Please welcome my guest author, Adriana White. I had created a post on special needs children’s books about ten years ago when I started this blog that was really out of date and she saw my post on Twitter and was kind enough to help me out by gently educating me:
Adriana White, MLIS @Adriana_Edu
I love the idea behind this list, but I wanted to point out a couple things. 1) The term “special needs” is not preferred by #disability advocates. See the #NotSpecialNeeds campaign by the World Down Syndrome Day group, or this article by @RebeccaCokley.
Why Special Needs is Not Helpful by Rebecca Cokley in Medium
Thank you to everyone who made suggestions to help me learn about this topic. I have updated the book list and welcome your comments and suggestions. I’m always learning and am grateful to this community for taking the time to educate me!
She also generously offered to create a post of #OwnVoices childen’s and young adult books. I’m thrilled to present it here today!
For as long as I can remember, I have loved reading. As a child, I would read and reread my family’s collection of Childcraft encyclopedias. I loved the stories about other countries and their unique cultures. Now, as a librarian, I still believe that reading is one of the best ways to learn about the diversity of the world. A good book can transport you somewhere entirely new, or show you the perspective of someone living a completely different life.
When we talk about diverse books, we don’t always include books about disability, which is understandable, because, for a long time, there weren’t a lot of books being published with disabled characters. There were even fewer books being published by disabled writers.
Thankfully, we are now beginning to see a rise in the number of children’s books about disability and neurodiversity. One branch of the neurodiversity umbrella, autism, affects an estimated 1 in 54 people, with some experts suggesting that the actual number may be even higher – as high as 1 in 28. As more autistic children grow into autistic adults, the number of books by autistic authors has grown along with them.
The kinds of stories that children’s books tell about autism have also been changing, for the better. Autistic characters were once relegated to minor appearances in other people’s stories, like Susan in the Baby-Sitters Club series, who didn’t talk much and didn’t seem to fit into the “real” world. Characters like Susan primarily existed to teach the main characters, or the readers, a lesson of some sort. (This is also frequently the case in books about neurotypical kids with autistic friends or siblings!)
Now, autistic kids have books that they can actually see themselves in.
We are fortunate to have so many great stories with autistic main characters, written by autistic writers. The following list of recommendations includes many of my favorites.
#OwnVoices Picture Books about Autism
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla, illustrated by Ken Min
Sammy is having an especially bad day, so he has little patience for anyone – even his autistic brother Benji, who is having a bad day of his own. Sammy feels as if there’s not enough room for his emotions, in addition to all the accommodations his family has to make for Benji. Benji, however, has been watching his brother, and knows exactly what Sammy needs to turn his bad day around. Author Sally J. Pla is autistic herself, and says that this book was inspired by the experiences of her own sons. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Too Sticky!: Sensory Issues with Autism by Jen Malia, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
Holly loves science class, but hates things that are sticky, like maple syrup and glue. So when she finds out that her class will be making slime for their next science project, she considers skipping the whole thing. Her parents, sister, and teacher help her work through it, by offering Holly lots of support and a series of touching accommodations. Author Jen Malia was diagnosed with autism on the same day as her daughter, and based Holly’s story on her family’s experience with autism and sensory sensitivities. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Autistic Ollie by Jacob Drum, illustrated by Kit Rees
Autistic Ollie is searching for his place in the world, and trying to figure out what his special talents might be. Through a charming narrative in verse, Ollie decides that the thing he’s best at is just being himself, and he feels confident that he’ll figure out who he wants to be when he’s ready. Author Jacob Drum based Ollie’s story on his own experiences with autism, and also included a wonderful question and answer section at the end of the book that aims to help readers reflect on who they are. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Really, Really Like Me by Gretchen Leary, illustrated by Dani Bowman
This colorful book introduces readers to a group of young children at a school, and shares their different sensory sensitivities and preferences. Less of a storybook and more of an activity book, this title aims to help readers imagine what life is like for kids on the autism spectrum, while also highlighting the fact that autistic and neurotypical children have a lot in common, too! Both author Gretchen Leary and illustrator Dani Bowman are autistic, and drew on their own experiences to create their unique book. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Darius Hates Vegetables by Darius Brown, illustrated by Almar Denso
Darius Brown hates vegetables so much, he wrote an entire book about it! Before becoming a published author at the age of 10, Brown was encouraged to write as a means of coping with his frustrations – chief among which was his disdain for eating vegetables. Brown hopes that, by documenting his experiences in his book, he can inspire other kids to try something new, too (at least once!). [picture book, ages 4 and up]
#OwnVoices Middle Grade Books about Autism
The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla
Charlie loves birds and drawing, but hates noise and chaos. So when his family has to unexpectedly drive cross-country in an old RV to visit his injured father, Charlie is not happy. The journey with his loud siblings is unpredictable, but Charlie decides that if he can use the trip to cross every bird off the “someday” list he made with his dad, then maybe everything will be okay. Pla also wrote another book with an autistic protagonist, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, which featured wonderful illustrations by Steve Wolfhard. [middle grade, for ages 8 and up]
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit
Vivy wants to play baseball more than anything else in the world, but everyone thinks she should just play softball instead, like other girls. Vivy’s mom also thinks that she shouldn’t play because she’s autistic, and she wants Vivy to focus on being more like everyone else. Vivy, however, just wants to be herself, and when an accident threatens her spot on a local baseball team, Vivy has to fight for what she wants. This epistolary novel is told through a series of letters between Vivy and her favorite baseball player, VJ Capello. Author Sarah Kapit is autistic, loves baseball, and is a big advocate for the neurodiversity movement. [middle grade, for ages 8 and up]
Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse by Susan Vaught
When Jesse’s dad is accused of stealing money from the school library, she knows that the police have the wrong person. Jesse has been training her Pomeranian, Sam-Sam, to be a bomb-sniffing dog, like her soldier mom’s dog in Afghanistan. While Jesse is sure that Sam-Sam can be a hero, she is less sure about her own heroic potential. When a tornado hits her small town, Jesse and Sam-Sam are both able to show everyone how heroic and helpful they can really be. This novel is told in alternating chapters that cover events before and after the tornado. Author Susan Vaught is an autistic neuropsychologist who works with people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities in Kentucky. [middle grade, for ages 8 and up]
Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Planet Earth is Blue is an incredibly unique book about a nonspeaking autistic girl named Nova. Nova loves space, and knows a lot about the universe, but since she struggles to show what she knows, everyone around her thinks she can’t do very much at all. The one person who believed in her most, her sister Bridget, has run away, and Nova worries that she won’t make it back in time to watch the launch of the Challenger space shuttle with her. Author Nicole Panteleakos shares Nova’s autism and OCD diagnoses, but notes that she was not nonverbal as a child. She has written on her blog about this, in an excellent post titled “How #OwnVoices is #OwnVoices?” [middle grade, for ages 8 and up]
Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
To say that Kiara has trouble making friends is an understatement. After she is kicked out of school for hitting a classmate in the face with a lunch tray (an act which may or may not have been, at least somewhat, justified), Kiara befriends her new neighbors. Kiara is willing to do just about anything to make her friendship with Chad work, but when she is betrayed by someone she thought she could trust (just like her favorite X-Men character Rogue), Kiara must reconsider what friendship really means, and what she’ll do to fight for it. Author Lyn Miller-Lachmann also struggled to make friends as a kid, and has written about how her autism diagnosis in adulthood helped explain so much about her life. [middle grade, for ages 10 and up]
#OwnVoices Young Adult Books about Autism
Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp
Maddy is one of five friends in a role-playing game group, who all agree to meet up in a cabin in the woods after a long break. Told in alternating chapters, the book balances an incredibly diverse group of perspectives. Maddy is autistic and suffers from post-traumatic stress, while some of her friends are trans, disabled, suffer from addictions, and more. The story is thrilling and fast-paced, and illustrates the importance of friendships. Maddy’s friends make accommodations for her in a way that is heartwarming and kind, without being condescending. Author Marieke Nijkamp also edited the anthology Unbroken, which includes stories by other fantastic autistic and disabled authors. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis
Denise unexpectedly boards the spaceship Nassau as a comet hits the Earth. The ship will soon leave to colonize new planets, and if Denise wants to stay on board, she’ll have to prove that she can be useful. Denise is autistic, and wonders what she can offer (and she has her mother and sister to worry about, too). Author Corinne Duyvis just released her newest book, The Art of Saving the World. While she has stated that she did not write any of the characters in her new book as autistic, others have told her that even her neurotypical characters have some autistic traits. [young adult, ages 13 and up]
Underdogs by Chris Bonnello
In a dystopian future England, a group of disabled teens must stand up to an army of cloned soldiers. Previously defined primarily by their deficits, these teens will learn how to use their strengths to fight back and save their country. The neurodiverse cast of characters include students with autism, anxiety, ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, dyslexia, and more. The second book in the series, Underdogs: Tooth and Nail, was released this summer. In addition to being an author, Chris Bonnello also runs the excellent Autistic Not Weird website, where he offers advice based on his experiences as an autistic teacher. [young adult, ages 15 and up]
Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde
Taylor is autistic, anxious, and in love with her best friend Jamie. Taylor has accepted that nothing will ever happen between her and Jamie, but when they accompany their vlogger/actress friend Charlie to SupaCon, everything changes. This story is told in alternating chapters, as Taylor and Charlie both experience their own distinct love stories. Author Jen Wilde is both autistic and diagnosed with anxiety, so she is able to bring her own life experiences into the character of Taylor, which makes for an incredibly compelling and genuine representation. [young adult, ages 13 and up]
The Place Inside the Storm by Bradley W. Wright
Tara struggles with school and isn’t good at making friends, but she doesn’t know why. When her parents are blackmailed into accepting a brain implant that will “cure” her autism, Tara decides that she has to run. With her robot cat Xel as her only companion, Tara must escape Los Angeles, learn more about autism and neurodiversity, and find a place where she can truly belong. Author Bradley W. Wright is an autistic teacher and technology director. He was inspired to write this book after visiting the Disability in KidLit website (now on indefinite hiatus), and reading about representations of autism in books. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
Bonus: 5 Upcoming #OwnVoices Books about Autism to Watch Out For
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (published in the UK, due out in the US Fall 2021)
Addie has never really fit in, and often feels ostracized by her teachers and classmates. When she learns about the witch trials that once took place in her small Scottish town, she campaigns to create a memorial to the women who were falsely accused of witchcraft. Addie relates to them, because she is frequently misunderstood by others, too. The only person who seems to understand her is her oldest sister Keedie, who is also autistic. Elle McNicoll wrote her master’s dissertation on the lack of #OwnVoices in children’s books about autism, and decided she could make a difference by becoming an autistic author [middle grade, for ages 9 and up]
Flap Your Hands by Steve Asbell, illustrated by Steve Asbell (Spring 2021)
Steve Asbell is an author, illustrator, and creator of the Stimmy Kitty webcomic series. He is also an autistic parent of an autistic child, and occasionally shares insights on parenting on social media. His upcoming picture book, Flap Your Hands, will be published by Lee and Low in Spring 2021.
Moonwalking by Zetta Elliott & Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Fall 2021)
Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s next book, a collaboration with author Zetta Elliott, is historical fiction and a novel in verse. The story centers on the friendship between two very different kids – undiagnosed autistic JJ, who is white, and science geek/graffiti artist Pie, who is Afro-Latinx. The two friends bond over their love of punk music and decide to start a band in 1980s Brooklyn. [middle grade, for ages TBD]
The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family by Sarah Kapit (Mar 23, 2021)
Sarah Kapit’s next book is the story of two autistic siblings – one of whom uses an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device to communicate. Sisters Lara and Caroline start a detective agency and begin to solve mysteries together, but when everything falls apart, can they make things right and be friends again? [middle grade, for ages TBD]
Izzy at the End of the World by K. A. Reynolds (2022)
Autistic author K. A. Reynolds began writing as a child, following the death of her mother, and credits books and writing with helping her to not feel so alone. Her upcoming middle grade book is about a neurodivergent girl named Izzy who, with her dog by her side, is trying to survive the end of the world and find out the truth about her mother. The book will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s in 2022. [middle grade, ages TBD]
Adriana White is an autistic librarian, former special education teacher, and writer. After being diagnosed with autism in her 30s, she now advocates for more autism-friendly schools and libraries. She is also passionate about supporting #OwnVoices books by autistic authors, and thinks that every library should include them! Links to her work can be found at https://linktr.ee/adrianalw. You can also follow Adriana on Twitter at @Adriana_Edu, where she tweets about autism, libraries, and diverse books.
p.s. Related posts:
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.