The Autism Bookshelf: The H.A.L. Experiment

Family, friends, and teachers have all gotten on me about how I have to write a book. About what, no one ever seems to say, just that I need to. While I’ve written scores of commercials for radio, a PSA for movie theaters, and a few short stories, I still haven’t been able to tackle The Big One. Writing a book has proven to be quite difficult. It’s not something you can just sit down and do — or at least it’s not something I can just sit down and do. So I have nothing but respect for those who did find a way to sit down and do it, especially those who, like me, are on the spectrum.

James Williams, an author with autism, has done just that — twice. Mind you, his first book, Out to Get Jack, was written when the author was only thirteen, and like the writing of most thirteen-year-olds, it’s much too inchoate for me to give it a fair shake in this arena. However, his 2011 outing, The H.A.L. Experiment, is considerably more polished, a piece of young adult science fiction with the potential to inform and entertain young readers both on and off the spectrum.

Book Cover

In The H.A.L. Experiment, Mr. Williams explores that fundamental argument of developmental psychology: that of nature versus nurture. Here, it is applied to children with autism: that is to say, how much autistic behavior is a function of being treated like a person with autism, or, in some instances, like a second-class person? An unscrupulous grade school principal looking for fame arranges to have Lenny, a boy with autism, live with a colleague of hers while being treated as if he does not have autism. At the same time, the family of Hector, a young bully, will be made to treat their son as if he does have autism. Along with Alice, a friend of Lenny’s who acts as something of an intermediary in this scheme, the three children make up the namesake H.A.L. Experiment.

Perhaps unwittingly, the novel’s setting proves to be one of its more interesting aspects. Mr. Williams is a native of the Chicago suburbs, and wisely chose to write what he knows. In his case, it’s the North Shore, a chain of affluent railroad suburbs along the Lake Michigan shoreline, spanning from the Northwestern campus in Evanston up to the old-money horse farms of Lake Forest. (As for how far inland the region can be said to go, most natives will tell you the designation terminates just west of their own lot line. It’s that kind of crowd.) Suburbia as a fictional trope is traditionally all about incubating a sort of painfully average boredom and alienation, but the North Shore is a different beast, one that has been surprisingly well-mined in American fiction.

North Side Chicago Aerial

This is the suburbia of Ordinary People, of Mean Girls, of countless John Hughes films: a place where you’re reminded of success and expectations at every turn, opening up wayward paths into selfishness, social climbing, and despair. In towns where even the elementary school principals have their doctorates, it’s not wholly unreasonable that a school administrator might subject children and families to a highly abusive experiment out of sheer runaway ambition. As a native of Northbrook, Mr. Williams must have sensed the pressure to succeed among his own teachers, compiling and amplifying those traits to create his Dr. Wikedda (a play on Winnetka?), whose experiment as carried out never could have passed the most lenient of ethics boards. The author captures a host of other hyper-local details that form a definite sense of place, from drives down the North Shore’s main artery of Sheridan Road to the region’s vast forest preserves to emotionally distant dads taking the Metra to their jobs on the Board of Trade. As someone who just this summer discovered that a Northbrook forest preserve is bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, just as a character notes, Mr. Williams’s faithful representation of home, with all its good and bad, made this fellow Chicagolander smile.

“Mr. Williams is a native of the Chicago suburbs, and wisely chose to write what he knows.”

While it’s important to remember that this book is presumably aimed at young readers on the spectrum who may take an interest in the broad-brush speculative nature of the story and in grown-ups being made to look foolish, I still have reservations about the greater narrative of the book. That much of the experiment’s “treating him like an autistic kid” consists of adults being downright abusive is troubling. In my role as a producer with the channel, I have had the opportunity to meet numerous families of autistic children, whether through home video or in person. I’ve been made aware of parents who have treated their autistic children very poorly. I have also met parents who demonstrate preternatural compassion, patience, and dedication to their children. Thankfully, the latter has outnumbered the former. Perhaps this is the unspoken fundamental flaw in the doctor’s experiment, a sort of twist on the Unreliable Narrator trope, but there is no single way to treat a child as if he or she has autism. If there were, it certainly wouldn’t be for parents to belittle and scream at their child for minor transgressions, as the experiment seems to prescribe. The entire approach leads one to wonder how much of this writing was an exercise in catharsis. I can’t help but worry about the ramifications of giving young readers on the spectrum the idea that any raised voice is something so victimizing as “treating me like an autistic kid.” While adults do not have a good showing in this story, the principal characters Hector, Alice, and Lenny are clearly written with the author’s sympathies.

 

While I’m glad that the author completed the accomplishment of writing this book, I would be remiss in not addressing what I feel are a few unavoidable realities about the self-publishing industry, of which The H.A.L. Experiment is a product. I’ve come to suspect that some of us are laboring under the false premise that writing is a solitary and intensely personal pursuit. And it is — when you’re keeping a journal. When you are producing something to be shared with the world, however, there need to be gatekeepers along the way, gatekeepers whom the vanity press does not require. A distinct example of something that never should have made it to press is the use of uppercase letters to denote yelling. In a story like this, tension among characters runs high, and this needs to be communicated. However, while all-caps is understood to mean yelling on the Internet, it’s a convention that does not lend itself to the printed page. Reading line after line of dialogue set in caps is hard on the eyes, and goes beyond evoking narrative tension to simply upsetting the person who is trying to read the book. In the plainest of terms, it’s unprofessional.

I can’t help but worry about the ramifications of giving young readers on the spectrum the idea that any raised voice is something so victimizing as “treating me like an autistic kid.”

I understand the reluctance. I’ve been on both sides in my professional life. I’ve edited and been edited. I’ve proofread and been proofread. I’ve come out of either role feeling hurt, embarrassed, or convinced I must be the only sane person on the planet. I know my counterparts have felt the same way. One of the toughest things an aspiring writer has to do is disabuse oneself of the notion that creativity is to spring forth unimpeded and untouched by any other person, lest the sole artistic vision be compromised. A great way to learn this lesson is to write for radio: it’s simply amazing how much the exact words you chose don’t matter when another person has to read them out loud. I still won’t claim to be perfect in this respect. Even recently, I have, to borrow a phrase from the late David Foster Wallace, “bared my canines” on some flourish that I could not, would not part with. But I know that I can’t leave my writing unchecked. Even on this blog, I benefit from editorial oversight to tell me when I’ve gone off the rails, or when some turn of phrase isn’t nearly as clever as I think it is. And so it is that The H.A.L. Experiment could have used some reining in at select points. At 225 pages, it gets to be rather long for what I presume is the intended audience.

Overall, the book features an interesting story arc and allows the author to demonstrate a keen sense of wordplay, the sort of love for language that we so often see in many on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. If absolutely nothing else, The H.A.L. Experiment will serve as an inspiration to youngsters with a similar love for language that writing a book isn’t an insurmountable task. It’s for that reason that I give the book a recommendation, albeit a cautious one, to parents and school librarians. There’s no question that James Williams has natural writing talent. Now, for the nurturing.

Continue reading “The Autism Bookshelf: The H.A.L. Experiment”

Marvel’s Phase 2 Feast

Well Autism channel viewers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe concluded Phase 2 with Ant-Man and it is going to be a while before Captain America: Civil War arrives next year. However, seeing how two of my great loves are cinema and cuisine, I feel it would be appropriate to compare the Phase 2 Marvel movies to a full-course feast. For a sampling of each dish, click on the posters for their respective previews.  Now, on to the menu;

 

 

Iron Man 3

Poster2

Loaded Potato Skins (with fakon)

Loaded Potatoes2

Starting off this superhero feast is the appetizer. Much like loaded potato skins, Iron Man 3 is filled with many elements as not only is it the follow-up to The Avengers, but it’s also the final movie in the Iron Man trilogy. Directed and written by Shane Black (who has been credited with kick-starting RDJ’s career-resurrection with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), it is the darkest of the Iron Man movies while also being the funniest as it expertly blends dark humor and darker stakes with the MCU’s signature action and snark. As for the Fakon (tofu bacon)… Well it would be a spoiler to explain exactly what I mean by that.

 

Quality: 4 ½ stars

Age: Yellow

Sensory: Yellow


Thor: The Dark World

Cheesy Garlic Bread

Yes, I’m going a bit out-of-order with this, but much like bread in a meal, Thor 2 is the “weakest” of the MCU Phase 2 movies, but only in comparison to the others here. Both cheesy garlic bread and Thor: The Dark World fulfills their jobs sufficiently and is fun in of themselves as well. While it does put a little too much focus on the comedy (hence the cheese analogy) and has the weakest villain in all the MCU flicks (seeing how he’s being pushed aside in favor of more Loki… not that I’m complaining) it’s still fun with good action and humor.

 

Quality: 4 ½ stars

Age: Yellow

Sensory: Yellow


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Smokehouse Salad

A throwback to an older genre much like the movie this is a sequel to (The First Avenger was a throwback to pulp propaganda flicks while The Winter Soldier has elements of political thrillers). This is an especially accurate comparison as each of the ingredients in the smokehouse salad can compare to different aspects of the movie; the lettuce is like the healthy relevance to contemporary concerns over ‘security vs freedom’, the meat is for the narrative heft of Steve Rogers character development in being a solider displaced in time, the cheese is the humor, the fried onion tanglers are the crunch of the more brutal action (relying more on guns and explosives than the fantasy of Thor of the sci-fi of Iron Man and Guardians), the dressing is the fun, and all these elements come together to create one of the best gorram salads/movies of 2014.

 

Quality: 5 stars

Age: Yellow

Sensory: Yellow


Guardians of the Galaxy

Unexpected Stew

In all honesty, I’m not a stew person and thus I couldn’t think of anything specific, but this analogy still fits. Much like a stew, Guardians of the Galaxy was the result of throwing a lot of things into a pot and hoping for the best and boy does it. It masterfully blends together Whedon-style snarky character interactions, plenty of sci-fi action, and fun to become my favorite movie of 2014. Nobody saw this movie coming, but when it arrived no one was complaining.

 

Quality: 5 stars

Age: Yellow

Sensory: Yellow


Avengers: Age of Ultron

Turducken

Here we are folks, the hearty main event the previous courses have been setting up for. Much like a Turducken, Avengers: Age of Ultron crams together a whole lot of elements and established characters into a spectacle extravaganza that can seem daunting and a bit bloated, but still works deliciously well.

 

Quality: 5 stars

Age: Yellow

Sensory: Yellow


Ant-Man

Cherry Pie a la mode

Being the official end to Phase 2, it fits that Ant-Man be a scaled-down dessert to follow-up the huge main course as a cool down. While the stakes are much lower than in the other Phase 2 movies, it still works as much of the focus is on the comedy elements which work really well and they take advantage of the premise (shrinking powers) to deliver really creative action sequences and some of the character development is sweet too. As for the flavor; well Ant-Man’s suit is red and cherries are considered old-fashioned so it more-or-less fits.

 

Quality: 4 ½ stars

Age: Yellow

Sensory: Yellow

 

And that completes my film/food analogy. This cinematic feast was a lot of fun and my movie palate waters for what Phase 3 has to offer…

 

 

 

 

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation Review

It’s the middle of summer, and you want to go to the movies. Most moviegoers just want to see a fun action movie, which is why films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World have done so well this summer despite their lack of coherent story and developed characters. But if you’re like me, that won’t cut it for you. You want the characters to engage you in the film’s narrative so you care about the action better.

 

This is where Mission: ImpossibleRogue Nation comes in. The story is pretty simple. In fact, it’s exactly the same as all the other Mission: Impossible movies. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes rogue from the CIA to find and defeat more rogue agents and arms dealers. He runs a lot, rides a motorcycle, and does some manner of insane stunts. The two people who definitely won’t be back for the next film are the female lead (Rebecca Ferguson) and the director (Christopher McQuarrie), and the villain doesn’t leave much of an impression. If you like the other Mission: Impossible movies, chances are you might like this one.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

But you guys want to read a full review from me, so I won’t waste any more of your time because the movie certainly doesn’t. Remember that shot at the end of every trailer? The one with Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane as it’s taking off? Yeah, I know this isn’t a spoiler or anything, but that’s three minutes into the movie! Trust me, I counted! They got him on that airplane very quickly, and just as quickly got him off.

 

The rest of the action doesn’t disappoint either, in fact there’s two standout action scenes later in the movie. The first is a fight between Hunt and an assassin in the backstage of an opera in Vienna, and I am a sucker for any fight scene having anything to do with an opera. But it plays a game I like to call, “How Many Assassins Does It Take to Assassinate Someone?” (I know that’s a long title, but you should see some of the other games I played as a kid). The other big action scene takes place in a water tank underneath a power plant in Casablanca (I love what they’ve done with the place, but I do miss Rick’s), during which the cinematography is at its best.

 

Both of these scenes and the rest of the movie do one thing that any action scene should. They kept me guessing the entire time. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, waiting anxiously to see what was going to happen next. Rebecca Ferguson’s character Ilsa Faust, who is appropriately named after both the female lead in Casablanca and a fictional character of German lore who sold his soul to the Devil. Her character appears to change allegiances several times throughout the movie between Hunt and the villainous Syndicate, led by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).

roguenation2-xlarge

But while Hunt and Faust are very compelling characters, Lane is not. I never bought into his character for several reasons. If you’re going to have this uber-intelligent and manipulative villain in a summer action movie, there must be an unmistakable presence that shows you this guy is in charge, and I never got that from Lane. The writing is to blame for most of that, but I give the screenwriters props for focusing more on the protagonists instead. But it’s Sean Harris who takes most of the blame for this character and his voice. He sounds like a kid trying to do his best impression of Vito Corleone for his middle school’s stage adaptation of The Godfather.

Sean-Harris-as-Solomon-Lane1

But let’s get back to the good stuff, shall we? Simon Pegg returns as Benji Dunn, and he gets many of the best lines in the movie. My favorites of his are before and after a motorcycle chase in Casablanca. I won’t give them away, but I was laughing out loud while also acknowledging their brilliance in the script. Pegg’s delivery of said lines was also a major element of how they worked. Other returning cast members include Jeremy Renner as William Brandt and Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell, and both of them are solid in their roles.

 

Overall, your enjoyment of this movie depends on how much fun you have while watching it, and I loved it. It’s action-packed, but not totally devoid of the stuff that makes great cinema like story and character. See it on the biggest screen possible because it’s the action set pieces that make this movie, and one of the reasons they work so well is because we as audience members have grown to like and care for the characters that the action is happening to.

 

Quality: 4 ½ stars

Age: Yellow (action and violence, brief partial nudity)

Sensory: Yellow (loud noises from car crashes and explosions)

 

The Autism Bookshelf: Independent Woman’s Handbook

This past week, I had the pleasure of reading “The Independent Woman’s Handbook For Super Safe Living On The Autistic Spectrum” by Robyn Steward (available from Jessica Kingsley publishers.) Now, I think it is important to disclose that I am not on the autistic spectrum. However, three of my children are—and it is with that perspective that I read this book.
COVER
One of the most interesting things that I have recognized as a parent, is just how much I took for granted when it came to social cues and situations. These are skills that have mostly come easily to me—this is however not so for my children. So, one of my biggest concerns is how exactly do I help them to navigate this world so that they may live as full and as independent a life as possible: safely and with confidence. The answer is in this book.

The book is chock full of information. Some of the topics include “platonic relationships”, “sex”, “drugs alcohol and other substances”, “money”, “work” and “moods and emotions” to name a few. The last chapter “Useful skills and strategies for multiple situations,” is followed by an appendix that offers strategies, very useful resources, and references. It is so full and informative that if there is a specific topic not mentioned—one could very easily take what they have learned and apply it to most any situation.

…how exactly do I help them to navigate this world so that they may live as full and as independent a life as possible: safely and with confidence. The answer is in this book.

Although it is full of practical solutions and common sense advice, this is much more than a “how to” book. The author, who is also on the autistic spectrum, writes in a very honest and compelling manner. Sharing both her experiences and those of others (both on and off the spectrum) that she interviewed for this book. It is both open and honest—while at the same time accepting that the reader may have a different experience or point of view. There is a very strong message/theme throughout the entire book that says “It is OK to be who you are” that will empower its readers. Giving them confidence to make the decisions that will keep them both safe and secure in their choices—while at the same time, feeling good about who they are.

While the book is gender specific, I think that it could be a valuable tool for anyone on the spectrum—as well as for parents who have children on the spectrum. Right now, my daughter is too young for some of the topics. However, this book gives me really useful strategies, tips and tools so that I may raise her to live as full, independent and safe an adult as possible. Later on, It will be a wonderful resource for her.

If you are a woman on the spectrum, a parent of someone on the spectrum or work with people on the spectrum—this is a book you should own. Its honesty, openness and practical solutions make it a must have for your bookshelf. I wholeheartedly recommend this book—and can say quite honestly, that I hope she writes some more.

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


Kathleen Leopold is a blogger, one of the co-founders of the Autism Blogs Directory, and one of The Blog Ladies seen on The Autism Channel.

Palm Beach Post introduces its readers to our ‘Siskel and Ebert’

This Saturday, readers in the palm beaches awoke to an edition of The Palm Beach Post with a story about our on-the-spectrum film critics on the front page of its Accent section.
We reprint it here with the Post’s kind permission:

 Meet autism’s Siskel and Ebert

Hosting everything from news to movie review shows,
a West Palm network for — and by — the autistic
is helping change stereotypes.

By Barbara Marshall – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

 

In front of a green-screen set in a West Palm Beach TV studio, movie critics Michael Precourt and Anthony Canzonetta are dissecting “Don Jon,” Joseph Gorden-Levitt’s racy directorial debut.

The acting? Not bad, they agree. They like Scarlett Johansson, of course. They’re 20-something males.

Directing and script? A solid effort.

They finish the episode of “Private Screening” with a warning: “It gets a red for sensory.”

Their specialized audience understands the coded shorthand. The film has a high potential to cause sensory overload in people on the autism spectrum.

People like Precourt and Canzonetta.

“There are flashing lights throughout the movie,” advises Precourt.

“Ow, ow, ow and ow,” said Canzonetta, the “Ebert” to Precourt’s “Siskel.

He makes a rhetorical request of filmmakers. “No more going from black screens to flashing lights, OK?”

“Yeah, don’t go all Baz Lurhmann on us with a bunch of half second clips,” says Precourt, who, like his TV partner, is a student at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Precourt is a film major; Canzonetta is pre-med with a minor in film studies.

Also like Canzonetta, Precourt has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism associated with focused interests, high-functioning abilities and difficulties with social skills.

Their program is one of dozens streamed weekly from Flying Pig Ranch Studios on Haverhill Road in West Palm Beach, home to The Autism Channel (TAC).

Although TAC’s shows are aimed at families with members on the autism spectrum, the channel may be the only network that regularly puts people with autism in front of the camera.

“We look at it like when Diahann Carroll starred in “Julia” in the 1970’s,” said Jerry Trowbridge, a co-creator of the network. “She was the first black actor to star in a major TV show. We want to have a similar impact.”

Viewing the on-demand video streaming channel requires a $49 to $100 Roku box, although TAC may soon have a new platform on Panasonic smart TVs, Blu-ray players and gaming consoles.

Actors playing people with Asperger’s have become a recent TV trend. Diane Kruger in FX’s “The Bridge,” “Parenthood’s” Max Braverman as well as Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory” and “Community’s” Abed Nadir are all characters with either stated or assumed autistic personalities.

But on TAC, no one’s acting.

…He believes, as do a number of autism activists, that the autistic brain may be the vanguard of a higher form of human evolution. The autistic personality of intensity, focused interests and little need for emotional attachment is tailor-made for a digital age where people work with devices rather than each other, [Precourt] says…

Daniel Heinlein, the host of the talk show “I Am Autistic,” is a 26-year-old from the Chicago area with Asperger’s. “Rocket Family Chronicles” follows the exploits of a wacky San Francisco family whose most well-adjusted member is an autistic teenager.

A couple of cooking and exercise shows have stars or co-stars with autism. A reality program called “At Home With …” profiles families coping with autistic children. In addition, a weekly news show covers the latest news about autism.

TAC’s highest rated show is “Time Out,” seven minutes of soothing music and images designed to calm an agitated autistic brain.

Trowbridge and his partner, Ray Smithers, are radio news veterans and serial entrepreneurs. In the 1980s, they developed a 1-800 telephone system to help customers locate the nearest Walgreens or Cirrus network ATM.

The idea for TAC was born after the men heard a TED talk by Temple Grandin, the Colorado animal science professor and autism activist, who described her thinking process.

“Hearing her, both Ray and I realized we’re probably on the spectrum, too,” said Trowbridge, who speaks in rapid-fire bursts. The men, who are business and life partners, sleep during the day and work all night. Trowbridge taught himself the complex programming necessary to stream TAC. Smithers concentrates on programming and production.

They sunk “six figures” of their own money into their startup, their gamble bolstered by a near doubling of autism diagnoses among children in the past decade, to one in 88 in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From the start, they decided to put people on the spectrum on their shows.

“We had no idea how right we were. We’ve learned that viewership for those shows is off the hook,” said Trowbridge.

Autism programming, believes Trowbridge, is ready to go from obscurity to mainstream.

“It’s a little niche-y,” he said, “but then, so is ‘Duck Dynasty’.”

Once on the Panasonic platform, which he hopes will happen by the end of the year, he expects 50,000 to 100,000 viewers a day.

“That makes us attractive to advertisers, ” he said.
MarshallStoryPicEnlarged
The rise of TAC coincides with a radicalized autism rights movement that borrows the language of liberation politics to insist that autism is a variation in function, not a mental disorder needing to be cured. Instead they say, society needs to be cured of its stereotypes about autism.

“Auties” and “aspies,” as they call themselves, think in neurodiverse ways, they insist, while the non-autistic are neurotypical.

“Nothing about us without us,” says members of autism advocacy groups such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and Autism Network International, which demand the right for autistics to define themselves.

“This is the new face of autism,” said Dr. Jack Scott, a professor of exceptional student education at FAU and the director of the school’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. Scott is also on TAC’s advisory board. “It’s similar to the deaf community of a few decades ago. Many members of that community were fine with being deaf and didn’t want to be labeled disabled.”

“It’s groundbreaking in (autistic’s) insistence on validation and that they have something important to say. They can speak for themselves, even if they have to type it,” Scott said.

FAU has “40 to 50” students on the autism spectrum, Scott said, many of whom excel because of their ability to focus.

Still, autistic kids require high-quality early childhood intervention, Scott said.

Movie critic Precourt said he began therapy soon after he was diagnosed at age 3. Sitting in an FAU courtyard outside a campus Starbucks on a sunny afternoon, Precourt speaks loudly in pronouncements, rather than the give-and-take of conversation.

At his mother’s suggestion, the Orlando native stopped by the TAC studios last summer to discuss doing movie reviews and walked out with his own show.

“We screen-tested him and he jumped off the screen,” said Smithers.

A member of FAU’s community council and the publicity committee for his dorm, which presents dances and barbecues, Precourt says he’s learned the importance of social interaction even though he sometimes misses others’ emotional cues.

He believes, as do a number of autism activists, that the autistic brain may be the vanguard of a higher form of human evolution. The autistic personality of intensity, focused interests and little need for emotional attachment is tailor-made for a digital age where people work with devices rather than each other, he says.

“People act like we have a disability,” he said. “Autism is not the same as being disabled.”

When it comes to being one of the faces of TAC, Precourt says, “We are at the dawn of a new era. I’m proud to be a part of that.”

As for Trowbridge, he tries to dodge the brickbats flying back and forth between various autism groups fighting over causes and cures.

“So many organizations have a dog in this fight about what autism is. We see a need for an impartial disseminator of autism news. We’d like to be present when we finally understand what autism is. I believe that will happen in the next few years.”


This story is a part of The Palm Beach Post‘s premium content, and is available to subscribers only.

The Autism Bookshelf: Chicken Soup

 I consider myself a fairly voracious reader, and without getting into too much snobbish, pseudo-Victorian yearning for the discreet joys of staying home with a book and a nice cup of tea, let it suffice to say that I’m proud to do so. I was fortunate to grow up in a household that made sure I read, and to spend my formative years in a suburb with one of the largest public libraries in greater Chicago. It’s as good a recipe for a lifetime of literacy as you’ll find. As a kid, I loved just about any young adult fiction I could get my hands on, Judy Blume being a favorite. I sought out many books about flags and languages of foreign nations, with any holes in my nonfiction reading filled by my mom’s old 1966 World Book Encyclopedia, which over a childhood I more or less read A to Z. Not bad, though I will also admit to having had a sizable weakness for periodicals about video games. Kids are kids.

 

These days, I pretty well spray to all fields, having amassed a solid bedrock of American and European literature, plus nonfiction on everything from history, psychology, and music, to baseball analytics, etymologies, and the civil engineering of New York (Robert Caro’s The Power Broker — an 1,100-page behemoth which I’d love to recommend if you have an interest in politics and plan to take, say, a trans-oceanic flight). All this and yes, of course, my growing shelf of books on autism, many of which I like to share with you here.

 

What I’ve noticed in recent months is that I’m just not reading novels the way I used to. I’m sure it’s a number of factors: as you get older, your preferences crystallize, and you don’t want to try something new in case you don’t like it. A fair deal of my favorite authors just aren’t writing anymore. But most of all, I think it’s a matter of time. Great novels require commitment. A website called “Infinite Summer” helps readers tackle David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest with a daily reading guide that asks for just fifteen pages a day…for 92 days. And with I Am Autistic episodes to prepare and record, my copywriting job, and a teetering tower of books to review here, I just can’t commit right now. It’s not you, novel, it’s me.

 

What I am reading as of late are essays and short stories. Though they never get the same acclaim as The Novel, I’d rather enjoy a few great essays and short stories than read some airport novel just to say I finished a book. At the moment, I’m enjoying Nine Stories, a short story anthology largely centered around J.D. Salinger’s precocious Glass family, the tragic fall of the brilliant-but-flawed family being a favorite theme of mine in literature and film (Infinite Jest, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Royal Tenenbaums).

I’m also reading Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum. If I think I don’t have the time to sit and read, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the parent of a child with autism. Fortunately, here is a book that allows parents who are pressed for time and energy to steal a few moments for some relaxing, feel-good reading, for as much or as little time as they have.

 

The Chicken Soup format should be no stranger to any of us at this juncture: a collection of short pieces that serve to soothe, hearten, uplift, and motivate the reader, usually one who is going through some time of adversity: cancer survivors, expectant mothers, addiction recoverers, and veterans of wars, to name a few. I had Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul in middle school, adolescence being a great time of adversity indeed. The autism-spectrum iteration of the popular franchise follows form, with 101 short — generally just two to five pages — essays and anecdotes about life as a parent touched by autism.

…In the spirit of full disclosure, I will note that amidst the featured authors are Autism Channel personalities, whom we’re proud to highlight…

The book is organized into rough categories of dealing with the label of autism, social interactions, humor, challenges, and family, among others. Reading entire categories at once, or reading the book cover to cover, however, is hardly required, and can even detract from the efficacy of the anecdotes. The sixth or seventh story in the same vein can find itself without the punch of the first or second, and so the best course for general reading is to skip around the 101, sampling a little bit of each. Of course, if you’re approaching the book as a direct response to an event — for instance, a rough day at the grocery store — perhaps you may wish to load up on stories about public interactions. Or perhaps after a day that has been trying in many ways, all you want is to find something to laugh about. You’ll find that here, like the story of a camper with autism who, after compiling a collection of photos, takes the term “disposable camera” literally.

 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will note that amidst the featured authors are Autism Channel personalities, whom we’re proud to highlight. Our Kathleen Leopold of The Blog Ladies shares a family conversation about autism in a household where some are on the spectrum and others are not, where one child wonders if dogs have autism. (My facetious verdict: they might, but cats definitely do.) And Mary Beth Marsden of Real Look Autism documents her efforts to produce a show about the autism spectrum, which she ultimately accomplished.

 

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum is a book that, like many of the anthologies I’ve read, is largely what you make of it. You may choose to zero in on one category of stories, or you may eventually read them all. There will be stories you take from it that you’ll cherish, and there will be stories that are duds. And the duds for you may be cherished by someone else. What it will do is have you engaged in the act of reading a tangible book, something that you may not find yourself doing enough with the considerable time constraints placed on you. If you’ve forgotten how enjoyable it can feel to be immersed in a book, whether it’s a cover-to-cover page-turner or one where you skip from story to story, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum will, if nothing else, restore that good feeling of time well spent. And if you do want to accompany your reading with the proverbial nice cup of tea, I can recommend a terrific Darjeeling for a late afternoon.

 

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


Daniel Heinlein is the host of I Am Autistic, seen exclusively on The Autism Channel.

Autism at the Movies: The Story of Luke

Most people take every day life skills such as getting a job or going out on a date for granted.  But for people with autism, these normal activities of life can be quite challenging.  “The Story of Luke,”  Director/Writer Alonso Mayo’s coming-of-age comedy starring Lou Taylor Pucci (as Luke), Seth Green (as Zach), Cary Elwes (as Uncle Paul) and Kristin Bauer (as Aunt Cindy), brilliantly addresses these delicate issues surrounding autism with lightness, subtlety and truth.

Many scenes really touch your heart…

Like most people Luke’s age, including “Neuro-Typicals (NTs),” Luke, a young man with autism, wants to be independent and embarks on his own  journey after his grandmother passes away.  He had been raised by and  living with his grandparents after his mother abandoned him when he was just a small child.  After the funeral, he and his senile grandfather Jonas (Kenneth Welsh) move in with his relatives (Uncle Paul, Aunt Cindy and their two teenager children) who have their own quirky set of problems.  Eventually, Jonas is placed in an assisted living home, which leaves Luke to fend for himself with the arena of oddball relatives.  Luke decides he has to escape, and the only way to acquire independent living is to get a job.  So when he goes to a special placement agency, he falls for Maria (Sabryn Rock) the receptionist.  He decides that in order to ask Maria out on a date, he will definitely need to get a job first.

The agency places Luke with a firm that recruits disabled people for training at no pay.   There he meets Zach, the eccentric, snippy IT manager, who’s also Luke’s supervisor.  He educates Luke on the behaviors and expectations of “NTs” and they develop a friendship based on mutual neediness.

Many scenes really touch your heart, such as the one where Luke decides to “meet” his mother after she had abandoned him years ago.  There are also plenty of comedic moments to rescue the audience from any possibility of overly gravitas situations.

Pucci does an outstanding job of portraying a young man with autism.  It made me question many times throughout the film whether he actually had the condition or not.  Green’s portrayal of Zach is a wonderful ride through a character’s struggle with the brink of insanity as you see him realize that he needed Luke more than Luke needed him.

All in all, I highly recommend that you see this film before it closes, or you will regret missing not just a movie… but a life-changing experience you’ll never forget.

a video recommendation from the autism channel


Debra Clark is anchor of the upcoming Autism World News on The Autism Channel.