This article focuses on developing teacher understanding of how to carefully select and use children’s picture books about autism as a tool for teaching awareness, empathy, and acceptance in an elementary classroom setting. We describe how the increased rate of autism and growing practice of inclusive educational settings affect classroom practice and provide implementation tips for using specific picture books and activities. Knowing that picture books are often used as a teaching tool for elementary educators, the use of books addressing autism could teach empathy while enhancing students’ awareness and acceptance of students on the autism spectrum.
With an increase in the prevalence of children diagnosed with autism and the continuing movement toward inclusion in elementary classrooms, general education teachers must meet the challenge of planning instruction for students with autism and their neurotypical peers. To be effective in the inclusive classroom, teachers need to create inviting and safe environments so that students learn to work together and support one another while respecting neurodiversity. Picture books about autism can be used to teach children understanding, empathy, and acceptance.
The increase of autism and need for inclusion
Currently, one in 59 children is diagnosed with autism, a number that has risen substantially within the last decade (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). Autism is a complex neurological disorder. Typically, autism is characterized by limited communication skills, social anxieties, and atypical behaviors (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). Autism is described as a spectrum disorder to represent the varying degrees of severity.
For example, some individuals with autism are nonverbal, whereas others can be quite communicative, although their speech is often limited by an extreme focus on a particular topic. Some students with autism may have particular self-stimulating (or “stimming”) behaviors, such as rocking back and forth or spinning objects, whereas others may have a heightened sensitivity to the loud ringing of the bell.
Not all individuals have the same types of anxieties or sensory challenges; however, these characteristics can make learning in a traditional classroom environment a challenge for the child with autism, for other students, and for the teacher. While recognizing these challenges, more schools are moving toward inclusion as an instructional model for best meeting the educational needs of students with autism and other disabilities. This inclusive setting allows the growing population of children with autism to work and learn alongside their neurotypical peers.
Students with autism are “increasingly visible in public schools” (Chandler-Olcott & Kluth, 2009, p. 549), but many general education teachers are unaware of evidence-based strategies to meet the needs of their learners with autism (Friedlander, 2009; Rogers, 2000). The increasing number of students with autism affects literacy instruction in the general education classroom (Chandler-Olcott & Kluth, 2009). As such, teachers must be given easily accessible literacy tools to adapt instruction to meet students’ learning needs.
This article provides instructional tips for educators and offers suggestions for using children’s picture books about autism to encourage positive, inclusive instruction. We believe that all students benefit from increased awareness and identification of the characteristics, strengths, and challenges experienced by students with autism and that children’s books about autism provide an accessible tool for modeling and encouraging positive, accepting relationships among students.
These picture books and the characters in them can also serve to enhance the classroom environment by highlighting diversity, social justice, acceptance, and empathy for students with disabilities.
Using Picture Books as a Teaching Tool
Picture books are an essential resource often used as a teaching tool for elementary students (Leininger, Dyches, Prater, & Heath, 2010; Prater, Dyches, & Johnstun, 2006), especially for teaching complex or challenging content. Teachers use picture books to teach such topics as diversity, bullying, and acceptance. Similarly, picture books portraying children with autism provide a viable tool for addressing autism. Using picture books in the classroom provides a nonthreatening way to introduce children to the characteristics of students with disabilities, which can lead to positive impacts on student acceptance (Prater et al., 2006).
As part of a larger research study, we identified 35 picture books about autism that met our selection criteria (e.g., narrative picture books for children versus nonfiction informational texts). Thematic messages varied depending on the author’s perspective and the book’s publication date. Some books, for example, were written from the vantage point of a friend with an overall message of “We’re alike but different,” whereas other books focused on the experiences of the parents or siblings trying to manage or understand the idiosyncratic behaviors of the child with autism. A sample of book notes from the readings is shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Notes on Selected Children’s Books From the Larger Study
|Children’s Book||Relationship of Main Characters||Character Behaviors Related to Autism|
|A Friend Like Simon
|My Friend Has Autism
|My Brother Charlie
(Peete & Peete, 2010)
After meeting several times to read, reflect on, and discuss the books, we categorized them based on thematic understandings and how teachers might find them useful. We provide three implementation tips using exemplars from our sample of books. A complete list of all the books is provided in Table 2.
Table 2. Children’s Picture Books About Autism
|Book Title||Author||Publication Date|
|The Adventures of Suther Joshua From Planet Yethican||Jacqueline Williams-Hines||2008|
|All About My Brother: An 8-Year-Old Sister’s Introduction to Her Brother Who Has Autism||Sarah Peralta||2002|
|Andy and His Yellow Frisbee||Mary Thompson||1996|
|Apples for Cheyenne: A Story About Autism, Horses, and Friendship||Elizabeth K. Gerlach||2010|
|ASD and Me: Learning About High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder||Teresa DeMars||2011|
|Augi Has Autism||Gaylord||2014|
|Autism Is…?||Ymkje Wideman-Van der Laan||2012|
|Autistic? How Silly Is That! I Don’t Need Any Labels at All||Lynda Farrington Wilson||2012|
|David’s World: A Picture Book About Living With Autism||Dagmar H. Mueller||2012|
|Ethan’s Story: My Life With Autism||Ethan Rice||2012|
|The Flight of a Dove||Alexandra Day||2004|
|A Friend Like Simon||Kate Gaynor||2009|
|The Friendship Puzzle: Helping Kids Learn About Accepting and Including Kids With Autism||Julie L. Coe||2009|
|I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism||Pat Thomas||2014|
|Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism||Laurie Lears||1998|
|In Jesse’s Shoes: Appreciating Kids With Special Needs||Beverly Lewis||2007|
|In My Mind: The World Through the Eyes of Autism||Adonya Wong||2009|
|A Kid’s Guide to Autism||Cameron Davis||2013|
|Little Rainman: Autism—Through the Eyes of a Child||Karen L. Simmons||1996|
|Looking After Louis||Lesley Ely||2004|
|Lucy’s Amazing Friend: A Story of Autism and Friendship||Stephanie Workman||2014|
|My Brother Charlie||Holly Robinson Peete & Ryan Elizabeth Peete||2010|
|My Brother Is Autistic||Jennifer Moore-Mallinos||2008|
|My Brother Sammy Is Special||Becky Edwards||2011|
|My Friend Has Autism||Amanda Doering Tourville||2010|
|My Sister Katie: My 6-Year-Old’s View on Her Sister’s Autism||Mary Cassette||2006|
|Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles||Tami Lehman-Wilzig & Nicole Katzman||2011|
|Playing by the Rules: A Story About Autism||Dena Fox Luchsinger||2007|
|Russell’s World: A Story for Kids About Autism||Charles A. Amenta III||2011|
|Say Hello to Me: A Story About a Little Girl on the Autism Spectrum||April Charisse||2012|
|Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book||Celeste Shally||2012|
|Squirmy Wormy: How I Learned to Help Myself||Lynda Farrington Wilson||2009|
|Sundays With Matthew: A Young Boy With Autism and an Artist Share Their Sketchbooks||Matthew Lancelle & Jeanette Lesada||2006|
|Talking to Angels||Esther Watson||1996|
|Waiting for Benjamin: A Story About Autism||Alexandra Jessup Altman||2008|
Tip 1: Teach Common Characteristics of Autism While Focusing on Unique Qualities of the Individual
Autism is a spectrum disorder and thus does not have a finite set of characteristics. Two students diagnosed with autism may behave differently: One may be completely nonverbal and may resist physical touch, whereas the other may be talkative and crave hugs and interaction. Teachers should select a variety of books that highlight these differences. These books should center on characters who exhibit many different characteristics across the autism spectrum, and reading several different books will help point out that not all children with autism have the same characteristics and abilities.
For example, stories such as Looking After Louis (Ely, 2004) and Andy and His Yellow Frisbee (Thompson, 1996) provide examples of characters who are nonverbal or who speak very little. By comparison, Say Hello to Me: A Story About a Little Girl on the Autism Spectrum (Charisse, 2012) portrays a character with autism who is outgoing and able to perform daily tasks more consistent with her peers.
Some of the characteristic behaviors of autism (i.e., stimming and increased sensitivity to loud noise) were present in multiple books, including A Friend Like Simon (Gaynor, 2009) and Squirmy Wormy: How I Learned to Help Myself (Wilson, 2009). The main characters in these stories displayed atypical behaviors such as lining up items and watching a ceiling fan spin and exhibited social anxieties about, for example, being on the school playground.
Many of the picture books about autism include general characteristics of children with autism throughout the story as the author develops the characters. By reading multiple books about autism, students may see that, although there are general characteristics, an individual with autism has unique abilities, too. In doing so, we caution teachers not to single out any student with autism as the spokesperson for the disability.
Inclusive classrooms should celebrate diversity but not make students feel self-conscious or alone in their experiences. A major goal of inclusion is acceptance, so it is important that students not generalize from the experiences of one or two classmates. In fact, by using books portraying characters with autism that illustrate the range of the spectrum disorder, students can better understand that, although autism has common characteristics, individuals with autism are still individuals.
Many stories told in the first person, whether told by the individual with autism, a sibling, or a close friend, focused on the characteristics that made the student unique and gravitated toward either the “normal” behaviors the students could exhibit or their special talents and strengths, such as in A Friend Like Simon (Gaynor, 2009). These varied perspectives can give students the background knowledge to identify and understand characteristics of children with autism while teaching that characteristics these differ from student to student.
Finally, teachers may need to address and discuss the context in which labels are used in the picture books. One specific example is the word special, which is sometimes used to describe a child with autism. In Waiting for Benjamin (Altman, 2008), an older brother says, “I don’t want a special brother” (n.p.), referring to his younger brother with autism. Although we generally use special as a positive term, the context of this sentence presents “being special” as a negative characteristic. This could serve as an instructional opportunity for discussing with students that some labels can be hurtful. In doing so, the teacher is highlighting why empathy and using influential language is important in creating a community of care.
A strategy for discussing characteristics of autism is to use poster paper to list all of the characteristics of autism introduced in the books (e.g., communication skills, anxieties, lining up pencils, disliking loud noises, various stimming behaviors) and then discuss them with students.
These books also present opportunities for neurotypical students to recognize that they too might have a similar characteristic, like disliking loud noises. Inviting students to safely discuss these similarities and differences builds trust and community in the inclusive classroom.
To focus on the unique qualities of the individual characters with autism, read a different book each week and discuss how the characters are alike and different. This strategy provides opportunities to discuss similarities and differences between students with autism and their neurotypical peers and to celebrate the neurodiversity of inclusive classrooms.
Tip 2: Discuss How Children With Autism Need to Be Accepted, Not Changed
In many of the books, there was a turning point in which the character with autism would overcome a particular challenge, an obstacle, or social anxiety. For example, the child with autism would speak at the end after being nonverbal. This turning point often resulted from one or more characters in the story accepting the child with autism for who he or she is and the child with autism reciprocating by exhibiting a previously unmet social convention. Although inclusive practices and positive social interactions can affect the behaviors of a student with autism, we caution against using books that serve only as examples of celebrating change rather than teaching acceptance.
This reciprocating action occurs in Lewis’s (2007) In Jesse’s Shoes, when the brother with autism addresses his sister by her real name at the end of the story instead of calling her “Sisser” (np.p.). Another example of this reciprocating act occurs in Lucy’s Amazing Friend (Workman, 2014). In this story, the character with autism goes down the big slide at the pool with the other kids at the end of the story, which is a huge accomplishment for the character with autism and is celebrated by the other children. Finally, Waiting for Benjamin (Altman, 2008) includes a sibling relationship that changes throughout the book as the older brother begins to accept, love, and learn to play with his younger brother with autism. This change occurs, however, along with the younger brother making consistent progress with language use and play skills that may not mirror the general timeline of progress for children with autism.
Many other books had similar reciprocating acts toward the end, in which the character with autism overcame a characteristic of autism after being accepted by peers or siblings. Although a student with autism may respond positively to other students’ acceptance and interaction, it is important for students to realize that overcoming the social anxieties associated with autism is not likely to happen after one or even a few friendly, accepting encounters in class or on the playground. The big idea is that students should be taught to be accepting without the notion that they will get any validation in return for their efforts, which is sometimes misleading in the books.
Teachers may want to focus on the accepting behaviors of characters in the story regardless of whether or not the child with autism is able to reciprocate appreciation in some way. Following a read-aloud, students could model ways of showing empathy based on characters from the books and then apply them to examples in their school environment.
Tip 3: If Your Student Has Autism, Communicate With Parents About Using These Books in the Classroom
Teacher communication with parents is a vital part of any student’s educational experience, but special attention should be given to cultivate the relationship between the teacher, child, and parent of a student with autism. Just as no two students with autism are the same, families view and respond differently to student disabilities (Kluth, 2003). As such, it is important to choose children’s picture books whose message aligns with that of the parents.
Within the available books about children with autism, some highlight school settings (e.g., Looking After Louis; Ely, 2004) and some focus more on family connections and everyday situations (e.g., My Brother Charlie; Peete & Peete, 2010). It is important to use a variety of books and to openly communicate with parents about your intentions for their use in the classroom.
Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles (Lehman-Wilzig & Katzman, 2011) is another story focusing on family and sibling relationships in which the brother’s feelings evolve from embarrassment to acceptance of his brother with autism. Similarly, Playing by the Rules (Luchsinger, 2007) also highlights sibling relationships by depicting an older sister who “knows the rules” (n.p.) for taking care of her brother with autism. Both of these stories present siblings who understand the characteristics of a child with autism and have a somewhat supportive and protective relationship because of that understanding. These titles may be helpful for families and can also be discussed in the classroom as models for how students can learn to accept one another.
Be sure to make it clear to parents that your goal in introducing students to these books about autism is to increase students’ awareness and acceptance of autism, not to single out their child. Working with parents to create a partnership and to identify your goals to promote an inclusive philosophy is important in the relationship and experiences of students with autism in the general classroom and their families (Kluth, 2003).
One idea for approaching the use of these books with parents is to send the books home ahead of class read-alouds so that the student with autism can read and discuss the story with their parents before hearing it in front of peers. Additionally, teachers can invite parents of students with autism to be guest readers and to answer questions students might have.
Using children’s books as a resource is common in elementary classrooms and could address and increase awareness and acceptance of autism among students. We hope this article helps elementary educators feel more comfortable using children’s picture books that portray children with autism in their classroom as a teaching tool for learning about and understanding autism.
By acknowledging and openly discussing autism, we hope autism becomes part of a celebration of neurodiversity — and not characterized as tragic (Chandler-Olcott & Kluth, 2009). By incorporating these children’s picture books into the classroom through read-alouds and discussions, students are introduced to characters who exhibit empathy and acceptance toward students with autism while also learning to appreciate differences and unique talents in all individuals.
We are hopeful that the use of these children’s picture books will help students better understand, empathize with, and accept students with autism in order to advance toward a more positive outlook about differing abilities in a truly inclusive classroom.
Miranda L. Sigmon is a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA; e-mail [email protected].
Mary E. Tackett is a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA; e-mail [email protected].
Amy Price Azano is an assistant professor of adolescent literacy in the School of Education at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA; e-mail [email protected].