Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘aspergers

When her son was diagnosed with autism, Diane Mayer Christiansen drew upon her own childhood experiences with dyslexia to become his best advocate. Finding that there are too few children’s books that feature main characters with special needs, she decided that it was up to her to help fill that void. Christiansen’s heart is certainly in the right place with The SNUB Club and I wish I could recommend it. Sadly, it has too many flaws.

New authors tend to make many of the same mistakes: such as telling instead of showing, and dense information dumps. For example, rather than showing us that one of her characters is a tattle tale, she just tells us that he is one. And when she introduces Jackie’s autism, she stops the story to devote a full page to a description of the disorder. This isn’t necessary. She starts off well, by giving us a scene in which she shows us that Jackie hears music as unpleasant noise. She could then have explained that his reaction was due to his autism, given us one or two sentences more about it, and then could have allowed us to discover other facets of autism throughout the course of the story.

And then there are the clichés and stereotypes. Christiansen does try to give her bullies some depth, and yet they are little more than cartoons. The alpha bully and his two mindless sidekicks target Jackie and Cameron exclusively. They call them names. They sneer and jeer at every opportunity. And of course they are quick to put on a Mr. Nice Guy act in the presence of adults. But these bullies are an unnecessary subplot; the main story would have worked better without them.

Finally, there is the issue of how exactly to portray characters with special needs. Until recently, most children’s books had no such characters, and if they existed at all their purpose was to bring about change in the hero. And there are certainly good stories with characters with special needs in secondary roles, such as Rules by Cynthia Lord, wherein a sibling learns to live with her brother’s autism. A newer trend is to bestow special needs characters with super powers. The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan is a good example of this. But do such stories have anything to offer children with special needs, given that they do not offer realistic role models or realistic solutions to real problems? On the other hand, who doesn’t like seeing someone like themselves kicking ass? One author who does write about kids with special needs in realistic situations is Kathryn Erskine, in her books Mockingbird and The Absolute Value of Mike.

In writing about two up-and-coming young detectives, whose powers of perception parallel those of Encyclopedia Brown, Christiansen seems to have chosen the super-hero model. It might have worked, too, if not for the heavy-handed storytelling. Witness Jackie’s words: “Wow, I can’t believe we’re actually catching the thief. I mean we’re just kids and we have ASD.” Variations of this message are frequently repeated throughout The SNUB Club. Then there’s the problem that the two heroes are annoyingly good. Their only “flaws” are those autistic traits perceive as such by others. For example, their black-and-white view of the world. Even aside from our heroes, the story itself is preachy. When doughnuts go missing, the teachers become lazy and mean until they discover the merits of health food.

I admire Christiansen for writing fiction that features young people with special needs. Diversity on various levels is a gap that needs to be closed in various forms of media. I’ll be interested to read Christiansen’s next effort; she clearly has a passion for kids with special needs.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

Growing up, Diane Christiansen grew up with dyslexia. She’s now a published author who writes about children with special needs. She also speaks to parents and teachers about learning to celebrate those things that make our children different and her journey with her son and his ASD. Below is a guest post that she kindly wrote for me. Tomorrow I’ll share my thoughts of SNUB Club. Save the date: May 10!


Understanding Autism
by Diane Christiansen

Autism is a word that I thought I understood. I had taken a psychology class or two in college and I can remember documentaries about children with autism. Flapping of the arms, nonverbal and never attending typical school. But what I didn’t understand is that autism is on a spectrum which means that there many ways that it can present itself in a child. When my son was diagnosed with autism I was a little confused. He had sensory issues from the very beginning. No parades (too loud), no restaurants (too smelly) and a very limited diet (too strong). But autism? Whenever I speak to a group that has a limited understanding of this neurological difference, I always start by telling the story of how my son, Jackie, came to be diagnosed with autism.

DianeChristiansen_SonIt was the summer before second grade. Jackie had begun to have trouble making friends and crossing over from parallel play into a social setting. So, I made the decision to sign him up for camp. I thought that just a few hours a day, making new friends, playing games and being outdoors would do the trick to get him on his way to breaking that barrier. I dropped him off on the first morning and hovered a little before I left. He seemed fine, as one of the counselors came to take his hand and lead him over to the playground. All was well…until I arrived to pick him up.

I arrived early and immediately saw that something was wrong. Jackie was perched under a tree away from the group, biting his fingers raw. When he saw me he began to cry and then yell and then run around in an uncontrollable rage. It was the first time he had really experienced rage like this and I could tell he was in complete internal chaos. I ran to him and he told me the ugly truth,

“The kids here are mean. They’re trying to kill me. They want me to die!” The mother tigress began to stir within me and I quickly began to search for the counselors as well as these terrible bullies that had been tormenting my son. I was expecting expulsion from the camp, an apology and a promise to keep a better eye on things but that’s not what happened. I found the head counselor and in a panic asked him what had happened. He told me that they had set up the field for dodge ball (a sport that should be banned) and when the campers had begun the game, Jackie didn’t seem to understand. He tried to run away and so he was the first victim of flying balls. In his mind dodge ball wasn’t a game, it was a large group of kids trying to attack him. He couldn’t see that everyone was smiling and having fun. He couldn’t see that the others were trying to include him. He couldn’t read facial expressions or deal with the sensory overload of being hit repeatedly with small plastic balls. He was terrified.

The day ended with ice cream and extra television time for Jackie and I realized how lucky I was and how I could no longer assume that Jackie’s reality was accurate. As it turned out, the head counselor’s full-time job was working with autistic children and so he was able to give me a lot of information. Two weeks later we had our diagnosis and, believe it or not, I was relieved. I knew from that moment on, that I would be able to help my son, that these problems that we had been dealing with for years, had a name. Missed social cues, anger issues, latent speech, and yes, some flapping of the arms on the playground, were all a part of who he was and is today. He’s an amazing kid who has a brain that works differently than some, but who is loyal, funny, creative and a little stubborn. He’s a kid with autism, but mostly, he’s just a kid.

DianeChristiansenDespite her struggles with dyslexia, Diane Christiansen graduated with a Biology degree. She also went on to work at both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University doing genetic research for the department of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology.

Now Christiansen is a stay-at-home mom and a published author of middle school chapter books including SNUB Club. She draws on both her own childhood experiences and her journey with her son who has Autism to create fiction based around children with special needs.

Tomorrow I’ll post a guest post by Christiansen about Austism. Then on Saturday I’ll share my thoughts of SNUB Club. Save the dates: May 9-10!

ALLISON: How did your parents help you cope with dyslexia growing up?

DIANE: Growing up with dyslexia, in a time when no one really understood what the disorder was, was challenging at best. Many educators didn’t readily accept that a neurological difference like dyslexia could exist and so I was labeled lazy at a very early age. As one can imagine, lacking the ability to read caused all sorts of chaos in school. My grades were poor, I was unable to fully express the ideas resting in my head, and my self-esteem plummeted. I was lucky though. I had parents who were encouraging and never made me feel as if I weren’t living up to unspoken standards.

ALLISON: What were your favorite childhood past times?

DIANE: As a child, I loved animals. I would often seek out the stray cat or dog and offer them refuge in some old box in the back yard. I would spend my allowance on pet food. I was even known to take in injured animals and nurse them back to health. Even back then, I would spend hours making up exciting adventures as I flipped through the pages of books that I couldn’t read. In second grade, one teacher told my mother that one day I would be a writer.

ALLISON: Did you have a teacher who changed your reading life?

DIANE: I did. My High School science teacher made me a believer in myself. His name was Mr. Pitman and he was probably the scariest teacher in the school. He used to walk down the hallways grumbling, yelling at students to get to class. But the way he taught was perfect for a dyslexic. He would use a lot of visuals and go through the chapters in our text books so that I could read alone as he spoke. That’s when I realized that science was for me. It was the first time that I knew that I wasn’t stupid, that I could achieve academically. It was my first A.

ALLISON: How did dyslexia effect you as an adolescent?

DIANE: I guess when you are told over and over again that you are lazy and that you aren’t trying, you begin to believe it. I’m not sure that educators really understand the power of words. By the time I reached adolescents, there were all kinds of self-esteems issues to deal with. I found it difficult to make friends and I made poor choices. I was just looking for a place to fit in.

ALLISON: What strategies help you now in coping with dyslexia?

DIANE: Thankfully, my reading is better now. I have learned that I need to read things over and over again to remember them, so that’s what I do. Speaking can still be difficult. Many people don’t understand that dyslexia can effect speech and sight as well. I could have the most profound thoughts in my head and not be able to articulate them. That’s why writing works better for me. Still, my editors laugh because I can’t always remember what I write. I’ll go back and read a chapter and say, wow, did I really write that?

ALLISON: Why did you become a writer?

DIANE: I never thought I could write. Back before computers, it would have been impossible. My spelling is atrocious, really, really bad. But spell check saves me most of the time. I’ve had stories in my head since forever. When I had my son, Jackie, I left the lab and decided to take a stab at a book.

ALLISON: As a former laboratory manager you were involved in genetic research. Share the highlights of what a typical day might look like. Have your drawn upon this knowledge for writing novels?

DIANE: Becoming involved in research is like deciding to give up you like and to live in the lab. It’s a full-time thing. You become so invested in whatever project you are working on at the time. We were working with proteins involved in reproductive medicine and so I always felt like I was doing something meaningful. I might run a series of experiments in the morning, organize supplies and make sure that everyone else had what they needed, then come back in the middle of the night to end an experiment. It involved a lot of early mornings as well, not at all conducive to raising children. I have used some lab techniques in my books, especially the Sci-Fi series that I’m working on now.

ALLISON: Why did you choose to write about special needs through a mystery?

DIANE: Well, my son’s book, Jackie’s Journal, led the way for me. His book is a children’s autobiography about his journey with autism. I wanted to keep words like autism and ADHD out there so I decided to write Snub Club. I’m kind of a trickster. Mystery chapter books appeal to elementary school aged children, so why not write a fun mystery while also sneaking in two main characters that have autism and ADHD. My real goal is to desensitize children to these words early on and give them some information about special needs in a funny way.

ALLISON: Your son has autism. What strategies have helped you as a parent to handle this?

DIANE: When Jackie was diagnosed with autism, I didn’t panic. For me it was just another neurological difference, like dyslexia, that we had to deal with. I think that I have the ability to understand his frustrations better, having gone through my own. It takes patience to raise an ASD kid but I try to always remember where I came from and the support that I had from my own parents. One thing that I don’t do is allow a teacher to tell me what’s best for him. I am a true advocate for sure.

ALLISON: How can educators better support students who fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder?

DIANE: There is a new idea emerging with in the academic field. It’s called Social Emotional Learning and is based on kindness and understanding. Negative reinforcement has been proven unsuccessful. Now it’s time to get to the root of a problem rather than give out consequences every time a child makes a bad choice. It’s a great thing and will work wonders on ASD kids. We also push modeling appropriate behaviors though peer mentorship. Kids will listen to their peers much more readily that to a teacher most of the time.

ALLISON: Moms live busy lives. What do you like to do to relax?

DIANE: I love to write. It takes me out of my world into another. I can lose myself for hours, like watching a movie in my head. I also love to walk and travel when I have time. Opera, yes. Shakespeare, yes. Disney World, Big Yes!

ALLISON: What’s next?

DIANE: Along with Social Emotional Learning, I have created a campaign. It’s called RedDay and it is a campaign of kindness within schools across the nation. It’s sort of an anti-bullying presentation but it focuses on kindness and the power of words. I feel like I’ve come full circle with this. I can still remember overhearing a conversation between two of my teacher as they mocked dyslexia calling it the laziness disorder. Those words stayed with me for a long time. So now I can share that story with students and teacher alike, hoping for a kinder and accepting world. Oh, yeah, there’s also the new book. It’s all about one girl’s struggle to make the harder choice, the right choice, the choice that may even save her life.

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