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review 2017-05-14 23:52
Chester and Gus - Cammie McGovern 
Chester and Gus - Cammie McGovern

I am so emotional these days that just reading the blurb made me tear up. What a good dog! I liked that it was written from the dog's perspective, and that Gus was so uncommunicative.

Library copy 

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review 2017-05-10 09:25
Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork | #AutismAwareness
Marcelo in the Real World - Francisco X. Stork

Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear --- part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo's unique perception of reality, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer... to join "the real world". There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it's a picture he finds in a file -- a picture of a girl with half a face --- that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.

~from back cover

 

 

 

 

Seventeen year old Marcelo (pronounced "Marselo") is described as having an "autism-like" condition. That's as close as doctors can come to defining his unique gift of being able to hear music where no one else can. Unfortunately for Marcelo, his father doesn't see anything particularly rare or special about his son's gift. Instead, the father pushes Marcelo to take a job in the mailroom of his law firm --- dad's reasoning being that the position will teach Marcelo useful skills about "the real world"  and put him on the path to success, rather than let his mind run away with creative dreamer fancies. 

 

Once in the mailroom environment, Marcelo meets and befriends the lovely Jasmine and Wendell, the son of one of the partners at the law firm. As his father anticipated, the first days were an experience for Marcelo, to say the least, as another "autism-like" trait that Marcelo displays is a struggle with interpreting facial expressions. But thanks to classes Marcelo attends to help him learn tips & tricks to help him out with this (instruction in voice inflection, speech patterns, and the like), it actually doesn't take him too long to find his way. It's a tough time for the reader though. We have to watch Marcelo navigate around co-workers who assume he's mentally incompetent, or those who try to bully or take advantage of him because he can't immediate recognize that he is being tricked. This is the "real world" his father so desperately wanted him to be a part of... thanks, dad! 

 

 

"What's wrong with you, anyway? With the way you think. Your father said you had some kind of cognitive disorder."

 

"He said that." It surprises me to hear Arturo refer to me that way. He has always insisted that there's nothing wrong with me. The term "cognitive disorder" implies there is something wrong with the way I think or with the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.

 

Marcelo develops a love for religious texts and often turns to reading or reciting scripture to himself to calm his nerves when the world starts to overwhelm him. At one point, he finds himself unexpectedly caught up in one of his father's most important legal cases, one that will push Marcelo to fight for what he believes in, regardless of what others around him might say. 

 

After being published in 2009, in 2010 this novel was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award for Teen Fiction, an award that recognizes fiction that focuses on characters with disabilities. 

 

I've come across pages of glowing reviews for this one, and while I did very much enjoy it, I can't comfortably join the 5 star crowd here. The story had some dents for me. I loved Marcelo, the way his mind worked and his unique style of interacting with others even if he didn't (admittedly) always understand all the unspoken social cues. Something in that I found myself relating to quite a bit. His friendship with Jasmine was undeniably sweet and I found myself wishing he and Wendell could get on a bit better. So the characters undeniably spoke to me on some level. My trouble was with the writing. Some of the characters came off just a little too weirdly staccato in their speech and mannerisms for my enjoyment. The flow of things just felt a shade off from natural. In Marcelo's case it's understandable and almost expected, given that he's been diagnosed with a "autism-like" condition, but that doesn't explain the other characters!

 

Also, if I'm being honest with my reading experience... there was just something a little... lackluster... with the plot as a whole. I was all about this story in the early pages! Those first few chapters definitely had me hooked. But this was one of those books where I could feel my love and interest of it slowly trickling down instead of racing up. Reading pages on end and then realizing later, "you know, that was actually a whole lotta nothing going on"... and the book's not even that long! Still, I did quite like Stork's message here -- the way Marcelo finds his own voice in a sea of so many others telling him what he needs or what he should do --- it made me curious to try out some of Stork's other works just to compare, so I now have a couple on order. Even with the elements I myself found problematic, I would still solidly recommend this to anyone looking for YA reads featuring the theme of autism and enhanced abilities. 

 

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review 2017-05-02 21:45
Melting Down (graphic novel) by Jeff Krukar & Katie Gutierrez | #AutismAwareness
Melting Down: A Comic for Kids with Asperger's Disorder and Challenging Behavior (The ORP Library) - Jeff Krukar,Katie Gutierrez,James G. Balestrieri,Nathan Lueth

Based on dozens of intensive interviews with parents, clinical psychologists, teachers, and more, Melting Down is the illustrated fictional story of Benjamin, a boy diagnosed with Asperger's disorder and additional challenging behavior. From the time Benjamin is a toddler, he knows he is different: he doesn't understand social and emotional cues, does not know how to play with his sister or other children, and dislikes making eye contact. And his tantrums are not like normal tantrums; they're meltdowns that will eventually make regular schooling-and day-to-day life-impossible. Told from Benjamin's perspective, Melting Down gives a unique glimpse into the journey taken by children with Asperger's disorder and additional challenging behavior, demonstrating that the path toward hope isn't simple—but with the right tools and teammates, it's possible.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Benjamin spends his early school years struggling to make progress, not only in academics but also when it comes to social scenarios. He doesn't seem to understand the unspoken rules of the schoolyard. What is certain about Benjamin is that he does love learning! He loves all things involving history or trains, but becomes uncomfortable or even upset when asked to move away from those topics onto something else. Benjamin doesn't like interruption to his preferred daily routines and patterns and is prone to moments of intense anger, sometimes leading to physical altercations with teachers and / or students. At wit's end with the situation, his parents begin taking him to a revolving door of mental health professionals (not to mention the mountain of trial medications!), one doctor finally pinpointing Benjamin's behavior as Asperger's Syndrome. Through the doctor's recommendation, Benjamin is enrolled in Genesee Lake School, a school for students with special needs.

 

There, Benjamin learns proper coping skills on how to manage his feelings of anger and stress in a healthy manner, how to grade his moments of anxiety on a scale of 1 to 5 and take action accordingly, even how to do home skills such as cooking and laundry. The staff at Genesee teach Benjamin that he is not broken, he just requires a different approach to things in life. He is incredibly talented, he only needs to funnel that energy toward productive goals. Benjamin finds comfort in the new found order in his life. With the skills he learns at Genesee, he is able to finish school, take a job as a library aide, and even joins a tae kwon do class. 

 

Genesee Lake School is a real place in Wisconsin. The school not only provides education for autistic students, but also those with mood / anxiety disorders or victims of trauma. Dr. Jeff Krukar, one of the co-authors of this graphic novel, is Genesee's resident psychologist. He helps develop books for the ORP Library, a catalog of works that offer resource books for parents and teachers of students with mental disorders. The adult works are accompanied by graphic novels that can be provided to the students themselves, the idea being that between the two a dialogue between adults and children with said disorders might be more successfully reached. Melting Down is only one of many titles within the ORP Library. 

 

In simple, straightforward text and imagery, Melting Down gives children and adults alike a clear impression of what some of the often misdiagnosed or unaddressed challenges of Asperger's Syndrome are. The colorful artwork by Nathan Lueth keeps the reader's eyes entertained while also sucking you into the challenging life of Benjamin, a good kid who just wants to understand why life feels so hard. 

 

I much enjoyed experiencing the graphic novel portion of Melting Down and look forward to delving into its nonfiction companion book. In fact, I am most curious to get into the other titles within the ORP library which look at not only autism but also conditions / topics such as bullying, bipolar disorder, children with PTSD, and even the conflicting emotions that can come with being an adopted child. 

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review 2017-05-02 20:40
A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin | #AutismAwareness
A Corner of the Universe - Ann M. Martin

Hattie Owen enjoys peaceful Millerton summertimes with "houses nodding in the heavy air," being in charge of Miss Hagerty's breakfast tray at her parents' boardinghouse, and drinking lemonade on the porch after supper. Yet this year, it's different -- Hattie's uncle Adam is coming home. Returning from a Chicago school that's just closed and whose existence is kept quiet by adult family members, Adam is a 21-year-old man with a child's mind, having a knack for talking quickly, a savant-like ability for remembering weekdays, and a passion for I Love Lucy. Hattie and Adam wind up spending precious time together -- including a visit to the recently arrived carnival with Hattie's new friend, Leila -- which makes her feel soulfully connected to her uncle, especially when he declares that she's "one of the people who can lift the corners of our universe." But when Hattie takes Adam on the ferris wheel one night, it sets off dramatic events that lead Hattie's family to strengthen its bonds and changes her life's outlook forever.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Young Hattie Owen has enjoyed the peaceful pace of life in her small Midwestern town of Millerton these past 11 years, helping her parents run the local boardinghouse. That pivotal summer in the 1960s, on the cusp of her 12th birthday, brings a new reality, one that will shake Hattie to her very core. That is the summer she is introduced to Adam.

 

Hattie grew up knowing her mother, Dorothy, to only have one brother, Hattie's Uncle Hayden. But quite suddenly one day, it is revealed that in fact she has another uncle, Adam, whose existence has been kept secret from her all these years. Adam, Dorothy's youngest sibling, has been away in Chicago, living at a special school for those with mental illnesses or disabilities. Though he was never given a certain diagnosis, it is believed Adam suffers from either schizophrenia or autism. Now that school is permanently closing, so Adam is sent home to stay with his parents until new living arrangements can be made.

 

Though initially startled by the news of Adam's existence, Hattie is undeniably curious about him. Before long, she finds they are actually something of kindred spirits, both knowing deep loneliness and a sense of not quite belonging in this world. It is also during this most important summer that a circus comes to Millerton, the biggest event to happen to the place in years! This circus brings Hattie a new friend, Leila, the niece of the circus owner and daughter of Pretzel Woman (a contortionist, I'm guessing). Leila's introduction into the story also fits in with the theme of not fitting into societal norms. In one conversation, Hattie asks Leila if it bothers her that people pay to stare at her mother who performs in a sideshow. Hattie's telling response, "It's better than them staring and not paying."

 

While Adam displays many traits commonly attributed to autism -- repetitive behaviors, fascination with / memorization of entire TV show episodes, emotional meltdowns over seemingly minor instances -- Hattie does lay out her confusion regarding his diagnosis (or lack of) and what it means in regards to the rest of her family:

 

I don't know exactly what is wrong with Adam, but maybe it is one of those diseases that runs in families. Maybe that is why Nana and Papa seemed ashamed of him. And maybe... is that why Mom and Dad never told me about Adam? To keep the knowledge of his illness from me? Do they maybe even think that I'm a little like Adam? Is that why Mom wants me to be like other kids -- so she can prove to herself that I won't turn out like Adam one day? I twist around and look at my family. I can't stop the questions from coming, And I can't ask a single one of them.

 

Though not overly complex in plot (but stayed tuned for the Ferris Wheel incident and all that follows up to the end!), A Corner of the Universe will definitely give young readers a small taste of the stigma that surrounded mental disorders during this era. Author Ann Martin does offer some impressive character studies within this story that will surely stir up healthy discussion. Most notably, there's Hattie's grandmother, one of the wealthiest women in Millerton. "Nana" had grand dreams of having that enviable family with the perfect husband and gorgeous & talented children. As life would have it, her youngest son required being placed in a group home and her daughter Nana pinned such hopes on, well... she "married beneath her", deciding to shack up with a "lowly" artist! Additionally, now her granddaughter has proven to be a bit of a social pariah, preferring to keep to her library books and inside her own mind. 

 

But it's not just Hattie's grandmother who causes her to wonder. When Hattie asks about why she is an only child, her mother responds with a pat answer of, "Well, you were just so perfect we didn't want to push our luck." After meeting Adam and observing how Dorothy acts around him, Hattie suspects she was kept an only child because her parents might have feared possibly having a child like Adam. 

 

Hattie doesn't see what the big deal is with Adam's condition. Though Adam is in his early 20s, his parents treat him almost like a toddler. Hattie witnesses his heartbreak when people stare, taunt him and call him things like "Freak Show". But she actually envies the way he views life. He is unabashedly happy in the small moments, endlessly entertained by the minutiae of one's day. Adam's love of soft & pretty things, not to mention is fascination with the lovely bank teller, Angel, boarding at the Owen home, brought to mind Lenny from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, who similarly had a childlike innocent love of the small things in life. But there is also a serious side to Adam that comes out when moments become especially trying for him, a side that shows he is all too aware of what is going on around him and how people see him. 

 

"No one knows," says Adam, "what it is like."

"No, I {Hattie} reply, although I think I might know more than most people.

"You are not an alien, Hattie. I am the only true alien."

But Adam is wrong. I am an alien too. 

 

This novel might strike some as a departure for Ann M. Martin, who is perhaps most well known for her Babysitter's Club series, but Martin also penned Rain Reign, which featured a young girl with Asperger's Syndrome who has a love of homonyms. Those curious about Martin's inspiration for A Corner of the Universe will find the Scholastic's After Words™️ section most helpful. It features an interview with Martin in which she explains that the idea for this particular novel was loosely inspired by events from her own life, namely an uncle she never met but was later told about who was deemed mentally ill. This section of supplemental material also includes historical overview blurbs of cultural topics Hattie references within her story. Also included is a neat reprint of a few pages from a 1960s era Junior Scholastic magazine!

 

above: "Baseball is a man's world! But girls are an important part of it. Why? Because almost every baseball is sewed by the nimble fingers of a girl. It has been that way since Civil War days, when baseball first became popular..."

 

 

 

For those curious about Adam's trick of being able to recall the day of week of any date in history, there is a page -- "The Amazing Day Finder" -- that teaches readers the math behind this trick so that they too can impress their friends! 

 

While there is some grit and sadness to the storyline, A Corner of the Universe does also show a love for small town life -- the way everyone knows you, the coziness of community coming together, small business owner pride, etc. While living in a small community can have its downside, readers who have experienced the good and have been distanced from it for a time will likely feel a little nostalgia for Hattie's particular little corner of the universe. 

 

A note to parents: this novel does describe a suicide near the end of the story. If you're particular about what images or information your child is exposed to during the younger years, maybe give this one a pre-read through. Though this book does include some sensitive material in that sense, A Corner of the Universe plays an important role in taking the first step towards educating youth on the importance of advocating acceptance and kindness to those who may be struggling with mental disorders / challenges. 

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review 2017-04-28 23:59
Drawing Autism, an art book compiled by Jill Mullin | #AutismAwarenessMonth
Drawing Autism - Jill Mullin,Temple Grandin

Over the last decade autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has become an international topic of conversation, knowing no racial, ethnic, or social barriers. Behavior analyst and educator Jill Mullin has assembled a staggering array of work from established artists like Gregory Blackstock and Jessica Park to the unknown but no less talented. Their creations, coupled with artist interviews, comprise a fascinating and compelling book that serves to educate and inspire anyone who knows someone diagnosed with ASD. Mullin's introduction and the foreword by best-selling author Temple Grandin provide an overview of autism and advocate for nurturing the talents, artistic and otherwise, of autistic individuals.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Now in its second edition, Drawing Autism is a collection of artwork compiled by NYC-based behavioral analyst Jill Mullin. Mullin explains in her introductory essay how one year her work had her cross paths with an autistic artist living in a group home who showed extraordinary joy and talent through his artwork. Her acquaintance with this artist inspired her to seek out other talented artists with autism across the world. Mullin lays out her end goal with this project:

 

"Commonly in the media, individuals with autism have been shown to have great talents in certain areas such as science and math. The intention of this book is to display another area where individuals with autism can have great abilities."

 

Within this opening essay, Mullin also reveals that this project ended up being so successful that it helped greatly propel the featured artists into global notoriety, many of them being asked to do art showings all over the world. Mullin's essay is preceded by a foreword written by none other than Temple Grandin, one of today's most famous faces when it comes to autism awareness! Also included in the art collection are a few of Grandin's diagrams of her inventions (designs for more humane deaths for cattle in meat processing facilities).

 

Mullin wrote up a list of interview questions that she submitted to each artist she asked to be featured in this collection. From those questions, she pulls some of the most interesting or revealing answers, placing them alongside the artwork, giving the viewer / reader an eye-opening look into the world of an autistic mind. The collection as a whole is broken up into themed sections that illustrate common characteristics of the autism spectrum as a whole. For example, "Getting From Here To There" collects art pieces that focus on fascination with various modes of transportation; "Interaction, Individual and Societal" gives artists a space to express how they perceive themselves from a societal point of view. Many pieces in this section illustrate feelings of isolation, not being fully understood or accepted, frustration with miscommunications, etc; "Art For Art's Sake" is a place for the artists to just create for the sake of joy and fun. There's no particular deep meaning to the works in this section necessarily, just pieces that have made the artists happy or at peace in their souls. 

 

 

Personally, "Art For Art's Sake" and "Bird's Eye View" (pieces focusing on nature themes) were my favorite sections. I especially loved the works of Shawn Belanger -- his autism leaves him predominately non-verbal -- whose work is featured on several pages of Drawing Autism. The colors and movement of his pieces shouted a joy of life to me!

 

 

 

 

My very favorite piece though, I think I'd give that to "The Death of Love #373" by Charles D. Topping. I could not stop looking at it!

 

 

Some of the images, several actually, have definite grit and darkness to them. Some perusers of this book might be shocked at certain pieces if the paintings are only taken on their own. I would urge that you read the accompanying interview answers explaining many of the pieces. There you will see that while perhaps initially a shock to the eye, there is a purpose and / or a story of hurt behind the inspiration that you should hear. 

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