Category Archives: Autism/Asperger Syndrome

Tomorrow Can Wait: Exploring Europe With Our Autistic Child

When Monika Scheele Knight first told me about her book, I was only paying attention to the travelling. I felt it was a very ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – task to undertake with an autistic child. Easier to stay at home, I thought. But, each to their own.

German Monika lives in Berlin with her American husband Scott and their 13-year-old son John. Her book about travelling with John is self published (at least the English version, as I understand it), and exists in two languages. Once I’d begun reading, I had to ask her what language they use at home, feeling it unlikely they could be bilingual with a mostly non-verbal boy. Her reply was that John does understand some English, as it’s what she and Scott use, so she reckons he is a non-speaking bilingual child.

As soon as I had started reading, I also understood why they travelled, and why Monika needed to write about it. After meeting the mother of a 30-year-old autistic son who refuses to go out, effectively imprisoning her in the home, Monika vowed to travel with John to try and prevent that fate for herself. As a toddler John was reasonably willing to go out, if it was on his terms.

So she set off for Rhodes for a week on her own with John, and it went well. What I particularly like is the way Monika and Scott realise they need to take things slowly and not force John (unless absolutely necessary), which means holidays where they occasionally do ‘nothing’ or just a little, like eating lunch bought in the local shop in a deserted children’s playground.

And it’s not just about travelling. In each chapter about a different place they visited, Monika writes about John’s autism in general, how he develops, and what life with an autistic child is like in Germany (much better than in many other countries, I’d say). She muses about various theories, as well as the history of autism, and the murder of handicapped people in the war, and how people treat them when they are out and about. The older John gets, the easier it becomes for strangers to realise he’s behaving oddly because he is not normal, rather than being a badly brought up child.

John auf dem Fahrrad

(This rather lovely photo of a smiling John, in Holland, was taken almost immediately after a major meltdown, which is such an autistic way for things to work out. I have borrowed the picture from Monika’s blog, as it was used for the back cover of the book.)

You feel exhausted following the family round Europe. All the driving, or having meltdowns in airports, or moving things out of John’s reach, or stopping him from hurting himself, seem like an endless lot of hard work with no respite. And I’m sorry their experience of Sweden was so poor.

I find case histories irresistible, and this book is one big case history. Very interesting and very inspiring.

3 x Theodore Boone

For various reasons I have read The Abduction, The Accused and The Activist, all about Theodore Boone – the loveliest of 13-year-old almost-lawyers – and all by John Grisham, in the last week. Since I had the opportunity, it was actually quite nice to give in to the urge to read more ‘ in one sitting.’ Which is why I read books 2, 3 and 4 in quick succession.

Theo will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he certainly suits me. And I will continue giving these books the Aspie label; not because Theo is one (well, not much), but because the sheer orderliness and lack of the unexpected in these books means they are well suited to someone who needs to know what’s what and not be too overwhelmed by surprise.

The Theodore Boone books are full of instructions on how to live life successfully. It’s not all about some nice middle class dream existence in a nice quiet American town, even though it might look like that. Theo is here to set examples of what to do and why and how you can win over the powerful people in your own life, like parents, teachers and policemen. Be polite. Consider not saying the first thing that pops into your head. Work hard to achieve what you want.

It’d be easy to think Theo has it made and that nothing bad will ever happen to this archetypal American hero. Book 1 looked like that, but here bad things happen and Theo needs to work to put things right. He learns, and we learn with him.

John Grisham, Theodore Boone: The Abduction

In The Abduction his friend April disappears, and while the police search for her, Theo and his friends and his Uncle Ike do it their way. Guess who manages to find April?

John Grisham, Theodore Boone: The Accused

The Accused goes much further, because here Theo is the one under scrutiny. Someone is setting him up (we know that), but the police believe he has committed a crime and want to arrest him. Even having two lawyers for parents isn’t enough, or having the support of many friends and influential adults. Theo can visualise his whole future in ruins, if the misunderstanding isn’t cleared up.

John Grisham, Theodore Boone: The Activist

He never imagined he’d be disappointed in the law, but in The Activist Theo discovers that people can loose their homes perfectly legally. A bypass is being planned to make his home town safer, but at the expense of people’s houses and the beautiful landscape and the fresh air. There seems to be plenty of money to fund the road building as well as for bribing politicians, while local budgets are slashed and people are losing their jobs.

What’s so nice, and so useful, is the way John Grisham explains how things in life work, as Theo either finds out from his parents, or he already knows and can explain stuff to his peers. If you’re twelve you don’t necessarily understand about taxes, how the law works or what the point of politics is. (Well, perhaps there isn’t one.)

I like that you learn that you can turn to adults with problems and they will be there for you, instead of the way fictional adult characters tend to either go away or die or are plain awful, and always against whatever the young characters need or want.

These books are also a slice of Americana, just the way we would like the US to be. And what’s wrong with that?

Notes from the editor

If you’ve never used an editor, you might not know what they do. To be perfectly honest I’m not 100% sure, either. But I might have a better understanding of the need for them than some. I remember what the editors on the Guardian used to do to my blog pieces for them. Some of it good; some infuriating annoying. It’s good to blog on my own here, where I can do as I like. But the paid blogging was good too. Getting paid. Reaching a larger or different audience.

(Can you tell I edit Bookwitch all the time? And still I have Offspring telling me there are two ‘thes’ or a missing possessive ‘s’ and all sorts of other stupid mistakes. I try not to kill them. I don’t always have a feel for what my readers will find interesting. I get things wrong. Assuming someone wanted to make a book from my blog posts; what do you reckon would happen? Are they ready to be printed straight as they are, or would they need endless editing? The former sounds nice and easy. The latter would make for a better product, but would also cease to be Bookwitch the book.)

As you know (if you’ve paid attention!) I get asked to read self-published books a lot. Some are book books, others ebooks or manuscript. Some are offered for possible review, others merely want an opinion. Some are seeking a ‘real’ publisher. Some are doing well, while others are not.

I seem to recall suggesting somewhere on here that people who can spell stand a better chance of hearing back from me. Some writers seem to feel that if they have indeed got the spelling and grammar right, then that’s all that’s needed.

It’s not. What – nearly – every writer needs, apart from the ability to be self-critical, is someone else to offer constructive criticism. Not nearly enough writers take this route. Or maybe they don’t specify that the husband, mother, neighbour or cousin should be truly critical. Not just say ‘that’s quite good, dear’ and let the writer continue in the belief that nothing needs changing.

Do you remember Fletcher Moss? He won the Chicken House competition a couple of years ago, and his published book was out last year. And it was very good. But, the place where Fletcher ended his story was where the editor suggested he had got about a third of the way, and he should write quite a bit more to make it a very different book. That didn’t mean Fletcher can’t write. He can. They, on the other hand, could see what might sell, or at least, sell better. If your neighbour isn’t Annie Eaton at Random, they will probably not know these things.

No one can see what goes on inside your head. You can, which is why what makes perfect sense to you, doesn’t always work when someone else reads your story. Is it even interesting to most people? Might it be a tad too encouraging of illegal or immoral behaviour? (I’m talking children’s books here.)

I know I like things to be smooth and lovely, and I still grind my teeth when there are lots of dreadful obstacles in a (published) book. I wish they didn’t need to happen. Except I know the obstacles are there to pave the way for improvements later. So, you need to have some bad stuff happening. Too smooth is ultimately boring.

A year ago I read someone’s manuscript, and the asked for criticism of what was a very good novel was taken extremely badly. In this case it was someone I don’t see in my daily life, but it was a lesson to be learned. I’m reading a surprisingly similar (in feel, not plot) MS at the moment. I have no need to say anything bad about it, but my heart beats faster, reminding me of last year.

In short (yeah, I know this wasn’t short at all), I may have to change to reading nothing outside mainstream publishing. Flak for money is all very well. Unsalaried flak is a different kettle of fish.

Girl Defective

They’re refreshingly different in Australia. Simmone Howell’s third teen novel Girl Defective is quite possibly her best. So far. (Although that’s got nothing to do with its Aussie-ness.) At times I almost had to restrain myself from wanting a glossary, but not understanding some words adds a certain sense of exoticism.

So does permitting stuff that we rarely – if ever – get in British YA novels. They are freer with sex and booze, and that’s pretty refreshing.

Simmone Howell, Girl Defective

Girl Defective is actually a Christmas book, too, as long as you can get your head round hot summers and Christmas holidays. It is also a rather wonderful aspie novel, with 10-year-old Gully who wears a pig-snout at all times and who goes round acting as if he is a detective. His sister Sky and their father Bill, who is a bit of a dinosaur running a struggling shop selling second hand vinyl records and drinking too much beer, both work hard at keeping Gully calm and away from trouble.

Sky isn’t your average – almost – 16-year-old, either. She has only one friend, the older and rather promiscuous Nancy. Stuff is happening in St Kilda, where they live. A girl has been found dead, and there is a spate of minor crime which affects them, and that Gully tries to solve.

This is a book about finding yourself, about finding love and making friends. Real friends. People you can trust.

There is something about the way Simmone writes. You feel that you’re in good hands. You’re safe, while she is doing ‘a Nancy,’ introducing you to new and worrying concepts in order to find out who you really are.

It’s a fantastic book, and I would like to see it published in more places. Now. I wish every English language novel could just go anywhere once it’s out. After all, I think I worked out what an op shop is, and I don’t absolutely have to understand all the Aussie-isms. They add local colour.

Critical Mass

Oh wow! Sara Paretsky always gets to me, but in Critical Mass she has got closer than ever. We at Bookwitch Towers might not rub shoulders with Chicago’s worst, but in all other respects this latest V I Warshawski novel touches on all sorts of things.

Physics, autism, Caltech, Europe, WWII, the King of Sweden. All that.

Critical Mass is about Austrian physicist Martina Saginor, whose daughter Käthe was a childhood ‘friend’ of Lotty Herschel’s. (And incidentally, Sara has skated beautifully around the age problem. In reality Lotty would be a bit older and a bit more retired, but by stretching a little here and a little there, it is all completely believable and right.)

Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass

V I finds a very dead body out in the countryside, as well as another dog (I kept wondering how that was going to work out), and this leads to Lotty’s old friend, and Käthe’s daughter Judy and grandson Martin, who has just disappeared. ‘Something didn’t add up.’

As always Sara has written a story which is more than a crime novel with a puzzle. Critical Mass is also a – very severe – comment on all that’s wrong in the world today. It might be Homeland Security in this instance, but every country has something a bit like it. And we don’t like it, much.

You can’t keep under their radar, unless you are very clever and at least two steps ahead of HS at all times. In fiction I tend not to be too scared of the baddies, unless they are the ones with almost every right to misbehave, like these federal agents.

In her normal fashion V I ends up far deeper than she ever intended, but she needs to find Martin who, like his great grandmother Martina, is a physics genius. There is an old mystery behind all that happens, but it’s not quite clear what. Between the nazis in the war and the wealthy businessmen of today there is much that is wrong.

We don’t see a lot of Martina, who of necessity has to be dead. But what we see has to be admired, despite her lack of social skills. And V I should always have our admiration, along with Sara who entertains while making a statement.

Bookwitch bites #116

I am really grateful to the kind people of Wexford, Ireland, for arranging somewhere I could park my broom the other night. (Not that I have actually been to Wexford, but its proximity to Eoin Colfer makes it seem like a very nice place. That, and the broom parking.)

Broom parking

So, I’m resting a little. No flying while it’s windy. Besides, you can’t trust people not to be setting off fireworks at the moment. And that is very dangerous for witches on brooms. For others, too, but I am mostly looking after me.

We can’t all be like that lovely man, Terry Pratchett, who is a wee bit more modest than he needs to be.

Terry Pratchett

And so was the poor woman in Ystad who was locked into the library. 91-year-old Dagmar sat comfortably reading something, as you do, when it was time to close and staff claim to have ‘looked’ but seem to have missed Dagmar, so set the alarm, locked up and went home for the weekend. (It was Friday the 13th.) When eventually Dagmar moved, she set off the alarm, and someone came to find her, and even let her out. And being 91 and polite, she apologised for having caused trouble…

But you already knew that Ystad is a dangerous town. Just ask Wallander. Bet he’s never been locked in a library, though.

Locked in, is something we connect with Al Capone, among other things. Gennifer Choldenko’s third Alcatraz book Al Capone Does My Homework, is already out in the US, but the rest of us have to wait a while. Sob.

Gennifer Choldenko, Al Capone Does My Homework

And I can just sense that you like being told about books you can’t buy yet, so I’ll show you the cover of Ruth Eastham’s to-be-published third novel, Arrowhead. Like Al Capone, it will come. One day.

Ruth Eastham, Arrowhead

As I go to pick up my broom, I will leave you in the capable hands of Meg Rosoff. Although, considering what she can do to a piece of paper with a pair of scissors, I’m not so sure about those hands. If I think about it.

Wheee!!!

Black Dog

Levi Pinfold’s lovely book Black Dog is a more than worthy winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal. It is beautifully illustrated and beautifully made, with a soft, mother-of-pearl kind of cover, that just begs to be stroked.

Levi Pinfold, Black Dog

The pictures are a little in the style of Shaun Tan, with a dash of Oliver Jeffers, and you can’t go wrong with that.

The Hope family live in the most wonderful and strange house, and at times I almost forgot the story, because I was so fascinated by what their house looked like.

One morning Mr Hope discovers a black dog outside the house. It scares him, and he over-reacts quite a bit. Then Mrs Hope sees the dog and does likewise. Each time someone in the family sees the black dog it grows, and so does their fear of it.

That’s until the very tiny Small Hope takes charge of the situation and shows her family that there is no need to hide. By the time she does so, the dog is Very Large Indeed.

Blame My Brain – the review

I can safely say I have never felt the urge to crawl into a supermarket trolley. And doing so with vodka, would appear to make it more crowded, so I don’t really think I will bother. While on the subject of trolleys and supermarkets, I enjoyed visualising Mr M and his wife out hunter gathering in their local Sainsbury’s. (Wine and cheese hunted down by Mr M, and porridge oats successfully gathered by the wife, as she’s been programmed to do. Or so I imagine.)

Mr M’s wife, Nicola Morgan, has written a book about brains, as humorously as ever. It’s a bit of a trademark of hers; humour and wit. And lots of it. There is a new edition out of Blame My Brain, which contrary to what I’d imagined has actually been written for the teenagers themselves. Those with the brains in question.

It explains a lot, including why I was a perfect teenager (as elaborated on here by Nicola yesterday), and why I am also such a perfect parent. It’s not easy (actually, it is) but someone has to be.

BMB is very interesting, and should be extremely helpful to those in need. Teenagers with teenage brains, and their parents who have already forgotten what it was like to have one.

There is science to base almost every fact on, and the best thing is that even if you don’t fit the stereotype, it doesn’t matter. The world has a use for all sorts of people; the perfect ones, and those temporarily a little bit odd. (I believe that’s the one with the vodka in the trolley.)

I can’t decide who will benefit the most from reading BMB. The young person who needs reassurance that they are totally normal, or the unsympathetic oldies who don’t think they are. Both probably.

And seeing as you not only get better at something by doing it – repeatedly – but you can learn to do quite a bit of it by watching someone else do it, I’d say us oldies have a duty to perform, and to do it well. That way we will be looked after by someone in our even older age. Someone looking after us as well as we do our own oldies.

Or some such theory.

(At no time when chased by a lion have I felt so depressed that I have fallen asleep. Which could be why I’ve made it this far.)

The Great Big Book of Feelings

I almost approached this book out of a sense of duty. You know how some books appear to be so ‘worthy’?  I thought that The Great Big Book of Feelings might be one of those. It’s not.

Mary Hoffman & Ros Asquith, The Great Big Book of Feelings

Instead Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith have come up with something really beautiful. Put simply, it’s a book that describes feelings, and as such I reckon would work quite well for aspie children (perhaps even older people) who need to learn what faces look like for different emotions.

But that’s not why I think it’s so great. It seems so full of life, somehow. (Except for the page about bereavement, which actually had me in tears within seconds. That’s how powerful the combination of Ros’s illustrations and Mary’s words is.)

Right, I will turn the page over and leave the ‘biggest rain cloud ever.’

It’s almost strange that you can get away with a book that just lists feelings, but it seems as if Mary has found every feeling you’d want, and Ros has drawn the loveliest pictures. I know that she always does, but still feel I must point it out.

(Have to admit that the Swedish proverb had me stumped. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention that day.)

And I have never been scared of knees. Thought you’d want to know…

Mary Hoffman & Ros Asquith, The Great Big Book of Feelings

The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules

Jennifer Cook O'Toole, The Asperkids' Secret Book of Social Rules

This book struck me as such a good idea when I first encountered its author Jennifer Cook O’Toole in a Guardian article about her own family. She is an aspie, married to another aspie, and with three aspie children. So, plenty of aspie experience to build a book on.

For the most part it lives up to that promise. It is primarily for younger people, and it has lists of pitfalls to keep in mind and learn coping strategies for. There are short chapters dealing with each individual problem area, with amusing illustrations to bring the message home, and making it easier to remember.

Most of the advice is very good, and coming from someone with personal experience it rings true. It will even work for people who are no longer children, setting aside any particular school age advice. Because it is aimed at children the book has some definite dos and don’ts. I feel they are a little too prescriptive, though.

I know aspies need rules, but if the suggestion is slightly ‘wrong’ or not appropriate for an individual (since even aspies are individuals) it could be taken at face value and steer someone in the wrong direction. There were one or two rules I disagree with, and someone else might find others they would feel were not quite right. And since Jennifer is an adult telling a child reader things, we are sort of back to square one again. (My other thought is that as Jennifer is an aspie, she could have got hold of the wrong end of the stick on occasion.)

This book is also very American. It makes the advice not useful for some aspects of normal life for the rest of us. And, Jennifer is writing for the most able aspies; the ‘close to being normal’ people. Advice on using makeup will not sit well with typical aspies. Social rules must not overrule someone’s comfort to the extent they can’t function. In Britain we don’t have the kind of sales staff who can be expected to advise on someone’s complete wardrobe.

And you mustn’t be poor, or have a non-typical family surrounding you, which will rule out many on the autistic spectrum.

But, it does have some great lists! I’d like to be able to pick my own favourites from those lists, to personalise a guidebook for someone. But short of rewriting it all, or cutting the book to pieces…

The book is best for urging young people to carefully consider who they trust, and who is a real friend. Not to think negative thoughts about yourself. Above all, to say no to anything and anyone if something feels wrong. Things don’t have to feel wrong. Better friendless than surrounded by the wrong people.