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The Need for More Autistic Characters in Children’s Books

by Dena Friedman

For children with autism and their families, each day presents many new challenges. Among these is perception, or rather misperception of what living with autism means – for the children – and their caretakers. Most children’s books on the shelves today fail to include autistic characters, at least realistic, lead characters, invariably adding to misperception and to a lack of understanding, compassion, and acceptance by the media and the general public.

In the online British publication, The Conversation, Shalini Vohra, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Sheffield Hallam University, says that the manner in which an author presents an autistic child in fictional children’s stories, particularly those used by teachers and parents, is crucial to reversing this trend.  She describes how children’s story writer Michael Morpurgo’s latest book was inspired by the birth of a grandson with autism. Morpurgo says prior to the birth, he never would have considered including characters with autism.  

Vohra said that, “The sad reality is many authors and publishers – perhaps from fear of causing offence – appear to steer clear of autistic characters in their narrative. As a consequence, books with autistic characters are either tucked away in the special section of bookshops and libraries, or absent altogether.”

​In her current research, Vohra explores fiction’s role in the perception and acceptance of people with autism, particularly in children’s books. She believes that the often inaccurate and skewed portrayal of autistic children in books can elicit readers’ feelings of sadness and isolation.

She recently conducted an interactive panel discussion on the subject. Among the topics addressed was co-production, whereby authors collaborate with autistic children to write books, often using their own words, and thereby creating more realistic and relatable characters.  As an example, Vohra references the success of a popular book series authored by Vicky Martin, but written jointly with students in a school for autistic teenage girls.

​For younger children, Vohra suggests that drawing exercises or comic workshops may be more conducive to coming up with characters their own age.

Ultimately, having books, films, and other creative works with a plethora of characters representing the many realistic facets of autism, along with cooperation from publishers, will lead to better understanding of autism and respect for autistic individuals.

Read the original article here.

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