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.

The Autism Bookshelf: The Autistic Brain

 Like most of the book-reading public, it’s not often I get to discuss a book with its author. In my case, I don’t get out to book signings all that much, and even if I did, it’s hardly polite to hijack the line so I can yammer on forever. There’s also the fact that most of my favorite authors are retired or dead. Death is often a slight encumbrance to substantive discussion.

 

I was fortunate to make an exception last May, when on a trip to the Flying High With Autism conference in Pensacola, I got to meet the author of a book I had just finished. The book is The Autistic Brain, a heady tome that delves into the hard neurological science of autism, exploring brain imaging and genetics in an effort to further explain the many enigmas of autism. The author is Temple Grandin.

 

You understand, I’m sure, that Dr. Grandin has become the most famous leading voice of the autism community, and so not only meeting but having the opportunity to have a thorough discussion with her was quite an honor indeed. Having been featured in the title essay of Oliver Sacks’s idiosyncratic anthology An Anthropologist on Mars, she rose to fame with numerous bestsellers such as Thinking in Pictures, not to mention an eponymous biopic produced by Home Box Office. Her primacy in the community is such that it almost seems as if no essay or presentation can go without mentioning her, whether a further exploration of her work or just a quick tip of the hat to show that the author is indeed conversant with our most famous personage.

 

So when I was able to interview Dr. Grandin for a very special episode of I Am Autistic, I was able to gain insight into The Autistic Brain that I certainly would not have had otherwise. I became privy to some powerful feelings that weren’t communicated quite as strongly in the book’s pages. I discovered that things I thought I had right, I had wrong — surely the kind of face-to-face revelation a high school junior wishes he or she could have had after just missing the mark on an analysis of The Great Gatsby. It’s a conversation you can see for yourself on the channel. I can only hope that I didn’t appear too starstruck.

 

In the book, Dr. Grandin, in concert with author Richard Panek, explores autism and the fields of neurology and genetics in a way that the non-scholars among us can process and appreciate. Coincidentally, autism literature is a spectrum unto itself, ranging from warm-and-fuzzy personal tales to scholarly articles that will make a layperson’s eyes glaze over. As a layperson, I can attest. So it’s a matter of striking a delicate balance when one tries to bring the scientific to the masses, but fortunately, Grandin and Panek are able to do so, owing to a preference for plain speech and the use of bulletpoints and tables to break up and further simplify information for consumption.

 

An early chapter of the book discusses magnetic resonance imaging, and how the parts of the brain can elucidate the way we think and experience the world. For instance, Dr. Grandin discovered through her MRI that the left ventricle of her brain extends into her parietal cortex, possibly compromising her short-term memory. The amygdala, which is responsible for fear and aggression, is also larger in her brain than in the average brain. This, she postulates, could explain her lifelong anxiety, colorfully referring to herself and other similarly high-strung people with autism as a “big exposed nerve.” As someone who is indeed prone to high levels of anxiety (as well as depression, counterintuitive as it may sound), I appreciate this metaphor, which really is a great way of putting it. In my conversation with Dr. Grandin on I Am Autistic, I mused that it would really be something if we could make MRIs available to a large number of people on the spectrum, so we could really get down to a biological basis for why we are the way they are. She demurred, saying that all her MRI did for her was confirm things she already suspected or knew. I’d still volunteer, at any rate.

 

After the book explores genetic sequences and sensory processing, Grandin and Panek devote time to identifying and capitalizing upon the strengths of those with autistic brains. With the underemployment and unemployment levels of the autism-spectrum community, this is pertinent material. As many of us know, Dr. Grandin rose to prominence with her groundbreaking research in animal science, drafting a slaughterhouse that used circuitous pathways to reduce anxiety in cattle. This was something she did with her preternatural ability to think in pictures. But as I learned from the book and from my discussion, not all of us think in pictures — and it doesn’t mean we don’t have autism. Some of us think in patterns or systems. Others think in words and facts. If you haven’t guessed, I’m a word/fact person. Thinking in pictures? I can’t even assemble a tent.

 

The book discusses how autism informs these ways of seeing the world, and then identifies optimal occupations for each group. Picture thinkers are well-suited to jobs in everything from welding and HVAC to graphic design, to name a few. Pattern thinkers flourish in programming, engineering, or actuarial science. Word/fact thinkers may have futures in legal research, library science, and copy editing.

 

In the black and white of ink and paper, I found this to be a useful component of a useful book. It wasn’t until my interview with the author that I realized it was its key. With arguably the most passion and consternation of the evening’s chat, feelings I never could have picked up to such extents in my reading, Dr. Grandin lamented to me that too many kids on the spectrum were whiling away their hours merely playing video games when they could be developing them. People were pitying themselves for their shortcomings and paying no attention to their strengths. She repeated, her voice rising and quavering, that there were jobs out there for people on the spectrum. It was just a matter of getting the education for them and setting out to procure them.

 

Indeed, this section, taking the science of what goes on in our brains and applying it to our worlds, is the real core of The Autistic Brain. Provided you can invest the requisite time in a book that, despite the aforementioned plain English, still falls well short of breezy, it’s one I can wholeheartedly recommend, especially to parents with an adolescent on the spectrum getting ready to face the world in earnest. Just as the book takes a wealth of scientific information on neurology and genetics and arranges it into something all of us can read and use, people with autism need to take everything inside their own brains and share their gifts with the world, not only enriching a workplace or society but taking great steps toward self-sufficiency. After concluding my interview with Dr. Grandin and going through the subsequent postmortem chitchat with our assembled guests, she headed out the door, but not before turning back to me.

 

“What did you say your other job was?”

 

“Copywriter,” I quickly replied.

 

She nodded. “Good. That’s good for you,” and the door shut.

 

Right down to the very last moment of our interaction, it was all about jobs. You’ll come away from The Autistic Brain with a refresher or new knowledge on parts of the brain, or some insight on sensory processing, but you should find, as I did with a little help from the person who would know best, that this isn’t a book about having an autistic brain. It’s a book about using it.

 

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.

The Autism Bookshelf: Asperkids

 There are two impressions that one can get from the common representations of Asperger’s syndrome. The first is that it’s a bit of a boys’ club. More boys than girls are diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, and Simon Baron-Cohen postulated that high-functioning autism is but an “extreme male brain,” taking traditionally male traits of logic, systematic organization, and stoicism, and extrapolating them to their natural conclusions. I don’t like this. I am high-functioning, yet prone to highly illogical decisions and poor organization, to say nothing of my frequent emotional outbursts. Other than perhaps some deep-seated, reptilian-brain desire to spend inordinate time sitting on a couch and watching sports, I’ve never thought of my brain as being all that male, let alone extremely so. Oh, well; when you’ve met one of us, you’ve met one of us.

 

The second is that as far as boys’ clubs go, it’s not even much of a club. If we were a club, we’d show up to meetings late or not at all, forget to pay our dues, and we’d never figure out what to have for dinner, having failed to make any sort of compromise with one another. And I’m sure many people with Asperger’s, in their more self-effacing moments, would just deploy the famous old Groucho line about clubs and their membership standards. Having no paucity of self-effacing moments in my life, I’ve used it a time or two myself.

 

So how nice it is, then, to be reminded that the autism spectrum does not discriminate, and that males and females alike are eligible for participation, such as it is. Jennifer Cook O’Toole, mother of three and overseer of a growing franchise of books, introduces us to her family where everyone is on the spectrum in Asperkids.

 

I first read Ms. O’Toole’s work — albeit out of order — several months ago, in The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules, this flagship book’s followup that details how young adults can find their way in a world where they don’t always fit in. I was familiar with the author’s prose style, which I described as “friendly but authoritative” as she helped her readers navigate. In Asperkids, we are treated to a history of the author’s road to her own diagnosis and her efforts to homeschool her three children, all of whom have Asperger’s, often in addition to other challenges, like ADHD.

 

Homeschooling your own children may not be reasonable. And modern homeschooling, due to its often fundamentalist Christian implications, has gotten a bad name in America these days. But even if your children attend mainstream schools, education isn’t limited to school grounds. The blueprints for activities detailed in Asperkids, if not applicable to a homeschool setting, will be perfect for some casual summer enrichment, taking your children’s special interests, building them up further, and dovetailing them into more comprehensive and global studies of core subjects. Chances are your child already has quite the zeal for learning, and will appreciate a summer curriculum tailored to his or her interests and pace. Ms. O’Toole approaches her own children as someone with a background in special education, giving her the requisite appreciation for exceptional minds and exceptional ways of learning. She also, of course, approaches her children as someone who is on the autism spectrum as well. From a daughter’s special interest in Greek mythology, for instance (one of my old favorites, too), Ms. O’Toole teaches not just history, but geography, physics, geometry, music, and even the classical languages of Greek and Latin — the knowledge of which go a long way in improving our strength with our native English. While I was able to get an A+ on a family tree of the Greek gods in sixth grade, I never thought to extrapolate my studies into the construction of the Parthenon, or the Greek etymologies of everyday words. Alas, we can’t teach ourselves everything.

 

One topic to which the book devotes some much-needed attention is that old bogeyman of mathematics. In a chapter entitled “All Aspies Are from Missouri,” named in tribute to their “Show-Me State” moniker, Ms. O’Toole talks about the difficulty of applying the abstractions of math to the concrete minds of kids with Asperger’s. I can empathize. While I blazed through English and history courses, I repeatedly found myself tripped up by math — with the not insignificant exception of geometry. (That so many kids on the spectrum struggle with math should really throw our extreme maleness into question: clearly we’re not all budding engineers.) I could memorize facts, learn languages, but when it came to algebra, there was so much I couldn’t begin to process. I still don’t know what a matrix is, or how to multiply one against another. That math teachers couldn’t “show me” didn’t help. While the book doesn’t progress to the perils of high school algebra, it does offer an array of tips to make math not only something tangible, but something applicable, answering the refrain that eats away at every person who has ever taught a math class: “When will we use this in real life?”

 

Beyond the pedagogical content is some warm advice on how to handle the challenges of being a parent of a child or children on the spectrum. Ms. O’Toole talks about comfort zones, particularly how we will quite often find ourselves beyond them. Meltdowns, teacher conferences, and difficult discussions are not anyone’s idea of comfortable, but they are unavoidable in this life, and the author hopes to assist her readers in handling these situations with confidence, bravery, and, when applicable, a sense of humor.

 

Asperkids is a touching, informative book and a valuable resource for the family touched by the autism spectrum, whether that’s one child, every child, or every child and a parent or two. More than anything, as someone without children of my own to educate, Asperkids is simply a book that makes me happy. I love learning, and think fondly upon my autodidatic excursions, while lamenting the shortfalls that could have been improved with more malleable instruction and, let’s be honest, at times a more receptive learner. While there are certain lost expectations that every parent of a child on the spectrum will have to grieve, the life of raising that child will still indeed be rife with enriching and meaningful experiences.

 

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.