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Guest Post by Yvonne Ventresca: Characters on the Autism Spectrum

Today at YA Highway we're featuring a guest post in honor of National Austism Awareness Month by author Yvonne Ventresca.  Yvonne's YA novel, PANDEMIC, about an emotionally traumatized girl struggling to survive a bird flu pandemic, debuts May 2014. 

Characters on the Autism Spectrum

At a time when one in every 68 children in the US is affected by autism, it’s interesting to see how children’s literature portrays autistic characters.  (I’ll admit that I’m not exactly neutral on this topic because my nephew is autistic.) Because of the prevalence of this disorder, the odds are high that teens will have an autistic family member, or a classmate with Asperger syndrome, or a neighbor on the spectrum. The statistics are depressingly inescapable.

Of the young adult novels I’ve read with a major character on the spectrum, there is an interesting trend of “autistic but gifted.” In general, characters with Asperger syndrome dominate these teen books and almost all of the characters have some type of remarkable ability. Their portrayal is in some ways unfortunate, because autistic children do not necessarily have exceptional skills, for example, in math, music, or art.

YA novels with autistic characters have increased in recent years. Here are several that include a primary character on the autism spectrum.

Autism and Mystery



Published in 2003, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of the older and better known novels with an autistic narrator. Christopher John Frances Boone is 15 years, 3 months, and 2 days old when his next door neighbor’s dog is murdered during the night. As he investigates the crime, Christopher sets out to document the mystery of the dog’s death.

Haddon weaves information about Christopher’s disorder throughout the story: his paralyzing dislikes (the colors yellow and brown, for example), his quirks (four yellow cars in a row means a Black Day) and his issues (he hates being touched and has difficulty understanding facial expressions).  He attends a special needs school, knows every prime number up to 7057, and eventually gets an A on an advanced math exam. But he still struggles to process other people’s emotions.

Emotions are at the heart of the dog’s murder and its death leads to the bigger mystery of what really happened to Christopher’s mother. Because of his autism, he narrates in a matter-of-fact way. His factual descriptions contrast with the underlying feelings of many scenes, so that Christopher’s very nature adds another layer of suspense to the story. The reader connects the emotional dots before Christopher does, then waits anxiously for his inevitable realizations about the messy human relationships in his life.



In The Silence of Murder by Dandi Daley Mackall (2011), the high school baseball coach is murdered and Hope’s selectively mute and autistic brother is on trial for the crime. Told in first person by Hope, this mystery includes many flawed adults and a host of suspects that she diligently investigates. Hope worries that Jeremy (who has Asperger’s) will not survive in a mental hospital if found insane and this fuels her desperation to find the real killer.

Jeremy is the only autistic YA primary character I discovered who is not also intellectually gifted in some way. The key to solving the murder is his obsession with collecting empty jars and labeling them, which leads to a memorable and poignant final courtroom scene. Overall, this is a satisfying mystery in its own right, but the main thread throughout the story is Hope’s devotion and love for her older brother. 

Autism and Romance



The Half-Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin (2010) is a YA romance that alternates between Liana’s and Hank’s first person point of view. Having recently kissed various boys, Liana decides to temporarily give up kissing after she finds an anonymous note calling her a slut.

When she meets Hank, she finds his sincerity and quirkiness endearing.  Mystified by Liana and her possible interest in him, Hank provides insight into his struggles to pay attention during conversation: “The girl looks at me. I guess she’s saying something to me with her expression. I don’t know what it is. Now I’m nervous. I’ve forgotten to listen, I’ve forgotten to take a moment to think about whether another person might want to hear what’s going on in my brain, all the advice that helps me navigate the world.” After Liana opens up about some personal issues, Hank, who is musically gifted, explains that he has Asperger syndrome. (Liana hasn’t heard of it, which allows for a detailed explanation.)

It’s interesting that in some ways Liana’s “slut” label is as damaging as Hank’s. His social miscues (he innocently tells a group of people Liana’s secrets) create the final conflict, but this novel is not so much an Asperger story as it is about two dissimilar people learning to navigate a deepening relationship.

Autism and Dystopia



In Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes (2013), a fatal virus has greatly diminished the US population, leaving each state’s survivors in an isolated city where they are kept busy, hungry, and in need of a daily viral suppressant that was discovered through time travel.

One of the main characters, Clover, is autistic, but also possesses an extraordinary memory and scores exceptionally well on her entrance exams for the city’s Academy. Clover is another autistic but gifted character, but several things make Viral Nation unique. One is Clover’s service dog, Mango, who comforts her during times of stress and helps keep some of her autistic behaviors (rocking, hand-flapping) in check. Because this story is told from varying third person points of view, the reader sees Clover from other perspectives besides her own.  If Clover shuts down in a nearly catatonic state, for example, the story can continue from the viewpoint of West, her brother.

When Clover discovers that West is accused of a future murder, Clover, West, and their friends begin to question to government and its processes. As they struggle to save West, Clover learns more about time travel and how her autism provides an advantage.

Autism and Coming of Age



In Mindblind by Jennifer Roy (2010), main character Nathaniel Clark struggles with his “genius” label as much as he struggles with Asperger syndrome. At fourteen, Nathaniel is about to graduate college through a distance learning program. He is both socially awkward and mathematically brilliant, but he doesn’t consider himself a literal genius.

Nathaniel has strong friendships with a neighborhood boy and a girl who also has Asperger syndrome. Although he has a loving mother and younger stepbrother, Nathaniel feels he has disappointed his father. “If he’s such a genius, why can’t he tie his own shoes?” his dad says when Nathaniel is seven. Ironically, Dad works as a famous motivational speaker.

 Throughout Mindblind, Nathaniel struggles with his relationship with his father, his crush on the girl in his band, and his desire to be a genius by making a difference. Mindblind is an optimistic story about how a teen with Asperger syndrome can find his place in the world.



Rules by Cynthia Lord is a middle grade novel (2006), but it is worth inclusion because of its portrayal of a non-gifted autistic character. Told from twelve-year-old Catherine’s first person point of view, Rules is a poignant story about the difficulties of having a younger autistic brother. David does not have Asperger syndrome. He is a characterized as an autistic eight-year-old who needs occupational theory, takes his pants off unexpectedly, and loves repeating Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Are Friends. Catherine creates a series of rules to help David navigate the world, such as “Sometimes people don’t answer because they didn’t hear you. Other times it’s because they don’t want to hear you.”

The conflict of the story stems from Catherine’s protective love for her brother, but her resentment, too. Is it unfair to want some attention from their parents? Is it wrong to want a new friend that doesn’t judge her based on her brother’s behavior? At the same time, she loves David fiercely and is mature enough to understand that a true friend will accept her, autistic brother and all.

During David’s occupational therapy, Catherine meets Jason, an older teenager confined to a wheelchair and reliant on word cards that he uses to communicate by pointing. Catherine adds to his cards, giving him new words like “Joke,”  “Unfair,” and “Whatever.” Her new friendship with Jason broadens her perspective about people with disabilities and her own family situation.

Additional Young Adult Novels:

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (“Asperger's-like condition”)
Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz (Asperger syndrome)
Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly (Asperger syndrome)
My Strange and Terrible Malady by Catherine Bristow (Asperger syndrome)

Additional Middle Grade Novels:

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (Asperger syndrome)
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko (Main character’s sister is autistic)
Anything But Typical written by Nora Raleigh Baskin (High functioning autism)
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd (Asperger syndrome)
The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman (Asperger syndrome)
Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Asperger syndrome)

For more information about autism spectrum disorder:

Frequently Asked Questions about autism from Autism Speaks. www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/faq

Autism data and statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

Information about Asperger Syndrome from Autism Speaks www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/asperger-syndrome and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/detail_asperger.htm.



Yvonne Ventresca’s debut YA novel, Pandemic, will be available in May 2014 from Sky Pony Press.  Her blog, Word Pop, (www.yvonneventresca.com) features weekly writing resources for teens and roundups of links for writers of all ages. You can find Yvonne on Twitter at twitter.com/YvonneVentresca.

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The opinions expressed in guest posts are the views of the designated authors and do not necessarily reflect those of YA Highway members. However, many in the autism community point out that Autism Speaks works against the interests of people with autism. The Autistic Self Advocacy Council presents its concerns in this open letter to the organization Emily Willingham at Forbes explains why Autism Speaks doesn't speak for her, and The Caffeinated Autistic includes several other alternate organizations.

We are grateful to our guest bloggers and our community of readers, and encourage you to continue the conversation here in the comments. 



Debra Driza

Debra is the author of the MILA 2.0 series and a master of the fine art of procrastination.

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4 comments:

  1. Thank you for hosting my blog post today and for providing additional resources and links.

    Yvonne

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice post! I hadn't realized there were so many books on this important topic.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As a teacher, I thought this an excellent post to signpost books featuring characters with a special need. Will certainly be having a delve in to some of them. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'd like to add The Real Boy by Anna Ursu to your middle grade list. As it's a fantasy novel set in a time and place far away, autism is never mentioned per se, but Oscar, the protagonist, is clearly (and deliberately, according to Ursu) on the spectrum.

    I'm in the planning and very early drafting stages of a YA novel with a boy on the spectrum, so your post is very helpful. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete

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Item Reviewed: Guest Post by Yvonne Ventresca: Characters on the Autism Spectrum Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Debra Driza