Short and simple text. There are multiple editions – “girl, dark skin”, “boy, light skin”, etc.

Tacos Anyone? An Autism Story by Ellis. Age 4 – 7. Bilingual English/Spanish book. About a brother who doesn’t understand his non-verbal sibling and can’t figure out how to play with him. A therapist explains that the brother is autistic and how to relate to him.

Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome by van Niekerk illus Venter. Ages 4 – 8. Tells about Sam, who doesn’t like loud noises, likes certain foods served certain ways, likes to play the same thing over and over on his cello, and has big meltdowns. After a trip to the fair, he sneaks out alone at night to go back to the ferris wheel. The family takes him to the doctor and he is diagnosed with Asperger’s. The doctor talks about how kids may have different strengths and challenges, and that working together as a team to understand Sam will make it easier for Sam and everyone else. Book ends with ten tips for kids on how to be a good friend to someone with Asperger’s. From the School Library Journal review: “Because of the interesting story line, the positive approach, and the notion that others can learn to help Sam instead of expecting him to change, this is an excellent introduction to the topic.”

Uniquely Wired: A Story About Autism and Its Gifts by Cook, illus DuFalla. Age 6 – 10. Told from the perspective of Zak, “I have autism. Some people say I have a disability. I don’t see it that way… I am uniquely wired… I have an incredible brain and I have a lot of gifts to share.” He talks about his passion for watches – “you might get tired of listening to me tell you about watches but I will never get tired of talking about them.” He explains how/why he doesn’t like scratchy tags, hugs, or eye contact. “I’m not being rude when I look away. I’m just trying to protect myself… [when] too much information goes into my head at once it makes me feel uncomfortable.” “Sometimes I flap my arms… it helps me calm down my brain and organize what I am thinking.” I honestly LOVE all the sections of the book where Zak is talking about himself, why he likes what he likes, and why the things that bother him bother him. They’re great! What I don’t love so much: the pages where other people are holding gift boxes showing all the gifts they get from interacting with Zak. For example, his sister is angry that Zak can take his watches to bed but she can’t take her toys to bed – “because of Zak, I have learned that fair doesn’t always mean equal and that’s okay. Thank you Zak for sharing your gifts with me!” They’re just cheesy and distracting. As Amazon reviewer TobysMommy says “having other characters saying thank you for sharing your gift and making me learn that… is really weird. Most of them don’t sound like gifts and kids won’t be fooled. Presenting other things as gifts would have been better, like being on time for things, being organized, calming oneself down, being gentle with younger children/animals, having an eye for detail, etc. And of course my autistic son still isn’t grasping the gifts metaphor at all. He thinks the boy is literally giving the people gifts in those boxes – sigh…”

We’re Amazing 1,2,3! A Story About Friendship and Autism (Sesame Street) by Kimmelman, illus Nelson. Ages 3 – 6. Book description says: “Elmo introduces his longtime friend Julia to Abby… Elmo explains that Julia has autism, so she does things a little differently. Julia sometimes avoids direct eye contact, flaps her arms when she’s excited, and is sensitive to some noises. But Abby soon learns that she also has a lot of things in common with Julia. All kids want love, friendship, and to have fun!” Reviews are all positive, with just this note: Reviewer Logan Nicholas says “…this story is never told from Julia’s POV. Only Elmo’s. Sure, most kids who read this book might not be autistic, but what about the ones who are? Wouldn’t it be better to write a story about autism from an autistic character’s point-of-view?”

“Why Is He Doing That?” A Children’s Book Educating Autism Awareness by Cuellar.* Age 4 – 8. Each two page spread talks about things Gerald does that might seem unusual to other kids, then explains why he does them, then ends with “Gerald is different, just like everyone else.” Sample text: “Sometimes Gerald asks the same question too many times! Sometimes the teacher becomes frustrated with all of Gerald’s repeated questions. One girl asked “Why is he doing that?” Gerald has autism. Children with autism need to know what is going to happen next. He needs to hear the answer over and over.” There’s things I really like about this book, based on the sample – like how it explains why things are helpful to Gerald, but it also does talk about how he’s frustrating to others and says “he does odd things” rather than “does things which may seem odd to others.”

What it is to be me, by Wine.* Ages 4 and up. Written by a mother of a child with Asperger’s, written from his perspective of what it means to have Asperger’s.

Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap: NT is OK! by Morton, illus Merry. Ages 5 – 9. Flips the standard approach of all these books around… Reviewer Julia Bascom says “reminds us that “normal” is in the eye of the beholder.” Description from the back of the book: “My friend Johnny is different from me. We have fun together, but sometimes he acts pretty strangely. …he can’t seem to stick to a routine, he stares right into your eyes… Johnny is neurotypical. I like Johnny, and I think being NT is OK.” Sample text “when something exciting happens, Johnny doesn’t respond like you would expect. He doesn’t flap his arms or jump up and down. He just moves the sides of his mouth up and slightly widens his eyes. Maybe be doesn’t know much about how to express emotions, but that’s OK.” Reviewer Steve Koppelman says “A wonderful, hilarious and impeccably written book that works as a children’s book, as parody, and as a terrific autism self-advocacy polemic all in one.”

Note about age guidelines – these are the ages for a neurotypical child. If you are choosing a book for an autistic child who has cognitive delays, adjust accordingly.

*Although I’m lucky enough to have access to an AMAZING public library system, they don’t have all these books, so some books I have not actually read, and can only base my comments here on product information, “look inside” previews and reviews available on Amazon. I have starred the books that I have not personally read in full.

Books for Tweens and Teens

In researching this list, I came across lots of recommendations for books for older children – tweens and teens. Here’s a few recommendations – you can learn more about them in Reading Rockets list of Children’s Books Featuring Characters with Autism and the ABA Program Guide’s 30 Best Children’s Books about the Autism Spectrum.

Non-Fiction / Guidebooks for Teens and Tweens

A Is for Autism F Is for Friend: A Kid’s Book for Making Friends with a Child Who Has Autism by Keating-Velasco.* 8 – 12 year olds. Description: “provides an inside look at the life of Chelsea… and explains that although she sees other kids playing and wants to join them, social interaction can be tricky for her.” Amazon reviewer Zosia Zaks says “I think these pages do a good job of explaining how we’d like to be friends but what makes it so hard to do so, and what simple accommodations could make being friends easier.”

The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents) by Verdick and Reeve, illus Lobyluch. Tips for school challenges, how to make and keep friends, self-care.

The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone With Autism by Sabin. Age 8 – 12. An activity book about being a friend to someone with autism.

The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome by O’Toole. Author and her three children have Asperger’s. Easy to understand explanations of social rules that may not be obvious to tweens on the spectrum.

The Asperger Children’s Toolkit by Musgrave. Ages 8 – 12. For autistic children, to be used with a caregiver. Workbook with “cut and keep” activities.

How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl by Frenz. Age 8 – 12. Written and illustrated by an autistic teen who tells about challenges learning to read facial expressions, make friends, juggle social cues, and handle peer pressure.

Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes by Elder, illustrated by Thomas.* 8 – 12 year olds. Told through the voice of an 8 year old autistic character. Describes the lives of people who found it difficult to fit into society, including Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Sir Isaac Newton, Dian Fossey, and more. Brief basic biographies (you can always google more info on any of the people described.) Many reviewers report that it was inspiring to have role models in many fields who were successful despite challenges. (Saying that these people had “autism” is speculation, but they are people who display some of the typical characteristics.)

Everybody is Different: A Book for Young People Who Have Brothers or Sisters with Autism by Bleach. A book for siblings that answers common questions.

How to Talk to An Autistic Kid by Stefanski (an autistic kid). A guide for typical kids to increase understanding of autistic kids and encourage NT’s to befriend them.

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Higishida. Written by a non-verbal autistic person who uses an alphabet grid to answer common questions people have about those on the spectrum.  In her review of the book, Dr. Temple Grandin stated, “Everybody who is working with nonverbal individuals with autism should read it.”

Novels for Tweens and Teens featuring Autism

  • A Boy Called Bat by Arnold, illus by Santoso. A novel about an autistic boy who “adopts” a baby skunk.
  • Slug Days by Leach, illus Bender. Follows a girl on the spectrum named Lauren and provides insight into the way she sees the world.
  • Rules by Cynthia Lord – Humorous and heartwarming about family life with an autistic sibling.
  • Autism – the Invisible Cord – a Sibling’s Diary by Cain. A 14 year old character talks about her frustrations, hopes, and love for her brother.
  • The Categorical Universe by Phee. A novel about a 12 year old on the spectrum.
  • A Whole New Ballgame by Bildner illus by Probert. A new teacher changes all the routines, which is stressful for a character with autism.
  • Al Capone Does My Shirts by Choldenko. Mystery / historical fiction novel about a boy with an autistic sister.
  • Anything but Typical by Baskin. A story from the POV of an autistic boy who struggles with in-person social interactions, but writes online stories and builds an online friendship with a girl.
  • A Friend for Henry by Bailey, illus Song. A story about an autistic boy who is looking for a friend.

…And SO many more! See the Reading Rockets link above!

More Resources

For more on autism, read my post on Autism Acceptance Month.

National Autism Resources has a list of children’s books that are primarily about teaching behavioral skills to kids on the spectrum, such as: Calm Down Time, Hands are Not for Hitting, The Conversation Train, When My Worries Get Too Big, and Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears?

If you like book recommendations, check out my other posts: Books Toddlers LoveBooks that Sing, Books for kids about STEMBooks for Children about SexualityTwenty Recommended Parenting Books,and books about teaching STEM to kids.

Gift Guide: Toys to Build Toddler Brains

photo showing toys like Duplo train, Quadro climber

Parents often ask me for recommendations for “the best toys for toddlers”. It’s a little tricky for me, given that I often advocate for owning fewer toys. But, if you’d like a few special items for a child to unwrap for their birthday, Christmas, or another holiday, here are some thoughts on how to choose the best toys. I’m going to sort them into categories based on ways to build a variety of skills and multiple intelligences. (I also recommend you check out my handout on activities and free items which also help to build their brains.)

Word Play (Linguistic / Verbal Intelligence)

We go to the library a lot! And when my son was a toddler, we went to story-time at the library every week. This means we get to “try out” hundreds of books a year for free! We only buy copies of the very best. Here are my favorites for books that toddlers love, preschool level books about inventors and makers, and books that sing. (For your adult reading enjoyment, here’s my recommendations for recommended parenting books and resources for teaching STEM to kids.)

It’s also helpful to play a lot with letters: I like magnetic letters for the refrigerator (which you can use all over the house) and duplo letters.

I also recommend a Kindle Fire tablet with Kindle FreeTime installed, which includes lots of ABC games and literacy building apps. (Here are thoughts on making screen time work for your family.)

Doing the Numbers (Logical – Mathematical Intelligence)

Everything you have more than one of is a math toy! You can count how many blocks you have, figure out whether you have more trains than balls, and so on. A few helpful specialty math tools are: a set of Duplo numbers, which you can use for counting, number recognition, while mixing them into your building tools, Unifix Cubes, and a great app called Bedtime Math. Every night at bedtime, we read a story problem and solve some math puzzles related to that story.

Putting the Pieces Together (Spatial Intelligence)

I like wooden puzzles for younger children and jigsaw puzzles for older kids. Melissa and Doug is generally a reliable brand. Babies 6 – 18 months like stacking toys and shape sorters. Toddlers love wooden train tracksto assemble and a big collection of wooden trains.

There’s tons of great building toys for older kids (I list many here in my STEM Gift Guide) but my all-time favorite is building toy to give is a basic Duplo set. For a 5 – 6 year old, choose basic Legos.

Moving & Grooving (Bodily – Kinesthetic Intelligence)

I would recommend several balls of varying sizes and textures, a Nerf style baseball bat, a Strider bike, and plenty of time to run and play indoors and out.

Rather than buying a pre-made climber that can never change configurations, I recommend a climber built of Quadro (Quadro is a fabulous combination of building toy and playground equipment! We’ve had ours for 20 years now, in near constant use.)

Playing Well With Others (Interpersonal Intelligence)

Imaginary play and telling stories with characters is one way to build interpersonal intelligence. Choose a few stuffed animals or puppets,  a collection of finger puppets to tell stories with, a toy picnic basket with fake food.

Learning about Myself and How I Feel (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

This category of intelligence isn’t about tangible stuff. It’s more about interaction and emotion coaching, and also making sure your child has time for quiet contemplation and down time.

Song and Dance Routines (Musical Intelligence)music

We have a box of miscellaneous musical instruments he can pull out anytime he wants. A few were purchased for him, but most are just items that have entered our lives over the years, like the plastic Yamaha recorder I had as a child, and the plastic Yamaha recorder I had to buy for my daughter’s class when I couldn’t find my old one… We also have a very old electric piano that’s in his room and he spends part of many “nap times” exploring the piano.

We listen to a lot of music together (one older sibling loves Broadway show tunes, one loves vintage jazz, Abuela loves classical and Spanish music) and sing songs A LOT, and enjoy circle-time songs at BC classes and library story times and hymns at church.

Fun with Flora and Fauna (Naturalistic Intelligence)

As you can guess if you’ve read other posts on my blog, we spend a lot of time outdoors. Camping, hikes, zoo trips, farmer’s markets, walks to the library and the pool. The only “tools” we use outdoors are a bucket and a shovel. (But, when we forget them, a stick and a rock can fill in as digging tools, and an empty Starbucks cup from the car makes a fine bucket.) Some day we’ll find our binoculars again, and pick up a new magnifying glass.

Expanding Horizons (Magic / Imagination / Religion / Cultures)

We have a big box of miscellaneous dress up – old Halloween costumes from his siblings, sunglasses, silly hats, etc. In all of our books and the videos we watch together, we aim for showing lots of diverse cultures and experiences, and we go to a church that talks a lot about diverse beliefs and appreciation of the sacred in all forms.

All the Pretty Colors (Artistic Skills and Appreciation)

This is the one area we have an abundance of STUFF.

One cabinet in the kitchen is over-flowing with art supplies: Model Magic clay, no-spill watercolors, pom poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paper, glitter glue, stickers, markers, crayons, beads, scissors, and so on. When he and I are in a relaxed, mellow mood, we pull these out and get to work.

I try not to do much art when I’m in a cranky mood, or when I won’t have time to deal with any mess that arises. I have to confess that I can have a hard time when he’s being really messy or “wasting” art supplies, or “messing up” art supplies – like when he dips the red-paint-covered paintbrush into the yellow paint. Because I know that about myself, I make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to do art in spaces that are designed for kids’ art and where it’s OK to make a mess. So, this year, he’s enrolled in Creative Development Lab, which is all about exploring and experimenting with art.

Child-Directed Play

In addition to buying stuff for your kid to play with, also make sure they have some time to play with you that is child-directed – where they get to decide what they want to play. Learn more about child-directed play.

If you have an older child, check out my Gift Guide to STEM Toys for Ages 3 – 6.

(Note: this post includes Amazon affiliate links. If you click through and purchase anything, I get a small referral fee. I spend any income from that on doing outreach to encourage more parents and educators to come check out what I offer here on this blog.)

Autism Acceptance Month

AAM-logo

April is Autism Acceptance Month.

Autism Speaks is a major national non-profit which says April is Autism Awareness Month. This is a major fundraising effort for them. They talk about “lighting it up blue” to raise awareness of autism, but you’ll note that their website about the event is focused on raising funds for them. [It’s worth noting how they spend that money: 16% of their budget goes to fundraising, their executive pay is >500K per year (source), 22% of their budget goes to research.] Many autistics voice concerns that Autism Speaks has used ableist, pathology-based descriptions of autism, invoking pity as a fundraising strategy and that their research has a focus on preventing or “curing” autism. (source)

What’s the problem with pushing for a cure to autism?

“Many autistic people don’t actually want a cure

It is true that a lot of autistic people suffer. But what they suffer from is not so much being autistic as living in a society that is not friendly to autistic people.

A society that frowns upon people wearing sunglasses and earplugs indoors despite their sensory differencesA society where someone flapping their hands will be stared at and pitied, or told “quiet hands!” rather than be seen for the joy they’re exhibiting… The people who enforce these beliefs are not only telling autistic people that their very existence is wrong, but they are participating in oppression.

Moreover, the idea of curing autism isn’t as simple as it seems from the outside… Autism is a neurological difference that inherently shapes an autistic person’s identity, perspectives, dreams, and desires. As my sister put it: ‘Whenever you tell an autistic person they should be cured, you’re telling them that they shouldn’t be them.’ ” (Source)

So, instead of “lighting it up blue”, let’s instead talk about this as Autism Acceptance Month. Here’s how the Autism Self-Advocacy Network describes that.

“During Autism Acceptance Month, we focus on sharing positive, respectful, and accurate information about autism and autistic people.

Autism Acceptance Month promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people as family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, and community members making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.

In a nutshell, Autism Acceptance Month is about treating autistic people with respect, listening to what we have to say about ourselves, and making us welcome in the world.”

Autism acceptance shouldn’t imply that being autistic is easy, or that we celebrate the very real challenges. However, it does imply we should see the strengths of autism as well, and see how simple accommodations could make a huge difference.

“I do not celebrate my inability to consistently feed myself. But I do celebrate my unusual capacity for focusing on small details – a trait which makes me a good musician, a good student, and a good gift-giver. I do not celebrate my self-injurious stims. But I do celebrate my innocuous ones – I like making the pterodactyl screech, even though people stare. I do not celebrate the fact that I can’t make eye contact well enough to succeed in a job interview. But I do celebrate the fact that I can make conversation without needing to stare at someone’s eyeballs. I do not celebrate the fact that I was viciously bullied throughout elementary, middle, and high school. But I do celebrate the fact that I’m infinitely more gentle, compassionate, and interesting than any of my bullies will ever be. I do not celebrate my deficits in auditory processing that make taking notes in class nearly impossible. But I do celebrate that my experiences as a special needs student motivate me to teach special needs kids today the self-advocacy skills that I so sorely lacked when I was their age.

Try, for a minute, to look at autism through the lens of the social model of disability. Consider that, perhaps, it’s not our style of communication and interaction that disables us, but it’s the society in which our way of being is perceived as abhorrent. Perhaps what we need is a more accessible society, one in which autistic people – including those who require high levels of support for daily living – are accepted and accommodated.” (Source)

Learn from Autistics

A common slogan of autistic advocates is “Nothing About Us Without Us“. Often autism awareness activities are designed by people who are not autistic. They may staff panels with professionals in the field or parents of autistic people, but not include a single autistic person. “While it has become standard practice to have conversations about autism and Autistic people without Autistic people, this is a practice that must change.” (From Lydia X. Z. Brown) (Also learn more about including autistic people in research into the experiences of autistics.)

For this post, I tried to primarily read the voices of #ActuallyAutistic authors. I will quote  from autistic authors, because it is important that their voices be heard as speaking their own experience. (Check out the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter, this list of Actually Autistic Blogs, GoodReads’ list of Books by Actually Autistic Authors)

Identity-First Language

I refer to autistics or autistic people, not people with autism. I say someone is autistic, rather than has autism. This is because many autistic advocates request this “identity-first language” vs. “person first language.”

“Person first language is often used to describe something negative — a deficit or disease (for example, person with cancer).
For Autistic people, autism is seen as just like any other identity marker—similar to gender, race, ethnicity, hair color, or any number of other value-neutral characteristics. We are not “people with tallness,” “people with maleness,” “people with Jewishness,” “people with gayness,” or “people with autism.”
We are Autistic people.”  – Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

“The theory behind person-first language is that it puts the person before the disability or the condition, and emphasizes the value and worth of the individual by recognizing them as a person instead of a condition. But let’s think about what we are doing… When we say ‘person with autism’, we say that it is unfortunate… we affirm that the person has value … [and that] autism is detrimental to that value…

When we say ‘Autistic person’, we recognize, affirm and validate… the value and worth of that individual as as Autistic person.” – Lydia X. Z. Brown

I speak of neurodiversity when speaking of the benefits that autistic perspectives can bring to a conversation. Neurodiverse can also be used to incorporate people with other differences in learning styles, such as ADHD.

I may refer to people without autism as neurotypical or as allistic. Allistic is a new word to me, but it was coined by Zefram in 2003, who says:

Allism is the condition of not being autistic. They are alternative brain structures, both valid, with a continuum of intermediate possibilities, just like heterosexuality and homosexuality… [there are] no connotations of normality or abnormality; they should be treated as descriptive terms on a par with “male” and “female”.

The advantage to allistic is that it’s completely value neutral. Neurotypical could be seen as meaning “normal” which would mean that neurodiverse people are “abnormal.” It is “othering” language. But I know autistics who take pride in being neurodiverse vs. “those [boring] neurotypicals”, so for now, I’ll continue using that term as well as allistic.

The Spectrum

Autism is short for the official diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder. (Note: “many autistic people feel that the term “disorder” unnecessarily pathologizes our neurology” – source)

People often ask about an autistic person “where on the spectrum are they?” as if some sort of quantitative ranking would sum up what they need to know. In trying to describe an individual’s capabilities or challenges, in the past, you may have heard them labelled as high-functioning and low-functioning. “Be aware that many autistic people may be uncomfortable with functioning labels … The short reason is that [they are] often used to deny those deemed high-functioning from necessary services and accommodations and used to strip those deemed low-functioning of their rights.” (Source)

This comic by Rebecca Burgess offers a helpful perspective on the spectrum. She says people often think the spectrum looks like this:

a line showing a spectrum from not autistic to very autistic

But Burgess describes how this doesn’t really describe the actual experience of autism. And it can also lead to misunderstandings of a person’s skills and accommodation needs. If someone is verbal and able to conform to most of the demands of a school or work setting, they get labeled as “not that autistic”, but then if they have too many demands thrown at them and have a meltdown, then suddenly they decide you’re on the high end of the spectrum and must not be capable of anything at all.

She thinks this would be a better way to illustrate a spectrum for a particular individual.

An illustration of a circle where the "pie pieces" are labeled language, executive function, etc. and dots indicate where the person might have more strengths vs. more difficulties

This spectrum illustration better shows where that person’s strengths lie and what things might be more challenging for them.

Someone who is skilled in most of these areas, but has some challenges may be able to “pass” as neurotypical – able to blend successfully into a school or academic setting – though they may be perceived as “odd ducks.” In the past, they may have been called high-functioning, or diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Some people have limited skills in most of these areas, and have very high support needs, such as needing help with toileting  or engaging in self-harming behaviors. They were once described as low-functioning. And some people have very low skills in some areas and VERY high skills in others. They were called savants or “rain man”. They are all autistic people. With different spectrum plots, and different support needs.

When we talk about autism acceptance, we can’t just focus on one “end” of the spectrum and ignore the challenges faced by people on the other “end” of the spectrum and by their caregivers. It is essential that all people with autism and their caregivers get the supports they need based on their own individual situations.

But all autistic people, regardless of their “level of functioning” will benefit from respectful treatment which sees their strengths rather than pathologizing them as inherently flawed due to an autism diagnosis.

Co-Morbidities

Read this passage from an allistic mother of an autistic son:

I have a real beef with the notion of celebrating autism when 22% of children with autism develop epilepsy and 70% experience gastrointestinal problems. In a recent study in the Lancet, two-thirds of adults with Asperger Syndrome, now part of the autism spectrum, reported considering suicide. 35% had made specific plans or an attempt. Another study showed children with autism were three times more likely than their typically developing siblings to be bullied. Children with developmental disabilities have a substantially increased risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse.

The issues she is describing here are co-morbidities and social issues, not autism itself.

Co-morbidities are physical and mental illnesses that are much more common in autistic people than they are in the general population. Yes, these include epilepsy, gastrointestinal problems, ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. These are all illnesses that need medical attention, and having both autism and one of these conditions can make it more challenging to treat these, but these illnesses are not autism.

The fact that people with autism are more likely to be abused, more likely to be bullied, less likely to be successful in school, less likely and (perhaps as a direct result of these challenges) more likely to be suicidal are social issues. They are not due to autism, but to societal attitudes about autism.

“While it’s certainly not fun to be hated, discriminated against, and abused, as too many autistic kids and adults are, I hardly think it’s fair to blame autistics’ neurology for the ableism, ignorance, and lack of compassion showed by the neurotypicals who surround them.

…Autism doesn’t cause suicidal thoughts. Mass abuse of autistic people, on the other hand, just might. That’s why, instead of fearmongering about autism, instead of amplifying the already loud voices out there that talk about how hard it is to be autistic, and how hard it is to have an autistic child, I choose to advocate for a world in which we treat autistic people better, in which accessibility and acceptance, not compliance training and abusive ‘cures’, are the priority.” (source)

“Cures” vs. Acceptance and Accommodations

In my writing, I will not describe the increased prevalence of autism diagnoses as an “epidemic” or a “crisis”. I will not talk about “curing” autism or about a “person afflicted with autism” or “person suffering from autism.”

I will not talk about vaccines causing autism. They don’t. But, even if they did, I worry about the societal messages that lead parents to choose not to vaccinate because of their terror of having a child with autism. As one autistic, Sarah Kurchak, put it:

Someone who refuses to vaccinate their children because they’re afraid of autism has made the decision that people like me are the worst possible thing that can happen to their family, and they’re putting everyone at risk because of it.

It’s time to accept that autism is a common variation on the human experience. By current definitions, 1 in 63 people are autistic. It’s time to start thinking about how we accept this and how we help create accommodations that support autistic people with meeting their own goals.

Some autistic people may choose therapies that help them learn to look and act more like an allistic person. But not all will choose that.

“Many autism interventions focus on making autistic people look more like non-autistic people. Common therapy goals include increasing eye contact and reducing unusual movements. These aren’t priorities typically selected by autistic people ourselves. More common priorities include reducing the impact of some of the downsides associated with autism, such as anxiety and sensory hypersensitivity; learning skills needed to succeed in education and find employment; and accessing supports and accommodations to assist with daily living. There may be intolerable costs associated with a focus on achieving an appearance of normality. Eye contact may feel painfully intense and intrusive, or it may be impossible to simultaneously make eye contact with someone and understand their spoken words. Staying still may require a vast amount of attention, leaving little left for learning. Hand-flapping may be an expression of joy, or a way to regain a sense of where one’s body is in space. Those of us who have either made ourselves look more normal or achieved some of our goals are often told we have “overcome” autism. This is misleading. We have often had to confront and overcome prejudices, or put much more work into learning a skill that comes more easily to others.” (source)

So, can we relax a little bit about whether or not someone makes eye contact when they talk? Can we not worry about whether someone feels more comfortable wearing headphones in loud environments? Can we chill a little about stimming behaviors such as rocking and hand-flapping? Can we understand that “restricted interests” isn’t evil in and of itself? (Read “The Obsessive Joy of Autism” for insights into the experience of autism.)

Now, I’m not saying it’s not helpful for autistic kids to learn how to use neurotypical social skills. This will make their lives easier as it will help them to fit in better to school and work environments that are primarily geared for neurotypical people. But we describe it that way… we don’t describe it as teaching them how to be normal so they’re not such a problem at school and work.

And all the work shouldn’t be on autistic people. Allistic people should also think about meeting them halfway. What are things we can do to make those school and work environments more flexible and more accommodating for all people, both allistic and autistic?

Symbols

A puzzle piece is often used as a symbol for autism.

Back in 1963, the National Autistic Society chose a puzzle piece as a logo because autism was “puzzling.” Many people (often allistic people) still think this symbol makes sense, because autism is often puzzling to them. Some autistic people think it’s fine because neurotypical people puzzle them. Some (often allistic parents of autistic children) feel the puzzle piece is a good symbol because finding all the right supports and accommodations to help an autistic thrive is like putting together a puzzle.

But the full logo in 1963 was a puzzle piece with a crying child on it. That implied that only children have autism, and that it is a condition that they will suffer from. A lone puzzle piece can also seem isolated.

Some autistics are also troubled by the puzzle piece symbol because “The jigsaw piece also signifies that something is missing. That autistic people are not whole.” (source) “It implied that we are something to be solved or fixed… We don’t need to be fixed, or solved  there’s nothing wrong with us, and most attempts to fix us… are actively harmful.” (source)

“Some autistics dislike the symbol of a colorful puzzle piece because it appears childish. The bright primary colors and image of a “toy” most commonly associate with children identify autism as a childhood disorder.” (Source)

Here are some alternatives:

In 1999, the Autism Society adopted the puzzle piece ribbon for autism awareness.

It’s definitely an improvement – it includes many colors of puzzle pieces, interconnected with others.


logo for autistic self-advocacy networkThe Autism Self-Advocacy Network has chosen a spiraling rainbow heptagon as their symbol.

Their symbol for autism acceptance month seen at the top of this post is a seven pointed star woven from all the colors of the rainbow.


Many autism rights advocates recommend the rainbow infinity symbol, which can also be used to represent neurodiversity, to include all the colors on the spectrum. This has been called the “autistic pride” symbol.a rainbow infinity sign, used to symbolize neurodiversity

(Read more thoughts on symbols from autistic writers:  Autistic and Unapologetic, Learn from Autistics, OllibeanAutistic Alex, and Art of Autism – which is written by an allistic person, but quotes autistics)

Blue or Red?

Autism Speaks’ logo is a blue puzzle piece, and they encourage people to “light it up blue”.

“It’s a nice symbol of solidarity, really, it is, but here’s the thing: it’s blue because they operate on the outdated assumption that it’s mostly boys who are autistic. On the one hand, let’s overlook the old science, and the gender stereotype of “blue is for boys,” because the large majority of people and organizations lighting it up blue are simply trying to be supportive of the autism community.” (source)

Many autistics advocate for #redinstead in April.

Learning More about Autism Acceptance

  • ASAN has a website for Autism Acceptance Month with great resources for autistic people, parents, educators, employers, and allies.
  • Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism has a great page which includes: criteria for evaluating whether autism articles and efforts benefit, rather than harm, autistic people, where to look for good information, where to donate money if you want to support autistic people, recommended books to buy or give, and how to help boost autism acceptance materials.
  • This Wikihow article on How to Observe Autism Acceptance in April includes ideas like: research an organization before participating in their events, notice the way that organization talks about autistic people, share articles written by autistic people, share information about respecting autistic people, donate to autistic run organizations (here’s how to evaluate campaigns), and support autistic run businesses.
  • Disability in Kid Lit publishes articles / reviews on the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult books. They have recommendations for books featuring autism.
  • I’ve collected a huge list of Children’s Picture Books about Autism with reviews of lots of books for kids age 3 – 8, and lists additional books for kids age 9 – 12.