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Book Discussion: Autism in AFTERWARD by Jennifer Mathieu

afterwardWhen I initially began reading AFTERWARD by Jennifer Mathieu, I was certain I would be coming to you today to discuss this title as part of the Sexual Violence in YA Literature Project (The #SVYALit Project). However, as I got further and further into the book, this book became an important read – to me personally and I think to the larger topic of disability representation in YA lit – for its look at the way a young man’s struggle with Autism, and in particular being on the Autism Spectrum and suffering from a severely traumatic event, impacts him and his family. This book moved me in ways I could never have imagined.

You see, I am the aunt of three nephews who are on the Autism Spectrum. They are on the higher end of the spectrum, which means that there is little to no verbal communication, stimming, self harm, sleep disruption, the need for strict routines and predictability, etc. This is not an end of the spectrum that is represented very often in the mainstream media. While there has been some progress with the representation of ASD characters in the media, it has been my experience that they tend to be characters on the lower end of the spectrum. This means they often can communicate verbally and are portrayed as being charmingly “quirky”. Although it is obvious that these characters are not what would be considered neurotypical, it does not represent the lives of many families who are living with the daily reality of more severe Autism. When I read or watch these stories, I do not see my nephews and the struggles of their family. When discussing the topic of Autism, I often think to myself, we need to have more diversity in Autism representation.

Afterward is the story of two boys who are drawn together through a horrific event. Caroline’s brother Dylan is kidnapped by a man and is missing for a period of 4 or 5 days. He is found in the apartment of this man and in the presence of Ethan, another boy who was kidnapped and has been missing for about 4 years. Dylan is Autistic and although he does engage in some verbal communication, he is not able to tell his family what happened to him. It is clear, however, that he has been very traumatized by the events and his sister Caroline wants to know what happened to him so she can try and help him. This causes her to seek out and start up a friendship with Ethan. The book is then told from the dual POV of Caroline and Ethan.

There is a lot happening here in Afterward. This is a book about struggling with trauma and sexual violence; it is a book about emotional and mental health; it is a book about PTSD; it is a book about surviving. But it is also a book about Autism. And more importantly, it may be the only book that asks us to consider the impact of trauma not just on a family, but on a family that was already struggling to raise a young man on the spectrum.

And it asks us to consider what it is like for a teenager to not only love a brother who is on the spectrum, but to want to help this brother that she loves without being able to ask him what happened to him. And it was this part of the story that resonated with me the most. There are scenes where Caroline tries to calm down her brother using her toolbelt of techniques that her family has developed over the years. There are recorded episodes of Jeopardy watched over and over and over again, Caroline knowing every question and answer before they come because she has seen them so many times. For one of my nephews, it was Veggietales. And like Dylan, another one of my nephews repeatedly stacks blocks as a source of comfort. It sometimes felt like Mathieu had stared right through the windows at our family home to write this story.

And like many families, there is guilt and blame and anger and sorrow and grief. Dylan’s family was already dealing with all of these things, but now they are amplified by this traumatic event. Caroline in particular struggles with guilt because she was supposed to be watching Dylan in that moment that he left the house, as many on the spectrum do, and was wandering alone when kidnapped. In fact, wandering is one of the greatest safety concerns for individuals on the higher end of the spectrum and many families install locks, alarms and take other measures to help ensure the safety of their loved ones. But those steps take money, and money is something Caroline’s family doesn’t have a lot of.

Socioeconomic diversity is also something that is addressed in Afterward. Dylan’s family doesn’t have the money they need to get Dylan many of the Autism therapies that would benefit him, and they definitely don’t have the money to get him the counseling he needs after his kidnapping. It’s something that Caroline reflects on a lot, especially as she talks to Ethan, whose family does have money and is working hard to get him the therapy he needs.

As I mentioned, for me this book was personal. I saw my neurotypical nephew struggling to take care of his three ASD brothers in the character of Caroline. I saw a family struggling to navigate daily life and stay together in the face of stress and economic hardship, like my family and friends with children on the spectrum do. But most importantly to me, I saw an acknowledgement that there are kids on the higher end of the spectrum.

I do want to take a moment to point out that there is a lot of good #SVYALit and #MHYALit discussion happening here, particularly between Ethan and his therapist. There are discussions of how Ethan’s body could have responded physically to the sexual abuse even though it was not something that he wanted, discussions about whether or not he could have escaped and why he might not have tried to, and more. And although this is a good example of a positive therapy experience, it reminds us all that therapy is not a quick and easy fix but a process. In fact, the book takes place over the course of about a year and the therapy process is not a steady march forward, but a jagged line of progress and set backs. And it’s an important reminder for all that although survivors can in fact survive, they must embrace a new you in order to do so.

I felt that Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu was a moving and powerful read on many levels, but it was this reflection of my family that stuck with me the most.

Publisher’s Book Description

When Caroline’s little brother is kidnapped, his subsequent rescue leads to the discovery of Ethan, a teenager who has been living with the kidnapper since he was a young child himself. In the aftermath, Caroline can’t help but wonder what Ethan knows about everything that happened to her brother, who is not readjusting well to life at home. And although Ethan is desperate for a friend, he can’t see Caroline without experiencing a resurgence of traumatic memories. But after the media circus surrounding the kidnappings departs from their small Texas town, both Caroline and Ethan find that they need a friend–and their best option just might be each other. (Roaring Book Press, September 20, 2016).

Autism and Libraries

Autism and Libraries

The most recent statistics from the CDC indicate that 1 out of 88 children are being diagnosed with Autism.  Every day we are encountering teens on the spectrum in our school and public libraries.  The question we must ask ourselves is this: What are we doing to meet their needs?

Teen Issues: Autism and Libraries
With a look at some books that have characters on the spectrum

On the Spectrum and @ Your Library (Guest post by Matthew Ross)
A library director and father of a child on the spectrum, Matt Ross shares some things libraries can do to make the library experience better for all.

Teen Issues: Teens and Autism and Future Horizons
Future Horizons is a publishing house dedicated to raising awareness and helping to meet the needs of those on the spectrum, their parents, educators and more.

Autism & Libraries: A Q&A with J. D. Kraus
Author J D Kraus shares his experiences as a teen on the spectrum and shares things libraries can do to meet the needs of those on the spectrum.

Teens and Autism: What does it mean to be “typical”?
Teen Reviewer Cuyler Creech shares his experiences as the older brother of a beloved young sibling with Down’s and on the spectrum.

Atticus Was Right: The remarkable story about a boy with autism, a bully, and a book and how books can raise awareness and help readers develop compassion (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

Autism and Libraries: The Dangers of Wandering/Bolting, just one of the many issues we need to understand

Someone had called the police. It’s not surprising really, here she was chasing a fleeing kid – looking much older than his actual age – running down the street in his underwear. He had gotten out. Again. At the time he was maybe 8, but for reasons not quite understood many kids on the Autism Spectrum tend to be bigger and look older than their age, and he was definitely one of those kids. He is also my nephew, one of 4 boys in a family, 3 of whom are on the spectrum.

I also have a friend with a child on the spectrum. When you go to visit at their home you are locked inside with a special lock high up on the door frame. They recently began having to lock down all their windows as well after finding their child sitting up high on the roof a couple of time.

One of the number one causes of death among children on the Autism spectrum is wandering, also called Elopement. Many kids – and teens – on the spectrum will simply wander off, and since they don’t see the world the same way that we do they don’t often understand the dangers in front of them. Many will sadly drown. Others will be involved in traffic accidents.  Recent information indicates that half of all children on the spectrum will wander or suddenly bolt, putting them at great risk.

In 2013, teen Avonte Oquendo walked out of his school. The community gathered and a search continued for a couple of months. Sadly, he was not found alive. He is just one of the many tragic stories we can read about. Elopement isn’t just an issue for young children, it is an important issue for many people on the spectrum regardless of age. Kids, tweens, teens and even adults, and understanding this can help us better respond if there are incidents in our libraries or in our communities.

And as I mentioned, many families take tremendous precautions to help make sure their kids are safe. Doors are always bolted and locked, sometimes with additional safety chains put high up. Windows are locked and alarmed. Some families purchase tracking devices. And emergency plans are developed, practiced, and kept nearby for easy access.

One of the biggest dangers for kids on the spectrum is that they often lack the verbal skills necessary to be able to ask for help if lost. They may not talk at all, or they may have difficulty remembering their address or phone number. There have also been a few reports in the press about misunderstandings between police officers and older teens on the spectrum because as the police officers approach, they expect a response, which individuals on the spectrum may fail to give either out of fear, lack of verbal skills, or lack of understanding of typical social interactions.

My library recently wrote a Code Adam policy, and it occurs to me that I need to go to our administration and ask them to also talk about this with staff in terms of wandering or bolting tweens and teens on the spectrum. The implementation of the policy would be the same, lock the doors, search for the missing teens, but we would also have to have some special training about understanding teens (people) on the spectrum and approaching teens on the spectrum. Organizations like Autism Speaks advocate that local police and fire go through special training to understand and work with people on the spectrum. 

Info at the ALA Store

As part of staff training, I highly recommend that libraries have experts in the community come in and do training sessions to better help staff understand Autism spectrum issues and the ways that the library can help support those on the spectrum and their families. Wandering is just one of the many unique issues that families face, and knowing about the issues helps us all work together to meet the unique needs of those on the spectrum.

More on Autism and Libraries:

Teen Issues: Autism and Libraries
With a look at some books that have characters on the spectrum

On the Spectrum and @ Your Library (Guest post by Matthew Ross)
A library director and father of a child on the spectrum, Matt Ross shares some things libraries can do to make the library experience better for all.

Teen Issues: Teens and Autism and Future Horizons
Future Horizons is a publishing house dedicated to raising awareness and helping to meet the needs of those on the spectrum, their parents, educators and more.

Autism & Libraries: A Q&A with J. D. Kraus
Author J D Kraus shares his experiences as a teen on the spectrum and shares things libraries can do to meet the needs of those on the spectrum.

Teens and Autism: What does it mean to be “typical”?
Teen Reviewer Cuyler Creech shares his experiences as the older brother of a beloved young sibling with Down’s and on the spectrum.

Atticus Was Right: The remarkable story about a boy with autism, a bully, and a book and how books can raise awareness and help readers develop compassion (Guest post by Amianne Bailey)

Take 5: Reasons to read your December 2013 VOYA


There is a great list of titles that depict Muslims in Young Adult Literature.  Since September 11th, the Muslim population has been the target of a tremendous amount of fear, bias and outright racial targeting.  This is a good and varied list that examines the Muslim life in a wide variety of ways and can help break down those prejudices. (by Amanda MacGregor, page 12)


Last year, Pride and Prejudice turned 200 years old.  There are tons of ya titles that somehow reference Pride and Prejudice, and I’m not just talking about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  VOYA has a list of titles for you and your teen Austen fans. (by Christina Miller, page 14)


As you know, I am a huge advocate for serving teens on the Autism spectrum in libraries.  The December issue of VOYA has a really good look at serving teens with Asperger’s or a Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD).  There is also some good information on what it is and resources.  (by Madelene Rathbun Barnard, page 28)

4.  GETTING GIRLS IN THE GAME: Making Gaming Inclusive

On Tumblr, there has been a statistic going around about how girls make up 35% of the gaming community but less than 10% of the characters in games (loosely, this are not exact figures).  The truth is, I have met a lot of ya authors who are avid gamers.  And a lot of my female teens are avid gamers as well.  This article, by Hannah R. Gerber, is a good discussion about making gaming more inclusive.  I highly recommend that you do some Googling and read up on the issues that women face in the gaming community; it’s not always very pretty and can be quite serious in terms of the threats, hate and sexual and verbal threats that girls can receive. (by Hannah R. Gerber, page 44)


According to the article by Tina P. Schwartz, about 11 percent of teens have a depressive disorder.  That is a huge figure.  Girls are more likely than boys to experience depression.  This article is a good look at the signs, the various kinds of depression, triggers and some resources to help teens understand their mood disorders. (by Tina P. Schwartz, page 16)

Please note, TLT is a networked blog with VOYA Magazine.

Book Review: Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Colin Fischer is ‘swirlied’ by the school bully on the morning of his first day of high school. Most kids his age would respond either by reporting the incident to the school authorities or by plotting an elaborate revenge (at least in the world of fiction.) Colin responds by returning home to dry off and change his clothes. Because that is what makes sense to him. We (the readers) very quickly learn that Colin is not a ‘normal’ teenager – he has Asperger syndrome. Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. And what makes sense to Colin is often unexpected or indecipherable to the outside world. Luckily, we have a glimpse inside Colin’s world through the 3rdperson omniscient narrator and through Colin’s notebook – a window into his thought processes.

In quick order we are introduced to the key players in this story – Colin’s family, classmates, teachers, and school administration.  When an altercation occurs in the school cafeteria, a mysterious gun appears and goes off, miraculously harming no one. Colin’s bully, Wayne, is accused of bringing the gun on campus and Colin is determined to clear his name! (Not because he cares about Wayne’s innocence, per se, but because he knows the school has gotten it wrong.)

At first I was a bit bothered by how intelligent Colin is, until we find out what Colin’s parents do for a living, then it seemed well within the realm of possibility. In fact, the characterization of Colin’s parents makes the entire story believable (well, almost all of it.) Why am I a good judge of how reasonable this is? I’m going to let you in on my secret, while the Autism Society’s statistics state that one out of every 100 children between the ages of 3 and 17 living in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, the number of high functioning autistic students (and/or those identified with Asperger syndrome) at my school is considerably higher. My school does not have a separate setting classroom for autistic students, so I have very little experience with those students whose disability precludes them from being mainstreamed with the general school population. However, due to a confluence of factors, my school has an unusually high number of students ‘on the spectrum’ who are high functioning and come from families similar to Colin’s. In fact, most years my school’s population of these students is between 5 and 8 percent.

What worked for me in this book:

Colin’s family – especially the characterization of his little brother. I think it’s important for youth who have a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder to see that they can be normal. Sometimes being ‘normal’ includes being extremely frustrated and lashing out, just like any other sibling might. His parents are portrayed as active and concerned without being perfect. They’ve sought out as much information as possible to help them raise a child with Colin’s particular needs, but they are still feeling their way through how to parent him (as all parents do.)

Colin – as a main character it can be difficult to establish empathy for an autistic individual – they are so different and seemingly ‘other’ to so many people. I ended up feeling as if Colin were one of my own students. In fact, he reminds me of several of my favorite students from past years.

The pace and plotting – almost everything was tight and well explained. It is a consummate example of ‘show, don’t tell.’

What didn’t work for me in this book:

Colin’s school administration. Maybe things are different in California, but I have never in my 18 years as an educator run into a principal who would have responded the way Colin’s does to almost any of the situations presented in the book. But that’s just me. I don’t think it detracts from the overall reading of the book (especially as its intended audience will doubtlessly not notice.)

The footnotes, and, to a certain extent, Colin’s notebook entries. From the beginning I was frustrated by the footnotes. I felt that most of the information in them was either unnecessary or could have easily been incorporated into the text. I quickly realized that they were effectively pulling me out of the narrative and stopped reading them. I enjoyed the book much more after that. I felt similarly about some of Colin’s notebook entries (mostly towards the end of the book.) Overall, though, I thought they contributed to an understanding of Colin’s character.

Why I think this book is an important purchase:

Empathy. Empathy, empathy, empathy. I cannot say enough how important it is for students to be exposed in a positive way to a diverse population of characters in the books they read. This is a quick and engaging read that explains what it is like to live as a person with Asperger syndrome without casting it in a ‘pitiable’ light. Today’s students are tomorrows coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors. The more we can do to establish empathy for everyone within them now, the better off we will be as a society. For more thoughts on this, here is an excellent recent blog by the author Shannon Hale.

Colin Fischer was published November 1, 2012 by Razorbill. ISBN 978-1595145789.

Approximately 1 in every 88 children born today will be diagnosed with autism or designated as being somewhere on the spectrum. For more information, please check out the Autism Society web site. http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/facts-and-statistics.html

April is Autism Awareness Month

April is Autism Awareness Month 

The most recent statistics from the CDC indicate that 1 out of 88 children are being diagnosed with Autism.  Every day we are encountering teens on the spectrum in our school and public libraries.  The question we must ask ourselves is this: What are we doing to meet their needs?

Teen Issues: Autism and Libraries
With a look at some books that have characters on the spectrum

On the Spectrum and @ Your Library (Guest post by Matthew Ross)
A library director and father of a child on the spectrum, Matt Ross shares some things libraries can do to make the library experience better for all.

Teen Issues: Teens and Autism and Future Horizons
Future Horizons is a publishing house dedicated to raising awareness and helping to meet the needs of those on the spectrum, their parents, educators and more.

Autism & Libraries: A Q&A with J. D. Kraus
Author J D Kraus shares his experiences as a teen on the spectrum and shares things libraries can do to meet the needs of those on the spectrum.

Teens and Autism: What does it mean to be “typical”?
Teen Reviewer Cuyler Creech shares his experiences as the older brother of a beloved young sibling with Down’s and on the spectrum.

Atticus Was Right: The remarkable story about a boy with autism, a bully, and a book and how books can raise awareness and help readers develop compassion (Guest post by Amianne Bailey)

Book Review: Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown (sibling with OCD)
A look at life with a sibling that has OCD, which is often present in those on the spectrum.

The Power of Reading: Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman
More on how reading can help raise awareness and develop compassion. 

Check out this fantastic resource entitled Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected

School Library Journal: The Voices of Autism

Teaching Empathy: The Clever Stick by John Lechner, a tool for discussing Autism

The Clever Stick is a quiet fable about a stick, who has always been clever and been able to think many wonderful thoughts. But the stick has one problem – he can’t speak. So he cannot share his thoughts with any of the forest creatures he meets.

Regular readers know, I care about Autism.  Three of my nephews are on the spectrum, severely low functioning, non verbal.  But one of my nephews does the most amazing thing using those little wooden
blocks with letters on them we all played with as kids: he can write words.  And he can draw.  And these two simple little tools allow him to communicate in ways that are different than the norm.  But they let us know that he is more than what it seems.  In fact, each of my nephews have their own ways of communicating.

The Clever Stick is a short, simple fable about a stick.  The stick is smart, but nobody in the forest knows it because he can’t speak.  Until one day the stick looks down and realizes he is leaving lines in the dirt.  These lines become pictures, a way of sharing what is going on inside.

We often talk about using picture books with tweens and teens, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.  It is a great tool for helping tweens and teens develop some empathy for those who are different, like those on the Autism spectrum.

For more about The Clever Stick, and a teaching guide, visit author John Lechner’s page.  For more about Autism and libraries, please visit the Autism & Libraries section here at TLT.

The Power of Reading: Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

Sometimes life has a moment of kismet.  Just yesterday one of those moments happened.  As I sat at the Reference Desk a mom walked up and asked me where “the classics” were.  She wanted her child, a daughter, to only read the classics so that she would increase her vocabulary.  So we talked.

I told this mom that there was value in all reading.  Reading, you see, helps the reader develop their world view, it helps them learn problem solving and interpersonal relationship skills, and it helps them develop empathy.  In fact, that is one of my favorite parts of reading: sometimes, you take a walk in someone else’s shoes and you understand things you never would have before.  Which brings me to the book Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman.

I was a younger teen librarian when Stuck in Neutral came out, a college student myself.  I didn’t have a lot of worldly experience.  I didn’t know a lot of people who weren’t exactly like me.  I didn’t know anyone like Shawn McDaniel.  And I didn’t know that I needed to think about what it meant to be someone like Shawn.

Today, my world is very different.  I am older, a mother, and an aunt.  If you read here, you know that I have 3 nephews who fall on the Autism spectrum.  They are high on the spectrum and have low to no communication skills, especially if you are someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time with them and come to understand who they are and what they are trying to say.  They, like Shawn, can’t tell you what they think and feel.  They are prone to meltdowns, born out of frustration because they want so desperately for you to understand.  And there are people who look at people like my nephews and shake their head in disgust, wondering why they “get away” with the behavior they see.  They don’t understand that there is more going on in this situation than just a misbehaving kid.  They don’t know what it is like to be a prisoner in your home, afraid of the meltdown, celebrating the smallest little victories, learning how to read the signs.

It was reading Stuck in Neutral that first made me begin to realize that there were people living lives that I couldn’t even begin to understand.  You see, by all accounts, Shawn McDaniel appears to be a vegetable.  He can’t move, he can’t talk, and know one knows what – if anything – is going on inside of him.  And without this knowledge, Shawn’s father thinks he is going to do him a favor and end his life.  Shawn McDaniel has Cerebral Palsy.

“My life is like one of those “good news-bad news” jokes. Like, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news—which do you want first?” I could go on about my good news for hours, but you probably want to hear the punch line, my bad news, right? Well, there isn’t that much, really, but what’s here is pretty wild. First off, my parents got divorced ten years ago because of me. My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn’t divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul—. He divorced me. He couldn’t handle my condition, so he had to leave. My condition? Well, that brings us to the guts of my bad news.” – Terry Trueman, Stuck in Neutral
Stuck in Neutral is told from Shawn’s point of view as he tries to find a way, any way, to let his father know that he is in there and that he does not want to die.  And readers turn page after page while wondering what the outcome will be:  Will Shawn survive?
Stuck in Neutral is an example of quality story telling that does the one thing that we need stories to do: it helps us take a walk in someone else’s shoes and expand our worldview.  For these pages, we come to understand more of what it would be like to live in a world where we can’t control our bodies, where we can’t communicate, and where people think that maybe we don’t have the same value that they do.
For years, I booktalked in the local schools and this was one of my go to booktalks.  Teens ate it up because they could – for just that one minute booktalk – wonder what it would be like to know that your parent thought your life wasn’t worth living.  This is one of those classics that we need to keep re-introducing to teens because it excels not only at storytelling, but because it lets us have that brief moment to walk in someone else’s shoes, a pair of shoes so completely different than our own.  And with current statistics indicating that today 1 out of 5 children have some type of health or behavioral issue, these type of stories are more important than ever.  Our teens are living in worlds much more complex than the ones we grew up with.  They are going to school with students that have Autism, ADHD, OCD, Depression and more (sadly, so much more).  Books like Stuck in Neutral help them to unzip their skin and begin to look at the people around them who may be different as still being human and having worth.  And that is the power of reading.  And that mom, she was glad she had a moment to talk with me and let her daughter pick out whatever she wanted to read.
From now until August 21st, you can read Stuck in Neutral for FREE.  That’s right – FREE.  Author Terry Trueman is coming out with a sequel, Life Happens Next, on August 21st.  Be sure to check back here on August 20th for a guest post from author Terry Trueman and a chance to win 1 of 5 signed copies of Life Happens Next.  To read Stuck in Neutral for free, please visit Epic Reads at http://www.epicreads.com/blog/read-stuck-in-neutral-for-free/
Stuck in Neutral has won the following awards and honors: Books for the Teen Age 2001 (NYPL), Books for Youth Editor’s Choice 2000 (Booklist), Top 10 Youth First Novels 2000(Booklist), 2001 Best Books for Young Adults (ALA), 2001 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers (ALA), and 2001 Michael L. Printz Honor Book
Please visit our Autism & Libraries section to learn more about children and teens on the spectrum, literature and the ways that libraries can better bring the two together.

Atticus was Right: Guest post by Amianne Bailey (Autism and Libraries)

Atticus Was Right

*Names have been changed to protect the truly awesome.  This is part of our ongoing focus on autism and libraries.  Current statistics indicate that 1 out of 88 children are diagnosed with Autism.  This is a story about how books can make a difference.

I’m one of THOSE librarians. After I read a book that moves me, I can’t help but tell everyone I know about it. Yes, I’m a book pusher; I own it, but there are worse things to be obnoxious about. Last March I read Out of my Mindby Sharon Draper and immediately started shouting its praise from the rooftops. I blogged about it, and I went so far as to call it “required reading for all of humanity.” I pushed it into the hands of students and told any teacher who would listen to me about Melody’s story, especially the fifth grade teachers at my school; I encouraged them to read it aloud to their classes. They did because they are THOSE kinds of teachers.

Fast forward to a year later. It is a typical Wednesday in the Shaw library. There is a break between my morning and afternoon rush of classes, so kids drop by to checkout books on their own. A group of sixth grade boys huddle near the nonfiction while a cluster of girls congregate near the display of recommended chapter books. The beep-beep of the scanner serenades us as I go from group to group chatting with and checking on the kids. It’s my own little slice of library heaven.

Kendrick slides through the library door and greets me with a head nod that says, “What’s up, Mrs. Bailey?”

Oh, Kendrick. Seeing him saunter in warms my heart even though he is not a librarian’s typical dream reader. He is a repeat fifth grader who suffers from a bad reputation and worse attitude to match. In the line-up of our students, Kendrick is not our most stellar. Simply put, Kendrick is one of THOSE kids.

But when Kendrick is removed from his peers—from the pressure of acting like his reputation—he is an absolute delight. In my three years at Shaw Elementary, I have come to know Kendrick as a secret reader who always greets me with a slow smile and has never given me a second of grief. I had the privilege of tutoring him last year for the TAKS reading test, and I watched him cry—yes, cry—about his anxiety over that test. Luckily, Kendrick’s second time in fifth grade has been much more successful than his first go-round.  Lately, I have been slipping him my personal hardcover copies of Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and he has devoured both in record time and returned them to me in pristine condition.  

As Kendrick ambles over to the sports chapter books, Josh enters the library with his teacher quick at his heels. Josh is clearly upset, assuming his familiar pose of hands covering ears. Josh is a student in our autistic class, and it is obvious that he is on a mission that might result in a meltdown.

“Hi, Josh! Hi, Mrs. Collins!  How can I help you?” I greet them cheerfully.  

“Josh is trying to tell me something. He wants something in this library, and I need to figure out what it is.” I did not miss the desperation in Mrs. Collins’ voice.

“Of course. Let me help you. I know Josh likes car books so let me pull some for him and see if that will make him happy.” I snap into librarian search mode.

Mrs. Collins and I begin to pull car books and show them to Josh, but his moaning grows increasingly louder. Josh is teetering between agitation and meltdown, and Mrs. Collins and I feel perilously close to the edge. I watch as tears begin to form in Josh’s eyes as he rocks back and forth and moans while holding his head in his hands. We are not cutting it with the car books.

At this point, I notice Kendrick out of the corner of my eye. He is the only other student left in the library. I think the others scrambled out due to the awkwardness of the moment. Kendrick is watching us try to help Josh with a look of concern on his face. Pure genuine concern.

I smile at Kendrick to assure him that everything is okay even though it is not. “Mrs. Bailey, what is wrong with Josh?” Kendrick asks.

“Well, Josh has a hard time communicating with us. He has autism, and that means it’s hard for him to explain what he wants, so we have to guess until we figure it out.” My meager attempt to explain the autistic mind sounds silly and trite.

Kendrick looks me straight in the eye and says, “That’s like Out of my Mind. Just like Melody. She couldn’t communicate either until she got that special computer. I can’t imagine that. Can I help Josh find some books?”

An immediate lump forms in my throat. Mrs. Collins hears Kendrick and her mouth drops open. She has read Out of my Mind, as well (she is a merciless victim of my book pushing habit), so she knows Melody’s story. She is also very familiar with the antics of Kendrick, so she gets the magnitude of this moment.

“Of course, Kendrick. That would be awesome.” I manage to squeak out.

Kendrick pulls some books off the shelf and takes them over to Josh. I don’t even know what they are because I am trying to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes without the boys noticing. Mrs. Collins takes the books from Kendrick; he smiles and swaggers out of the library in that cool Kendrick way. Mrs. Collins shows the books to Josh, and he instantly calms down—Kendrick’s picks seem to appease him—and he walks out of the library much calmer, a look of contentment on his sweet face. Mission accomplished.

I stand in the middle of my empty library amazed at what I just witnessed: the power of books exemplified.

Out of my Mind is not a book about autism. But it is a book about the power of tolerance, acceptance, and empathy in a cruel, judgmental world. Kendrick may not be successful in school, but he can make the connection between life and a book. He can put himself in the shoes of an autistic kid and want to try to help him rather than scurry away or worse—bully him. If there was a test for empathy, Kendrick would pass with flying colors.

Atticus Finch was right. In my all-time favorite book To Kill a Mockingbird, he tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Books do that for people. They give us that “skin-slippage” experience of being able to stand in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspective. Hearing Out of my Mind read aloud by Mr. Holgram, his fabulous, caring teacher, gave Kendrick the opportunity to experience what it would be like to have a disability that crippled his ability to communicate. Kendrick saw Josh in that library and made the connection. He felt empathy. And a book made it all possible.

It’s April so that means ‘tis the season for state-mandated tests in Texas. Educators across our great state are stressed to the breaking point with the impending pressures of the STAAR test. But this one magical moment in my library brought it all back into perspective for me. I am not in this business to make a kid like Kendrick be a really great test taker. Honestly, he is not, and I’m not sure if he ever will be. I am in this business to help kids like Kendrick—all kids—become better human beings by pushing the power of books. I now consider Kendrick one of THOSE kids—one of the most stellar ones that I know.

Librarians are on a mission to change the world—one book—one person—at a time. I am proud to be one of THOSE librarians.

This MG Moment brought to you by the letter A and the number awesome. You know, if Awesome were a number. Amianne Bailey is in her third year as the librarian at Shaw Elementary in Mesquite, Texas. Before she found her “dream job” in the library, she worked in the trenches as a high school English teacher for eleven years. She loves to read (obviously), spend time with her family, and watch sports. You can visit her blog at http://mywesternsky.blogspot.com/.

Teens and Autism: What does it mean to be “typical”

Today is a guest blog post from the TLT Teen Reviewer Cuyler Creech in honor of Autism Awareness Month.  Cuyler is the “typical” older brother to Skeet.  Skeet is autistic.  He also has Down’s Syndrome.  The two brothers are very close and today Cuyler shares their story.

Think back to when you were in school. Like elementary school. Can you remember a group of children who sat together at a certain lunch table? Had a classroom all to themselves? Were different somehow, but you didn’t know exactly how?

I remember those children. And until nearly seven years ago, I knew next to nothing about them. They are atypically developing children. Children with various disorders and diseases. Mental and physical abnormalities are common in such cases. And, as I’ve experienced, cruelty and unfairness is easily dealt to children with these challenges. We know there are bullies, and sometimes we do things ourselves that we aren’t even aware that we’re doing it. It’s pure and simple. Ignorance on any subject forms scrutiny. Judgment. That’s why I’ve dedicated myself to do my best to help those come to know about these children with these challenges.

What makes me qualified to do so? Why should you listen to what I have to say? Well, because I live in a situation where I’m educated every single day of my life on the subject. Nearly seven years ago, Skeet Lee Creech was born with a genetic defect called Down’s Syndrome. A gene disorder, also known as Trisomy 21, affects the twenty-first pair of chromosomes. Instead of two copies, there are three, causing mental and physical disabilities.

I am a sibling of a child with special needs.

Now it’s hard to wrap your head around the concept of “special needs.” I know it was for my family and I. Here we had a child with mental and physical disabilities in a family where we’d never experienced anything like that before. Three healthy, typically-developing children with no health concerns, mental or physical, of any kind. And when Skeet was born, we were thrown kind of a curve ball. We didn’t have the experience. The knowledge. We were ignorant on the subject.

For years my parents found it hard to accept that their child was born with a possibly debilitating disability. Depression was seldom. Commonplace if we thought about it too much. But even so, that’s not to say that we didn’t love Skeet unconditionally. It was a loving, irrevocable relationship, and still is. He’d stolen our hearts. Lifted our spirits with nothing but a smile. But even then, it was hard to accept emotionally that our beloved Skeet would have to live with these challenges for the rest of his life. Heart problems. Delayed physical and mental growth. Poor immune system. Countless tests and checkups and endless doctor’s visits.

Then we got more news. At age three, Skeet had been diagnosed with Autism. A mental disorder, confusing and hard to understand for even the smartest doctors. It affects levels of sociability. Most children with a form of Autism struggle with the concept of relationships. It’s sometimes difficult to make friends. Even relationships with family members. Some even appear that they prefer to be alone. As babies, some do not cry. Most do not talk until much later in development. Their muscle tone can be loose and floppy, and hypersensitivity is not uncommon. Some must follow certain pattern religiously, making it a must-do routine in their day. And some even excel amazingly in intellectual or artistic skills. Most savants have Autism. Autism is very hard to understand, and not much is known about it. A book that I highly recommend is Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, a scientist, college professor, livestock consultant, inventor, and autism advocate who has high-functioning autism. It’s a wonderful book on how she, a person with Autism, sees the world and life. Nearly my entire family read it and had a new found respect for how people like Temple and Skeet may see the world.

It was very hard for my mom and dad when Skeet was diagnosed. It was like another heaping load on our already full plate. But still we did not give up. My parents, wanting to give him anything and everything he had the opportunity to achieve, consulted with various therapists and special education teachers. Today, Skeet goes to speech, physical, and occupational therapy at least twice a week, where they practice on the skills he already has and builds on new ones. One step at a time.

Eventually, my parents came to terms with the idea of Skeet having Autism. They realized that when the doctor handed them the paperwork, they weren’t receiving a different son. He was the same happy, loving, ecstatic Skeet we’d come to love and cherish dearly. He has his own funny, happy, quirky personality that brings a smile to our faces each and every day of our lives. He loves music, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, puppies (any animal really), being outside, milkshakes, anything and everything any “normal” kid would love and enjoy, if not more so. And, he has a very heartfelt love and devotion to his family, which is evident through his bone-crushing hugs and too-wet-but-okay kisses. And believe me, we accept every bit of it.

For me, though, throughout the years of doctor’s visits and therapy sessions, I developed a sort of mama-bear syndrome. I wanted to protect him. From everything. The world really. I didn’t trust it. I still don’t. I’d seen how kids treated kids like Skeet in school, and I didn’t want my little brother to ever have to experience anything like that. Also, it was hard for me to not view the therapy sessions as somewhat harsh. At times when they were trying to get him to do something he didn’t like, he’d get frustrated and upset. It was almost like a reflex that I had to control. Not to jump out of my chair and tell them to leave him alone and let him do it on his own in his own time. But, I came to realize that that was detrimental to his development as well.

The bottom line is this: Children like Skeet can do absolutely anything any other kid can do. Anything. It just may take more time to get there. That’s it. So, I had to come to terms that Skeet needed to be pushed. He needed to be tested to his limit. Therapy hurts, but like anything else, it’s how we learn and survive. It’s essential. This is illustrated through Joseph Layden and Michael E. Kersjes’ book A Smile as Big as the Moon: A Special Education Teacher, His Class, and Their Inspiring Journey Through U.S. Space Camp. A true story of children with special needs, Autism and Down’s included, who accomplish something society never thought possible. A wonderful story that inspires me and moved my heart.

So our lives have been taken on a sort of scary roller coaster ride. One with loops and twists and turns. But, we’ve held on to our straps. We’ve endured and so has Skeet. Down’s or no Down’s, Autism or no Autism, he’s still what we all are. A human being. A human being with challenges. If you don’t think that’s the same, I dare you to bring me someone who doesn’t have any challenges. It’s plain and simple: There are none. Not in the entire world. We all have problems, whether it be in math or English, or socially. Maybe we have a hard time making friends. Figuring out that last few problems on our math homework. Writing that English paper due Tuesday. Fact of the matter is, we all have challenges and we overcome them by learning from our mistakes. We grow and we build on what we have until we grow stronger and more resilient. And that’s what we’ve helped Skeet through every day of his life.

He is my world. He may have parents and friends and family who love him to death, but I am Big Brother. I’ll be there for him for as long as I can. Forever. Always helping him grow and being the best he can be and not what’s expected “typically.” He’s influenced me so much. So much so, that I’m currently enrolled in school to become a therapist to help kids like Skeet meet their own full potential. He’s helped me learn from mistakes that I didn’t even know that I was making. He’s my light in our world of ignorance.

All kid’s need someone to lean on. To help them in this scary world. Add a challenge or two, whether it be Down’s Syndrome or Autism, or even a hard time with math and it can be downright terrifying. But no matter what their circumstance, every child needs a big brother to love them and help them make the next step. And we can be that person to help them do so.

Previous TLT posts on Teens and Autism @ Your Library:
Teen Issues: Autism and Libraries
Teens, Autism and Future Horizons
On the Spectrum and At Your Library (guest post)
Autism and Libraries: a q & a with J. D. Kraus