Characters On the Spectrum in Middle Years Books

Purely by accident, my last few weeks of summer reading have been populated by middle years books featuring kids who either explicitly or seemingly dwell somewhere on the autism/Aspergers spectrum. I began with My Name is Mina (David Almond), moved on to Counting by 7’s (Holly Goldberg Sloan), and have just finished Mockingbird (Kathryn Erskine).

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Willow (from Counting by 7’s) and Caitlin (from Mockingbird) are explicitly said to be on the spectrum; Mina (from My Name is Mina) is not — though she definitely exhibits symptoms associated with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). In their respective stories, all three characters are also struggling with loss and with defining or redefining both “friendship” and “family”.
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A round-up on Nerdy Book Club a year or so ago pointed out that 1 in 88 kids are now categorized as having ASD, and so books like these become important and helpful to our — and our kids — developing stronger and more compassionate understanding for their classmates, siblings, relatives, friends — and themselves. Which is absolutely, positively true.

Coincidental with my reading I’ve been participating in Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Kami Kinard’s Nerdy Chicks Rule “Character Development” Summer School. Sudipta and Kami and their amazing crew are posting daily (for a month!) about different aspects of developing characters, offering myriad tips and exercises. And so, apropos of these three books and their three main characters, I’ve also been thinking about what else these characters who are on the spectrum offer — to both writers and readers — by virtue of their ASDs.

And it strikes me that kids who exhibit traits and behaviors associated with ASDs — and these three in particular — can make especially compelling protagonists.

Mina, Willow, and Caitlin — like many kids with Aspergers — are bright, insightful girls, with their mental wheels constantly spinning. Both Mockingbird and Mina are written in the first person — the latter as Mina’s diary. Counting By 7s uses first person for many chapters, from Willow’s POV, but Sloan also intersperses chapters in close third person from the perspective of each of the other key characters: Dell, Mai, Jairo, Willow’s parents, Pattie and Quang-ha (Sloan is a screen-writer too, and you definitely sense the cinematic in this approach as she jumps from one perspective to another; I found it to be quite effective). In all three books, the reflective observations and internal monologues that make up each narrative pull us right along.

In addition to their intelligence, and in keeping with the profile of many kids with ASDs, each character has unique aptitudes or perspectives or driving interests that shape their views of the world: Willow cultivates plants (in addition to finding comfort in counting by 7s, and obsessing over the human body and medical conditions); Caitlin draws, experiencing the world visually; and Mina writes. These particularities become their points of reference (which A.C. Gaughen talks about here — at Summer School), giving each a lens through which to organize and make sense of and connect with their worlds. Which, in turn, offers readers a unique way of seeing that world along with them.

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These idiosyncratic aptitudes and world views contribute to the sense that these characters march to their own drums or swim against the tide (see Counting By 7s‘ cover). But difficulties in making sense of social norms and rules is what really isolates each. Struggles in understanding figurative language and body language and facial expression — which are typical of spectrum kids — result in challenges with empathy, communication and social skills. This, in turn, contributes to behaviors that exacerbate misunderstanding with non-ASD peers and an overall sense of disconnection.

Wrestling with alienation defines Mina, Willow and Caitlin’s stories, and most readers can identify with this struggle. Though complicated by the specifics of each character’s biology and circumstances, the feeling of not belonging that each works to overcome is universal. The desire to connect and identify with others is a big part of what makes us human, a big part of why we read novels and — I think — a big part of what makes these characters and their stories so compelling.

Ultimately, of course, they are three very different books, about three very different characters, written by three very different authors. And all are quite wonderful and worth a read. Sloan, Almond and Erskine each does a great job of articulating the challenges their characters grapple with and offering us insight into them, while at the same time making so clear the great gifts that they possess — and share.

6 comments

  1. How do we teach our children to if not embrace, at least appreciate the quirks and differences in kids who are different than they are? Why are kids so honed in on these in others and quick to shy away from them?

    1. thanks for reading bob!
      i’d be so curious to know/hear stories of how kids who are on the spectrum relate to books about other kids on the spectrum.
      i know there is so much variability, but i also wonder whether for some, reading about emotions — as opposed to trying to figure them out and engage real time — has any particular value (I know that for me there is: I don’t have to react, but instead get to sit and mull and process more slowly…)

  2. Pingback: PAIN | Hmmmmm

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