Recently, on a security group in Johannesburg, a twelve-year-old autistic child went missing from his home.  He has since been found and is safe, but one of the biggest highlights in this report was that, if found, the boy would not be unable to provide any personal details to those who might need to question him.
This begs the question of how many South Africans would understand this boy’s predicament?  How would he, himself, deal with a situation where suddenly the terrain was unfamiliar?  And, more importantly, how many children would know how to approach him?

Children’s stories and novels may well prepare families and communities for these types of experiences…but autistic characters in children’s books are few and far between.

It’s important that children read about characters who are different or maybe even more like them than they initially thought.

Shalini Vohra, Sheffield Hallam University

Morpurgo explained how it didn’t occur to him to write a book about autism until his grandson was born, which isn’t totally surprising – as autistic characters in books are few and far between.

Fiction plays a significant role in shaping how people understand and respond to autism. And in this way, books are often used by both schools and parents to help children and young people understand more about autism.

But the limited and skewed portrayal of autism means it is often misrepresented rather than represented in fiction. For an autistic child or young person this can be extremely isolating and they are often unable to find a version of “themselves” in a book.

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.

Writing together

My research looks at the role fiction plays in creating awareness and acceptance of autism among children, as well as how the portrayal of autism in children’s books shapes how autism is understood and responded to.

As part of the research, I recently put on an interactive discussion at the Festival of Social Science around the topic of how autism is portrayed in children’s fiction.

The panel included Vicky Martin, writer of M is for autism and M in the middle, and Amanda Lillywhite, writer and illustrator of picture books including Friends, written for the Neuro Foundation which works to improve the lives of those affected by neurofibromatosis – a genetic condition caused by a mutation in one of their genes. On the panel was also Elaine Bousfield, founder of new publishing house Zuntold.
And the audience consisted of autistic children, young people and adults. As well as parents of autistic children, secondary school teachers, academics and the general public.

One of the key topics discussed at the event was around the idea of “co-production”.

This is where books are written in collaboration with autistic children and young people – much like the M in the Middle series, which was authored by Martin, but written jointly with girls of Limpsfield Grange, a school for autistic girls.

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