Books Outside The Box: Different Operating Systems
Three teens — a sociopath, a budding psychopath, and an Aspie — walk into the high school cafeteria.
A gun goes off.
That’s the high concept behind Colin Fischer, written by Ashley Edward Miller and Jack Stentz and published by Razorbill in 2013. Colin is the Aspie, a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, with an IQ of 175, but his life coach has taught him not to boast, not even when he’s being called a retard. He hates being touched (even by his parents), doesn’t know how to lie, and needs cue cards to try to understand what emotions go with different facial expressions. He is starting high school without his shadow, the aide who helped him navigate the complex social landscape in middle school.
The book is filled with three-dimensional characters including:
- Colin, a new and different Sherlock Holmes, who uses a trampoline to calm his nerves
- Colin’s concerned parents, who bounce between shock and pride when their son tells his very first lie
- A younger brother tired of playing second-fiddle to Colin’s special needs
- A teen girl whose touch does not exactly repel Colin, even if he isn’t sure why
- Wayne, a boy whose brutal home life is almost guaranteed to turn him into a psychopath, or at least a long-term prison inhabitant, by the time he is an adult
Wayne has bullied Colin since grade school. Intellectually, Colin understands.
Kids are often frightened by anyone different. They make themselves feel secure by picking on kids who are.
When the gun goes off, everyone agrees that Wayne must be the shooter. Only Colin and his different way of looking at the world sees that he could not have held the gun. Colin’s quest to prove this truth puts the kid who can’t deal with loud noises or stand to be touched in the clutches of the principal, the police, a street gang, and, most dangerous of all, a teen willing to “push a button and blow up somebody’s world, whether it made any sense or not,” just because he can.
The book is about firsts: first friendships, first lies, and first loves. It is a comedy, a mystery, a psychological thriller, and just plain fun.
Kids on the autism spectrum have trouble looking people in the eye. They are often stifled by concepts a neurotypical five-year-old grasps immediately. They often don’t want to be touched. They sound like strange choices for the role of hero or heroine. But they are all around us: friends, family members, students, classmates. Like members of every ignored minority, they have a real need for fiction featuring people like themselves — stories like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, written by Mark Haddon and published by Vintage Books in 2003. In this book the reader meets Christopher John Francis Boone, another teen with Asperger’s. Christopher finds the body of the neighbor’s dog, skewered by a pitchfork. He resolves to solve the murder and to write a mystery novel about his investigation.
Once I was inside Christopher’s head, it was hard to put the book down. His questions bring up old wounds and mysteries and people who try to warn him to stop. Readers see gut-wrenching emotional moments through the eyes of a boy who simply doesn’t understand. As a result, readers see the truth before he does, and then hold their breaths, fearful of Christopher’s reaction when he finally uncovers the depth of the deception in his supposedly calm world. He finds danger too close to home and embarks on a journey alone across England in search of a supposedly dead woman. It’s a long journey through human nature and family ties that he never really understands. But in the end, Christopher solves the crime and finishes his book. To him, that means he can do anything. He and the reader are left feeling like this face from his cheat sheet:
The London Eye Mystery, written by Siobhan Dowd and published by David Fickling Books in 2007, details a relationship between Ted, a boy with Asperger’s, and his sibling Kate. Kate grudgingly accepts that Ted is intelligent, but she ignores him until the day they lose their cousin, Salim. They both watch the young man enter a car on the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel, for a half-hour ride. Twenty-one passengers including Salim board the car (Ted counted), and twenty-one emerge, but not Salim. Over the next three days the siblings forge new bonds as they work together. Kat provides an understanding of non-verbal cues and an impetuous “just do it” nature. Ted’s determined and methodical mind notices patterns and remembers details. This is a fast-paced mystery, with a few twists and red herrings; even the police end up respecting Ted’s deductive abilities.
Remember Dippy is the story of a friendship between a normal boy and his autistic cousin and is written by Shirley Reva Vernick and published by Cinco Punto Press in 2013. Cinco Punto Press is a small press that regularly releases different — and yet important – books; in this case it’s a story of two boys more alike than either realizes at the start.
Johnny is thirteen and preparing for a boring summer in Hull, Vermont (a.k.a. “Dull” Vermont). This year he has a summer job: playing chaperone to his fifteen-year-old cousin with autism, Remember Dippy (and that is his real name). Remember, or Mem for short, is an awkward kid with strange habits, like repeating back almost everything Johnny says, and his fascination with TV’s Martin the Meteorologist. Mem thinks friendship is more important than almost anything. He sticks up for his friends and can’t imagine why others don’t too. Whether happy, sad, scared, or proud, Mem says exactly what he thinks.
“Use your words,” he muttered to himself, his fists clenched. “Mrs. Potts says use your words instead of your lungs. Try, don’t cry. Talk, don’t walk. Breathe, don’t seethe. Flow, don’t throw.”
Turns out hanging around with Remember is not the worst the worst summer job after all. Remember may be embarrassing, but he rescues Johnny from a bully, sacrifices his pet ferret to save a friend’s romance, calls in the calvary to save a kid from drowning, and does his best to push aside his own fears to share in adventures with Johnny and his pals. Mem happens to be a video game phenom. And both Johnny and Mem end up with crushes and girl problems, cementing their friendship.
This is a great middle grade/young adult crossover read about being “normal” and being “different” and how much those two can share with each other.
In Secret of the Songshell, written by Brian Tashima and published by Prism Valley Press (an independent publisher) in 2012, Joel is a sensitive sixteen-year-old with Asperger’s who lives in a single-parent home. On Earth, he leads a stressful life full of bullies, bad grades, money woes and the desire to be a rock star. People don’t like him.
“Because of our ‘spectrum disorders,’” Felicity said, making an air quotes motion with her fingers, “or whatever they want to call it. Like it’s some kind of disease that can be cured, or whatever.”
In this sci-fi/fantasy adventure, Joel travels to an alternate world called Spectraland. There his AS-powered brain waves can combine with the sound waves of music to create magical effects. He also finds an evil warlord who threatens to take over Spectraland and Earth.
This book is not about finding a cure for a deadly disease. It’s about people who handle life in a different way and find their own definitions of success. The book’s theme is that happiness is a state of mind, not something that results from material possessions or other external sources. Anyone with a connection to the autism spectrum will find things to relate to. Musicians will also enjoy the book, along with people who enjoy science fiction and fantasy.
Next up is Lisa and the Lacemaker: An Asperger Adventure, written by Kathy Hoopmann and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2002. Four out of five kids with Asperger’s are male. Lisa is that fifth, a girl, and she has only one friend, another child with Asperger’s. In this middle grade adventure, she meets a ghost with a grudge against her aunt. Lisa’s Asperger’s does not keep her from being afraid, but she learns to understand the ghost and figure out what the lacemaker needs to reach her final resting place.
Kathy Hoopmann wrote two additional Asperger Adventures for kids: Of Mice and Aliens and The Blue Bottle Mystery. These middle grade fantasy adventure stories are for kids with Asperger’s, people who believe in magic, and anyone who loves happy endings. She is also the author of Inside Asperger’s Looking Out, a non-fiction book published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2012. This book that shows neurotypicals (the rest of us) how Aspies see and experience the world.
These books are not about people with a disease who need to be cured to be happy. They are meant for people anywhere on the autism spectrum, and would be enjoyed by many other people, including family, friends, concerned neighbors, and teachers.
– B.A. Binns, currently reading Time Trap by Micah Caida and still listening to The Count of Monte Cristo