Children's Literature as a Bridge of Understanding For Classmates With and Without Autism

Jane E. Kelley, Teresa A. Cardon, and Dana Alego-Nichols

Abstract

Because the number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is increasing rapidly and these children are attending general education classes, teachers need to find ways of helping students with and without ASD to better understand each other. This article considers challenges of developing understanding relationships, suggesting two books that are beneficial to read aloud and discuss in classrooms.

The national report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; 2014) has estimated that 1 in 68 children are currently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Recently a National Health Statistics Report surveyed parents and found prevalence reported by this population closer to 1 in 50 children being identified with an ASD (Blumberg et al., 2013).  In the State of Utah, 1 in 54 children are being diagnosed with an ASD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). The ability to meet the needs of this increasing population is quickly becoming a concern for public health and education.

The rate of ASD is trending upward, and schools will continue to serve an increasing number of children with this disorder.  Although many children with ASD qualify for special education services, there is a strong impetus to include students with ASD in regular classrooms; with current statistics reaching 1 in 68, it is estimated that every classroom in America could have a child with ASD (CDC, 2014). We recommend that classroom peers learn to understand their classmates with ASD, particularly to be aware of the challenges that are part of their lives.

Reading books that authentically depict characters with autism is one way teachers can help bridge the gap in understanding that may exist between students with autism and their neurotypical classmates. In this article, we provide an overview of awareness and adjustments that might be needed and suggest two books to read aloud with students.

Awareness and Adjustments

In preparation for the reading experience, children should be introduced to characteristics they might notice in their classmates with ASD.

Autism characteristics. Autism is classified as a disorder that presents with social communication deficits along with restrictive or repetitive behaviors (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).  Symptoms appear in early childhood and range in severity from mildly to severely affected. Social communication deficits may include difficulties in expressive or receptive communication, verbal or non-verbal communication, and social interactions.  Restrictive and repetitive interests may include repetitive movements, strict adherence to routines, highly fixated interests, and atypical reactions to sensory stimuli.

These deficits and behaviors may seem strange and even disturbing to children who do not learn to look beyond them. You might want to introduce the characteristics or symptoms of autism using an informational text, such as a short article titled "Autism" from KidsHealth (2012). The information presented in this kid-friendly article gives an overview about the challenges a child with autism can experience.

Shared perspectives. Currently, no specific curriculum has been identified as best practice for educating individuals with autism, and additional information to better support autism in education is needed. Behavioral interventions have been recommended as the most beneficial treatments for individuals with ASD (National Autism Center, 2009).  Currently there is a strong impetus to teach children with ASD to learn neurotypical behaviors and to accommodate their actions to match societal expectations through such interventions as peer mentors (Schmidt & Stichter, 2012) and social skill groups (DeRosier, Swick, David, McMillen, & Matthews, 2011).  Embedded in these types of interventions is the notion that children with ASD must learn to understand their peers. It can take years, and in fact it is an ongoing process for children with ASD to understand how to act and behave in a neurotypical society.

We feel that understanding perspectives should work both ways and that the responsibility for understanding others should not fall solely on the child with the disability. Similar to using multicultural literature to promote understanding of cultural diversity (Evans, 2012), we recommend children's books with characters who have an ASD to help peers understand neurodiversity. "Engaging in the simulation experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference" (Mar & Oatley, 2008, p. 173).

We suggest selecting at least two books to read aloud. We recommend Rules (Lord, 2006) and Mockingbird (Erkskine, 2010) since they represent different ends of the Autism spectrum, as well as point-of-view narrators with and without autism. We urge you to put aside the reading guides and use these books to encourage earnest conversations about autism.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erkskine

Summary. Caitlin, a fifth grader, always admired her older brother, Devon, and depended on him to help her navigate the challenges of Asperger's Syndrome (the highest functioning form of Autism).  Unfortunately, Caitlin does not know how to cope after her brother is fatally wounded in a middle school shooting.  While the community struggles with the calamity, Caitlin also struggles as she tries to understand how to grieve in this situation and bring closure.  Caitlin's candid, straightforward comments like "Devon-who-is-dead" unsettles her widower father, who recently lost his wife to cancer, as he tries to deal with Devon's untimely and devastating death.  With the help of her school counselor, Mrs. Brooks, and a new friend, Michael, Caitlin learns to feel empathy and bring closure for herself and her community.

Teaching moment. In many instances, Caitlin misinterprets what is happening in the classroom. For example, when Rachel is upset, Caitlin tries to help by moving Rachel's desk to the back corner of the room. "I decide to help Rachel. I'm a very helpful person. I look around the room but there is no place for her to hide . . . where she can be in her Personal Space and not have people staring at her." However, Rachel and her classmates don't perceive Caitlin's effort that way. "I hear voices saying, What is she doing? She's such a weirdo! She's finally cracked?" This is an example of Caitlyn, who lacks social skills and social sensitivity, misreading the situation. It could be a point of discussion for students in the class to discuss why Caitlyn thought she was being helpful.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Summary.  Catherine, a 12-year-old, is embarrassed by her younger brother, David, who has autism, because he has temper tantrums, only eats certain foods, and needs to be told how to behave in every situation.  To help David function in society, or at the very least to make life easier for Catherine, she creates a list of rules for David to follow, such as "No toys in the fish tank."  When a new girl, Kristi, moves in next door, Catherine intentionally tries to keep David at a distance so he does not ruin a possible friendship. Unintentionally Catherine befriends Jason, a teenage boy at the clinic where David receives therapy.  Jason, a non-verbal paraplegic, uses pictures to communicate. Wanting to help Jason, Catherine creates new picture cards so that he can express himself, and throughout the process she learns how to accept her feelings about her brother's disability.

Teaching moment. While Catherine and her brother, David, are waiting for their father to go to the video store, Catherine worries that her dad will be late again. "In exactly six minutes and thirty three seconds, there is going to be a scene. I know it as sure as I know the window next door is open, and David's scream will travel from my porch across our yard, and through that open window. . . . 'Remember the rule.' I flip to the back of my sketchbook and show him Late doesn't mean not coming." This is an example of David's insistence on sameness and predictability. Recognizing this as a symptom of autism is a first step in understanding how people with the disability perceive things differently.  This would make an interesting discussion point.

Additional Teaching Ideas

  • Here are some guiding questions to consider when reading the books.
  • What are some daily challenges people with autism experience?
  • How are family members of people with autism affected by this disability?
  • What can you do to help a peer with autism adapt to the class community?
  • Are there any strategies that might help a student with autism in the classroom?  In the lunchroom?  On the playground?

Overall, using literature with characters who have autism creates an awareness of inherent characteristics and challenges of people with ASD and begins to foster understanding. Used thoughtfully, these books can create effective bridges to help students (and educators) relate to the needs and feelings of individuals who are neurologically different from themselves.

Jane E. Kelley, EdD, is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Washington State University. She was an elementary teacher for 10 years and now teaches courses in children's literature and literacy education for educators. Her research and scholarly activities include critical multicultural analysis of children's literature, reflection by teachers, and differentiation of instruction.

Teresa A. Cardon, PhD, CCC-SLP, is Director of Autism Studies in the Department of Behavioral Science at Utah Valley University. She has worked with individuals with autism spectrum disorders for over 20 years. Dr. Cardon has published her research on autism in peer-reviewed journals and presented at national and international conferences. Her current research focuses on video modeling with young children with autism.

Dana Alego-Nichols, MA, CCC-SLP, has been a practicing speech language pathologist for seven years. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in the Language, Literacy and Technology Program in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Washington State University. Her research interest is literacy education for children of the margins.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Desk reference to the diagnostic criteria from DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Blumberg, S. J., Bramlett, M. D., Kogan, M. D., Schieve, L. A., Jones, J. R., & Lu, M. C. (2013). Changes in prevalence of parent-reported autism spectrum disorder in school-aged U.S. children: 2007 to 2011-2012 (National Health Statistics Report no 65). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Prevelance of autism spectrum disorders. Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 14 sites, United States, 2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Surveillance Summaries, 61(3), 1-19.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).   Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.htm

DeRosier, M., Swick, D., Davis, N., McMillen, J., & Matthews, R. (2011). The efficacy of a social skills group intervention for improving social behaviors in children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(8), 1033-1043. doi: 10.1007/s10803-010-1128-2

Erskine, K. (2010). Mockingbird (Mok'ing-bûrd). New York, NY: Philomel Books.

Evans, S. (2012). The role of multicultural literature interactive read-alouds on student perspectives toward diversity. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching, 3(1), 92-104.

KidsHealth. (2012). Autism.   Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/kid/health_problems/brain/autism.html

Lord, C. (2006). Rules. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(2), 173-192. doi: 10.1111/j-1745-6924.2008.00073.x

National Autism Center. (2009). National standards report: The national standards project—addressing the needs for evidence-based practice guidelines for autism spectrum disorders.   Retrieved from http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/pdf/NAC Standards Report.pdf

Schmidt, C., & Stichter, J. P. (2012). The use of peer-mediated interventions to promote the generalization of social competence for adolescents with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome. Exceptionality, 20(2), 94-113. doi: 10.1080/09362835.2012.669303