So: I’m cycling through a lot of disability rep books this month, since it’s Disability Pride Month and since I am continuing to work on lists of resources for books with/by/for/about disabled people, lives, histories, & characters. I have so many books to investigate, and I’m going through a bunch of them to see if they’re worth adding them as resources, and it’s really important to note that not everything makes the list.
Just because a book has disabled main characters does not mean it is a good book for disabled people to read and feel represented. Just because a book says they’re going to talk about a certain period of time in history that I know was exceptionally important to the rights of disabled people doesn’t mean they’re going to do a good job covering those pieces of our history, or be intentionally intersectional about it (you can’t talk about Civil Rights in the US without mentioning disabled people, but so often: we do). Just because the book is written by ‘professionals’ or ‘parents of’ or ‘siblings of’ or even a disabled person themselves, that does not mean that it will be a good or acceptable book to recommend to other people wanting to know about that disability. And so we come to today’s non-additions to the list: My Brother Has Autism and Some Kids Have Autism.
To begin with, My Brother Has Autism is written by a mother of an Autistic child who is also a special education teacher, and I want to make it clear that I can tell that this book -comes from her own experiences & – is very well-intentioned. And also that this book was published in 2013, and the dialogue and knowledge about Autism has come pretty far since then, I think. So, it’s only judging by today’s standards that this book is not acceptable for the list. It’s got a lot of positives – A brother is telling the story of himself & his brother, using simple text and pictures; It includes great explanations of the different services and needs that the Autistic brother has – OT, Speech, etc. But it comes to a screeching halt when the brother declares “And we take Johnny to ABA (that means Applied Behavior Analysis). ABA helps teach Johnny how to cope with things that bother him. It helps him learn how to deal with things without crying or yelling.”
Um. So I don’t know what the state of the discourse surrounding Autistic people and ABA was in 2013, but in 2021, it’s definitely a lot different than that. You can Google, but basically, a lot of adult Autistics consider ABA abuse. I found this article did a really good job of explaining a lot of the divide over the ‘therapy’, but it basically boils down to “The problem with ABA is that it addresses the child’s behaviours, not the child’s needs.” Many Autistic people tell us that their experiences with ABA as children made them feel devalued, that it only taught them how to ‘mask’ – hide their true needs, wants, and feelings in order to comply with the person in authority – , and that it’s more about blind compliance than about teaching Autistic kids how to cope with their actual feelings, behaviors, and issues. So, while I understand completely that the mom/author was originally coming from a good place, here in the present day, I listen to Actually Autistic people and believe them when they say that ABA is harmful. So this book needs a real update, because it could be a good resource, and just isn’t, in its current form.
As for Some Kids Have Autism, we’re going to start with the title, and remember, again, that things move really fast in disability discourse. This book was published in 2008, and the prevailing thought among providers of care (doctors, teachers, specialists and the like), as well as parents of disabled/Autistic kids was that we should be using “person first” language. A person wasn’t Autistic, or disabled, or blind, they had autism, or a disability, or blindness. I know, since I was trained as a teacher, that the thought behind these labels was positive – that the goal was to make sure people saw disabled people as PEOPLE first and foremost. But the thing is… nobody asked disabled people if that’s how we wanted to be referred to? And it turns out? We prefer the acknowledgement that we are disabled/Autistic/Blind/etc, and also kind of feel like if you need reminding that we are people, that says a lot more about you than it does about us? So we tend to prefer identity first language.
[Again: I do not speak for all disabled/neurodivergent people. I can only tell you about my own preferences and the preferences of those I know and advocate for/with. This is our current prevailing preference, for the most part. If an individual disabled person tells you that they would prefer that you refer to them as a person with X or Y, please respect their preferences and use that way of referring to them.]
So the book starts off with an out of date title, and immediately continues with it’s use of language that is now problematic, but wasn’t then. (Terms like ‘special needs’ are also outdated, and used here liberally.) And unfortunately, the rest of the text felt very stereotypical, which I know might be hard to avoid in a book where you are trying to introduce the traits of a group of people with a certain neurodivergence, but a lot of the things they say are Autistic ‘traits’ have since been proven untrue/are considered a stereotype (“Might be better at music or math” “Might not know what a smile means.”) There’s just a lot of ‘facts’ that don’t seem to hold up, all these years later.
And that’s ok: I can’t hold a book from 2008 to today’s standards and expect them to meet them. These books were probably good and helpful resources for when they were written. My issue comes in with the fact that these books are routinely recommended as resources for Autistic people and Autistic-adjacent people (teachers, parents, siblings, etc) NOW. That’s the point of this whole review, to point out that when a book is written really matters, when you’re addressing certain subjects. Disability just happens to be one of those topics where the language and the learning evolve so quickly, and that means books from eight years ago can be advocating for a practice that many see now as abuse, and a book from thirteen years ago contains so many stereotypes and mislabeling that it’s inappropriate to use as a resource for anybody.
It’s a good place to start, the Disability Pride Month – Double check that the books you’re using to introduce your kids to things aren’t actively harmful, out of date, or just plain wrong. The neurodivergent, Autistic, and/or disabled kids and adults in our lives deserve better from us.