In 2001 author Terry Trueman won the Michael L. Printz Honor Award for his book Stuck in Neutral. In this work, we step inside the mind of Shawn McDaniel, a boy who has Cerebral Palsy. He is also a boy that things his father is about to kill him. You see, Shawn can’t communicate with the outside world and his father is worried that Shawn is in pain, so he wants to help him. And now Shawn is trying desperately to find a way to let his father know that he wants to live.
At the time, this was one of the first books I ever read from the point of view of a character that had a disability. And later it would come to mean something so much more to me. You see, I am the aunt to three boys on the Autism spectrum. Like Shawn, my nephews have a real inability to communicate, more so when they were younger. One of my nephews can become so frustrated with his inability to communicate his thoughts and feelings that he bites himself to the point of bleeding. Children’s services has been called many times by outside parties, though thankfully children’s services are aware that self harm, OCD, echocholia and more can be a part of Autism.
I also have several close friends who have children on the spectrum and their lives require a navigation that is quite different than others. Childcare can be a challenge, if you are able to find any at all. Trips out in public must be carefully orchestrated, in part because variations of routine and be quite stressful for those on the spectrum. But also in part because the public often does not respond well when they see kids on the spectrum. And if a meltdown should occur in public, the stares and comments you will get are horrific, withering.
Which is part of the reason why books like Stuck in Netural are so important. You see, books can create empathy, compassion. Atticus Finch once talked about walking a mile in another pair of shoes and how doing that helped us to develop a sympathetic viewpoint. That’s what Stuck in Neutral does, it allows us to see into the heart and soul of a young boy, it humanizes him in a world that would seek to make him less than human. Stuck in Neutral is not about Autism, it’s about Cerebral Palsy, but it is an important reminder for us all that those who are differently abled than us, those whose lives may seem challenging and overwhelming, are still people with thoughts and feelings and dreams and fears and love. Whatever our bodies may look like on the outside, at the core of us we’re all just people.
If Stuck in Neutral was the only book Terry Trueman ever wrote it would still be the accomplishment of a lifetime, but it isn’t. Trueman went on to write a wide variety of additional novels, including Cruise Control which tells the story of Shawn from his brother’s point of view. There are 10 books listed on Terry Trueman’s Goodreads page, including No Right Turn (2006), 7 Days in the Hot Corner (2007), and Hurricane (2008).
In 2012 Trueman released Life Happens Next, which tells us more about Shawn’s life: “How do you connect with others when you can’t talk, walk, or even wave hello? In the sequel to Stuck in Neutral, which ALA Booklist called “an intense reading experience,” Shawn McDaniel discovers a new definition of “normal” and finds that life happens next for everyone.”
Terry Trueman went to school and resides in the state of Washington. Trueman has a son, Sheehan, who himself has Cerebral Palsy. Stuck in Neutral was eventually turned into a stage play and you can read a bit about that process here.
It is not always easy for me to understand this life that the people around me live that is dictated by the spectrum. My nephews are now all teenagers and to be completely honest, this life has been a tremendous challenge for them and the people that love them. None of them will ever live on their own. One of my friends already has their son on a waiting list for a long term care facility because they know that their son will always need extensive care and because of the rapidly rising rates of Autism the waiting list is long. They worry about what will happen to their children when they are no longer able to care for them. I want the world to be more compassionate to these families, to stop sneering at them in public, to stop turning their noses in disgust. I want the world to read Stuck in Neutral and other books with differently abled characters so that they will develop a deep and abiding empathy for all human life, even those lives that look radically different than what our world has decided the norm should be.
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Autism and Libraries
- Teen Issues: Autism and Libraries
- On the Spectrum and @ Your Library (Guest post by Matthew Ross)
- Teen Issues: Teens and Autism and Future Horizons
- Autism & Libraries: A Q&A with J. D. Kraus
- Teens and Autism: What does it mean to be “typical”?
- Atticus Was Right: The remarkable story about a boy with autism, a bully, and a book (Guest post by Amianne Bailey)
- Book Review: Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown (sibling with OCD)
- The Power of Reading: Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman