Books to be Thankful For
It is 3:00 PM on Thanksgiving and dinner isn’t for another couple of hours. Everyone is watching the football game, but sports aren’t your thing. Or it is Friday the morning after Thanksgiving and your sisters are headed to the mall with glee, but you rather be beamed to Mars than go shopping. For some of us on the spectrum, holidays are trials of survival.
Having something to focus on can sometimes keep things calm during those vexing stretches of downtime. So in this month’s column, I suggest three books that promise a dose of entertainment and intellectual stimulation when you need it most.
For those of you who like a good story, Herb Heiman’s Running on Dreams is a refreshing tale that can be tackled in an afternoon or so. Justin, a teenager on the autism spectrum, is “assigned” to Brad, a peer buddy at school, whose mind is anywhere but on disability issues.
Both boys face pressures that might seem diametrically opposed. What does a popular jock with a girlfriend have in common with a special education student? The author does an excellent job weaving these two lives together. Through the events of the story, which the author tells in an interesting alternating format, what emerges is the commonality these young men face in growing up.
What I liked so much about this story is that I could see myself in Justin. Those of us on the spectrum know that we are different and also the same as everyone else. What Brad and Justin learn about friendship is universal and touching. Don’t pass up this book just because you think it’s for high-schoolers. Anyone at any age will find this story endearing.
If your reading tastes veer more toward straightforward factual material, grab a copy of Temple Grandin’s The Way I See It. A prominent animal scientist and autistic adult, Grandin may be more famous for some of her other books. But this one provides candid insight into autism—across the spectrum—that everyone can appreciate.
The book is wide in scope but not terse or dense. Grandin delivers the kind of straight-forward advice so many of us long for. You can’t beat honest advice like, “…being good at something helps compensate for being weird.” Yet such frank insights do not at all detract from her comprehensive coverage of topics ranging from education to sensory issues and from the latest brain research to eating techniques.
This book serves a double-purpose: As I read through the chapters and Grandin’s insights unfolded, I gained new models for explaining how I operate to others—perfect timing for the family-saturated holiday season.
Outside the Autism Universe
I am also going to recommend Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio. The heroine of this book is not autistic, but she has Tourette Syndrome. Growing up in the 1950s in a poor Appalachian community, she is taunted and ostracized and even institutionalized at one point. What Icy really lacks is self-understanding. She doesn’t know why she has tics. Being different is a burden—but how much more so is the burden when you don’t know your diagnosis? For some of us on the autism spectrum who grew up not knowing our challenges weren’t our fault, Icy’s story definitely resonates.
Icy discovers her strengths and talents anyway, and when at last understanding does arrive, she turns her pain around to make a difference in the world as a children’s therapist. This is certainly inspiring. But beyond being “just” a tear-jerker, Icy’s story underscores that diversity is a regular part of life, and it is really our fears that are most disabling. We adults on the autism spectrum are not alone, and many other adults, on the spectrum and with other conditions and issues, can be strengthened by our common efforts to take a place in society with our dignity intact.
I hope this short list of books keeps your brain occupied during one of the most socially challenging and sensory challenging holidays. Thanksgiving is, ultimately, a holiday of gratitude. I think these three books speak to this theme in different ways. Whether the feelings of gratitude arise from gaining understanding about our differences, from triumphing over our challenges in little and big ways, or from bridging understandings between those of us with diversities and those of us without, the autism community and individuals on the autism spectrum have much to be thankful for.