Is there anyone among us who does not know, or know of, a child with an autism spectrum disorder? Whether diagnostic criteria are allowing us to identify more individuals, or something in the environment is causing more autism, or our social habits and educational guidelines no longer encourage families to isolate kids with developmental differences, there are more children with autism and Asperger's Syndrome in our classrooms, on our sports teams and in our lives.
Since one of the symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder is social difficulty, there is an awkwardness fitting these children into groups. Other children find them hard to make contact with, because they often do not pick up on the social cues -- facial expressions, verbal play -- that kids learn to make friends. One goal of integrating kids with these disorders is to help them develop social skills. Another is to give mainstream kids a sense of the variety of human experience. Wouldn't it be desirable to help everyone find a way to make contact?
Here is where fiction can help: by showing a reader the world from another point of view. An extremely popular pair of children's books -- " Al Capone Does My Shirts" and "Al Capone Shines My Shoes" -- have a secondary character with a developmental disorder that goes unnamed because, as author Gennifer Choldenko explains in an author's note, autism was not identified at the time of the story's setting in the 1930s. The main character's sister begins as a burdensome charge whose odd habits embarrass her brother in front of his new friends, but she ends up being accepted in the society of children and affecting the course of the story materially.
Other novels are telling their stories more daringly from the point of view of a character "on the spectrum." In Kathryn Erskine's "Mockingbird" (Philomel/Penguin: $15.99, ages 10 and up), 10-year-old Caitlin has lost her brother, the one person with whom she felt accepted and at ease. Her discovery of the concept of "closure" helps her come to terms with her brother's death. Caitlin's often clumsy attempts to find a path to closure end up lighting the way also for her father, who in his grief is even more isolated than she is.
Although "Mockingbird" may sound like a distressing read, the emotional distance created by Caitlin's Asperger's qualities lowers the temperature of the drama and makes the experience, like so much in Caitlin's life, a struggle to make sense of things that are worth puzzling out.
Nora Raleigh Baskin's "Anything But Typical" (Simon & Schuster: $6.99 paper, ages 9-12) underlines the delicate matter of disorder labels by making fun of the "alphabet soup" used to cover a wide range of individuals. Writing about himself briefly in the third person (before trying to maintain a first-person point of view for the rest of the book), sixth-grader Jason Blake says he was "diagnosed with ASD, autistic spectrum disorder. But his mother will never use that term. She prefers three different letters: NLD, nonverbal learning disorder. Or these letters: PDD-NOS, pervasive developmental disorder-non-specific. When letters are put together, they can mean so much, and they can mean nothing at all."
The labels themselves are distancing. When Caitlin's father observes that she had a TRM at school, she substitutes "That Reminds Me" for the far more disturbing words he has in mind, "Tantrum Rage Meltdown." Caitlin, with Asperger's, is offended by being associated with an autistic boy in her school, until her counselor points out that she seems to consider herself above him in the same way that other students consider themselves above her.
"Anything But Typical's" Jason refers to the other kids in his school as "neurotypicals." He expresses himself in fiction and through the intermediary of an online story-writing community finds himself drawn to someone who might conceivably be considered a girlfriend. This book pushes past the difficulty of making friends to the infinitely trickier area of making romantic connections.
If we are reading these novels as primers on getting along, the first lesson is that just because kids are hard to relate to, it doesn't necessarily mean they don't want to relate. In fact, these characters expend enormous effort to match their behavior to others' just to fit in. They study the Facial Expressions Chart to learn the clues to reading emotion on others' faces. When Jason describes trying to match the cartoon emotions on the chart with the infinitely more subtle expressions of real life, it seems amazing that most people can interpret faces intuitively: "Why are they wrinkling their forehead or lifting their cheeks like that? What does that mean?"
Ted, narrator of Siobhan Dowd's "The London Eye Mystery" (Dell/Yearling: $7.50 paper, ages 9-12), tries to follow his teacher's advice: "If I learn how to be like other people, even just on the outside, not inside, then I'll make more friends."