When Leigh Merryday, who is a teacher and librarian, blogs about autism in young children, this is the post she wants to write for us. For 20 years, she has worked in middle school. She says she has seen a big difference in autistic kids who have had their peers understand autism early.
A few weeks ago, I was asked if I could talk to a group of kindergarteners about autism. This isn’t just any group of kindergarteners, though. This is a group of kids from a school. It’s my son’s friends. A read-aloud was what I wanted. I wanted one or two good books. Being a school librarian, I know that there are a lot of books for kids out there. So, I asked the best people I know, who are also my fans, to share their ideas on my Facebook page. I have a lot of them.
They all cost too much, so I couldn’t buy them all, so I bought a few that seemed to be a good fit for the age group and read them all at once. Not at all. I’ve only put the ones I think are good in this list. I don’t think negative reviews are good for people who already have a limited amount of time. In my opinion, children read and listen better than we give them credit for. I tend to stay away from the preachy ones. I also like books that are a little more subtle and allow for a lot of good conversation. There is where you can get to hearts and minds.
Looking after Louis by Lesley Ely, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
It’s about a little boy named Louis who is autistic and is in a normal school class. His friend, a little girl who hasn’t been named, tells the story as she and her classmates try to figure out Louis and some of his weird habits. Louis repeats what other people say. He paints pictures that other people don’t understand. He runs all over the field during the kids’ soccer game. When they see that Louis can do things the kids can’t, they start to point it out. Even though at first, everyone didn’t seem to notice how hard Louis tried to communicate something important to him. That makes another child want to play with Louis, but it’s not recess. This is a good time to teach, so his teacher lets them go outside with Louis’s help. The little girl at first doesn’t like what she thinks is special treatment, but then her teachers give her a chance to think about what she thinks. When she thinks about it, she comes to the conclusion that sometimes it’s OK to break rules and expectations for people who are different from the rest of the class, which supports the idea of inclusion in the regular classroom. All of us can be friends even if some things are different for people who need them.
I really liked this little story, mostly because the range of emotions these kids show is real. At times, they give Louis a pat on the back. Sometimes, they don’t know what to do. Some of the time, they are a little angry at what they think is unfair. Nonetheless, because of how their teacher treats Louis, they learn about the true spirit of inclusion. As a read-aloud, it could be a good way to talk about how different people are. It doesn’t tell you what a tolerant and welcoming classroom looks like in this book, which is a good thing. This is one of the main differences between this book and other special needs books that are more “preachy.” Recommended.
Andy and His Yellow Frisbee by Mary Thompson
This book tells the story of a new girl at Andy and Rosie’s school, Sarah. This is what Sarah has noticed about Andy, a boy who is autistic. At recess, he keeps spinning the same yellow Frisbee over and over again. To try and get Andy’s attention, she asks if he’d like to spin her pink Frisbee, which she’s clearly brought from home. Andy’s sister, Rosie, is playing soccer right next to him and always looks out for him. She gets worried when she sees Sarah sitting next to Andy, because she knows that people don’t always understand him. In the end, she leaves the game and comes over to watch them. She sees Sarah’s soft approach to Andy and her acceptance that he might choose to do the same thing on another day. In the end, Sarah and Rosie decide to play Frisbee.
Sarah reminded me of my daughter, which is why I liked this story of acceptance. To show typical kids that there is no magic formula for getting along with someone who is autistic, this story has Sarah try and Rose wait and see. It’s important to know that even if you don’t get anything right away, your efforts still make a difference. Andy did notice that Sarah had given him a Frisbee, but he didn’t play with her. In Sarah’s example, other students who want to get to know their autistic classmates but aren’t sure how to do so can look to her as an example. Andy and His Yellow Frisbee isn’t the first book I’d read aloud to normal kids to help them understand what autism is. The book’s focus is more specific. There are a lot of good reasons why I think it’s a good idea to use it again later to teach kids about differences and how to interact with their autistic peers. It’s also a great story for the siblings who are protective of their siblings who have autism. Recommended.
Ian’s Walk: A Story about Autism by Laurie Lears, illustrated by Karen Ritz
In Ian’s Walk, siblings Julie, Tara, and Ian, who is autistic, go on a walk to the park. Ian’s Walk is the story of their walk. As Ian begs for a ride, Julie gives in when he asks. Mother: Julie should keep an eye on Ian. In the beginning of their walk, Julie pays attention to the different ways Ian hears, sees, smells, and feels things. As long as she points out these things, she gets annoyed by Ian’s differences and loses her temper. When the girls go to get pizza, Tara tells Julie to look after Ian, and she does. But Julie gets distracted and doesn’t notice that Ian has gone. It’s a race against time for the sisters to find their little brother, who is in danger. Julie then decides to think and feel like Ian, so she looks around and thinks about where he would be. That’s how she found him. She made the big bell at the park go ring back and forth. Because he is safe, Julie now sees their walk back in a different way. She is grateful for that. This time, she lets Ian enjoy the walk the way he wants to, letting him stop and enjoy the sights, smells, and feelings he likes.
Ian’s Walk is a beautiful story with a simple plot, but it also shows the complicated relationship between siblings in families with special needs kids, which is shown in the book. It’s an easy story to tell to the siblings of kids with autism or other special needs (or even in support groups for such). Even better, though, is that the story also explains many aspects of autism and sensory integration disorder very well. It would also be a good read-aloud for people who are just learning about the subject. 7-year-old: This story was a big hit with my daughter. She could see both her brother and her own emotions in it. Recommended.
My Friend with Autism, Enhanced Edition with CD by Beverly Bishop, illustrated by Craig Bishop
My friend has autism. A friend of the author tells the story of his friend, who is autistic, to the reader. In the beginning, he talks about all the things his friend is good at. He talks about how he hears, sees, touches, tastes, is smart, and so on. There is a reason why his friend is good at each thing he does (examples: extra-sensitive ears that hear before others but cause him to sometimes cover his ears). This part is positive about autism, but it’s also very honest. He says that while his friend is good at many things, there are some that are hard for him (talking, understanding feelings, sharing, etc.) This part is good because the narrator gives ideas for how to help the friend when these things happen.
My Friend with Autism is a practical and positive way for normal kids to learn about autism. When kids see that they can be friends with their classmates with autism, they don’t have to worry about it. An adult guide is included with this new version. It tells adults about autism and gives them advice on how to work with kids on the spectrum. Afterwards, kids can color in pages from their favorite book. The CD comes with coloring sheets of pages from the book. To read aloud in an inclusive classroom, I would start with this book and then read one or more of the stories on this list.