90,000 Miles to Me

36,104 Miles • On Finding a Path in Children’s Literature

A few weeks ago, I was reading one of my favorite books for the umpteenth time, and noticed that the author was massively over-explaining one small, insignificant social encounter between a couple of women. I’ve read it many times, but this was the first time I had really paid attention to it. 

For reasons that I won’t go into here, I have been convinced for a while that the author is autistic. But because I’ve seen no public reference to that, I am not going to mention her name or the book, to protect anything she may not want to be made public, or perhaps isn’t even aware of herself.

Anyway, what is important is that it actually occurred to me that I have read this over and over and simply enjoyed it without being aware that she was describing this particular gesture, that raised eyebrow, or filling in the missing gaps of an unspoken assumption in the short dialogue. Most of the book does not do this, there’s just a couple such moments.

As I reflected on it, something shifted inside me and I wished for more books like this. Books that could help me decipher the often complex and obtuse layers of meaning in seemingly small social situations.

It has been small gifts such as this throughout my life, when someone would do the unusual thing and actually explain some small detail of social knowledge, that have taught me a great deal of what I know about the finer points of social interactions.

Once I got the autism diagnosis, and finally had an explanation for why I was so awkward and kept saying the wrong things and did not pick up on what people were trying to tell me and then get upset at me for it, I decided that I could hack social dynamics the way I did German grammar. In the last three years, I have made much more progress in refining my social interactions and I have in all the years since I was a teenager.

I’ve read lots of articles and commentaries about autism which basically dismiss autistic people is not being able to learn social skills hardly at all, but my discussions with other autistic adults on online forums, suggests otherwise. Most of us do struggle with social expectations, and do feel awkward lots of the time, but many of us have also learned a great deal and can get by just fine because we can learn the rules of social encounters. We just do so through direct instruction instead of intuition, and we navigate social situations analytically instead of intuitively.

But what if that instruction were to come at a an early age, as it does for most kids?

And this is what shifted in me: I could write that.

I could write children’s books that would be like this one amazing scene from my favorite author, which would explain what was going on to autistic children, from the viewpoint of an autistic adult, knowing what parts they are likely to have difficulty with, and being able to explain it in a way that they will respond to.

It would bring together so many different parts of my life: my autism, the painful memories from growing up, my writing skills, my tendency to over-explain, but this time in just the right way (hopefully), as well as years of experience in early childhood education and as a public school teacher, my love for reading children’s books even when there aren’t any children around to justify it, and my deep desire to make a positive difference in autistic children’s and their families’ lives.

I quickly came up with several ideas for children’s picture books that could help younger kids unravel the complexities of a whole bunch of commonplace encounters that I struggled with as a child.

The first two picture books I tried writing flowed easily. Still, I did a lot of revising and editing, making those first drafts much better. I found a couple of people to help give me good critiques, including a woman who works with nonverbal autistic children, who liked the idea and the draft of my first story.

I’ve also been researching lots of information on writing children’s literature and the publishing industry, and seeing what other resources are already out there that might be comparable to my idea. There are a few, which have shown positive results, but there isn’t much available.

I think the biggest reason for this glaring lack of social explanation comes back to the old complaint “Well if you don’t know, then I can’t explain it to you.” 

Most neurotypicals—persons with a “typical” brain—are simply not able to explain the finer points of social intricacies, reading facial expressions, emotions, and body language. They learn these things so deeply and at such an early age that they cannot put what they know into words any more than persons with autism can intuit these things.

And since a majority of the parents, teachers, therapists, and other adults in an autistic child’s life are neurotypical, these adults simply do not have the ability to explain the thing that the child needs.

There are a variety of “therapies” which purport to “teach social skills,” but they generally don’t make much progress because, again, they are coming at it from a neurotypical perspective. What I propose is to come at it from an autistic perspective.

On the flip side of things, an autistic child does not yet have the awareness or verbal skills to know that he needs or to be able to ask for it. What child can?

I was one of those highly articulate children, and I still couldn’t ask for these kinds of explanations, beyond getting frustrated on a regular basis. That seems to be a pretty common state of affairs, according to the other adults on the autism forms. Many of us learn, but it is a slow, painful, and haphazard process.

I am painfully aware that using my own experience as a guide will not relate to everyone else’s autistic experience, and it won’t clear up all the various social complexities, many of which are specific to certain regions or families or contexts. But I think that I can help out with at least some issues for some kids (and maybe even a few adults).

My mom also pointed out that it is not only autistic kids who could use this sort of help, but kids who have social anxieties, who grew up in unpredictable environments, survivors of traumas, or with a variety of other developmental delays.

For that very reason, I do not want to explicitly label the character in my story as autistic, so that anyone who feels some similarities may benefit from the stories.

The trick will be to help the protagonist of each story understand this particular social gem, without being condescending, talking down to the child, or being too “adult-y.” It also needs to have a genuinely good storyline that the kid will want to read over and over to reinforce the lesson, without the repetition being too irritating for the parent. This is going to be quite a challenging task.

So far it’s been about three weeks, and this doesn’t feel like “just the next project,” or yet another idea that I will get excited about for a while and then move on from just as quickly. This feels somehow fundamentally different.

I’m spending about four hours every day writing, actively working on my first few book ideas. I’m not putting off doing the thing itself. With other projects, I would often research what I needed to know to do it, but I would stay in research mode for days or weeks or sometimes months, feeling like I couldn’t start working on the thing itself, or not much, until I knew more. I would go from article to article, chasing links and hunting down more information and getting sucked into the rabbit hole of reading about the thing, without actually doing it.

This time I am only researching enough to answer a specific question, and when I get my answer, I go straight back to writing. I want to do the writing.

I do also want to research and learn as much as I can about the children’s literature publishing industry and the craft of writing, etc. but first and foremost I am actually doing the writing. When I spend too much time researching, I get itchy and have to go back to writing to scratch my itch.

And as I’m writing, I’m not getting too hung up on the things that I would have before. It feels like a freeing and a moving into something that feels right.

I don’t want to characterize this as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, or what I was always meant to do, or finding my one true purpose in life. Those don’t feel quite right, and I don’t think that I need to have any of those in my life.

It feels more like I had a bunch of puzzle pieces scattered on the table for a long time, and they’re finally fitting together in a way that makes a beautiful picture.

And I can easily see myself keeping up with this in one form or another for a long time. It probably won’t be the only thing I ever do; I don’t work that way. But I can see it being a strong thread throughout my life.

I don’t know how this is going to play out, and I don’t really feel the need to at this point. It’s like finally seeing the beginnings of a path in front of me. I can’t see more than a few feet in front of my steps, and I have no idea where it will lead, but I am finally on a path. I think this will be a good path. 

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1 thought on “36,104 Miles • On Finding a Path in Children’s Literature

  1. as I am reading this post i am thinking of a project that has hit the TV IN RECENT DAYS…IT IS CALLED “its you I like” the story of Mr. Rodgers.
    he geared his programs to all persons and was very good at explaning things . i only bring it up as an example of what you are proposing to do with your books.


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