One of the greatest powers of books and stories is their ability to elicit a strong sense of connection in the reader. Stories give us windows into the thoughts, feelings and minds of people who are not like us, and this encourages empathic reflection in our own lives. Finding a character who thinks like you or who hates scratchy socks as much as you do can be deeply gratifying.
Each April we commemorate World Autism Awareness Month. You and your family might consider diving into one of the books below, all of which feature autistic characters. Families with autistic members will likely see pieces of themselves in the stories. Families with neurotypical members will learn how to move through the world with more insight and understanding for others. All families can find a sweet picture book, a quirky middle-grade title, or a complex and insightful YA novel among the following titles to enjoy. Happy reading!
‘How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine’ by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Giselle Potter
When she was young, autistic animal behaviorist and author Temple Grandin, Ph.D., noticed that other kids were cheered and comforted by hugs. She wanted to like hugs, but they felt like being “stuffed inside the scratchiest sock.” At her aunt’s ranch, Grandin saw a calf enter a squeeze chute, which cradled the animal, calming it so it could be examined by a vet. That gave her an idea. She got to work making her very own squeeze machine. The final illustration shows a grown Grandin hugging her elderly mom. A quote from Grandin herself reads, “I’m into hugging people now.”
For kids wanting to know more about Grandin, the rhyming picture book “The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin,” written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley, tells more about her life story.
‘A Friend for Henry’ by Jenn Bailey, illustrated by Mika Song
Henry, a young boy on the autism spectrum, wonders which of his classmates could be his friend. Vivianne has paint on her fingers; Samuel booms and crashes like a thunderstorm. But Katie, even though she likes the Big Slide, turns out to be his perfect friend. This book won the prestigious Schneider Family Book Award, given by the American Library Association for a book that portrays the disability experience.
‘Uniquely Wired: A Story About Autism and Its Gifts’ by Julia Cook, illustrated by Anita DuFalla
Zak, a kid with autism, explains why he views autism not as a disability but as a superpower. When he looks at something, he sees all of it, really fast. When he flaps his arms, he’s organizing his brain. When he spins, he can feel the whole world. Zak’s brain is very full, especially with contemplation about certain subjects. “You might get tired of listening to me tell you about watches, but I will never get tired of talking about them,” he warns. The book is a sweet and positive look at the many gifts and superpowers of autism.
‘All My Stripes: A Story for Children With Autism’ by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
A little zebra did not want to paint with his hooves. He hid under his desk during the fire alarm and didn’t quite know how to talk to others. The zebra wonders why people only see his “autism stripe.” His mother points out that it’s all of his stripes — his curiosity stripe, his honesty stripe and his other stripes, too — that make him unique. This book is published by the American Psychological Association’s Magination Press.
‘Benji, the Bad Day, and Me’ by Sally J. Pla, illustrated by Ken Min
The book opens with Sammy experiencing a day of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” proportions. Except Sammy has a brother, Benji, who has autism, so when Sammy has this bad day, no one notices … except Benji. Their mom usually calms Benji down by wrapping him in a blanket, so Benji comforts his older brother in the same way.
‘The Space We’re In’ by Katya Balen
Frank’s family hasn’t been doing so great for the past five years. Frank and his dad struggle to relate to Frank’s younger brother, Max, age 5. Only Mum can calm Max down, work with him on sounds and words, and make him laugh. Then Mum dies. For a while, “Max spins further and further away,” but eventually the little family discovers the code that will hold them together.
‘A Kind of Spark’ by Elle McNicoll
When 11-year-old Addie learns the history of women who were accused of witchcraft and therefore executed unjustly, she wants to honor the legacy of women who, like her, were misunderstood and unfairly judged. Set in modern-day Scotland, the book touches on friendship, family bonds, how we remember history and the sad fact that grown-ups can be bullies, too.
‘A Bird Will Soar’ by Alison Green Myers
When a tornado destroys his beloved family home, Axel takes it in stride. But when he discovers that the tornado has also knocked over his favorite eagle’s nest, everything in Axel breaks. Determined to help the injured eaglet, he enlists the help of Dr. Martin from the Raptor Sanctuary, and together they nurse the bird back to health. Putting the house back together, especially once Axel’s estranged father returns home, is much harder. This book won the Schneider Family Book Award.
‘Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen!’ by Sarah Kapit
Eleven-year-old Vivy once learned how to throw a knuckleball from World Series pitcher VJ Capello. She’s been practicing for years and now she wants to play. However, her mom is worried that the stress of the male-dominated sport might be too much for her autistic daughter. The novel unspools in letters written between Vivy and the pitcher Capello, who becomes her pen pal and biggest supporter. If you are a teacher looking for something to read aloud in class, this book just might be perfect. Kapit’s “The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family” also features autistic characters.
‘Rules’ by Cynthia Lord
“Talking to David can be like a treasure hunt. You have to look underneath the words to figure out what he’s trying say.” Most of the time, 12-year-old Catherine wishes her life, which revolves around her brother, David, and his autism, wasn’t quite so hard. Although David features prominently in the story, the central plot revolves around Catherine and Jason, a boy who communicates by pointing to picture/word cards. Their burgeoning relationship, complete with a middle school dance scene, is very sweet. This book won the Schneider Family Book Award and also earned a Newbery nod.
‘The Degenerates’ by J. Albert Mann
An exquisitely written, heartbreaking story, this tough-to-read but important historical novel tells the story of young women who were institutionalized at the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded during the 1920s, for various heart-wrenching reasons. The book depicts violence, death, a miscarriage and just about every terrible reference to neurodivergence you can imagine, so exercise some caution when reading or recommending this one.
‘Colin Fischer’ by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz
As an autistic kid trying to navigate high school, Colin Fischer carefully records everything he notices in his notebook. And Colin Fischer notices everything. When a gun is found in the school cafeteria, Colin realizes that Wayne, the prime suspect and school bully, is innocent. It’s all documented right there in his notebook! This high school crime drama is a hilarious and heartfelt must-read.
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' by Mark Haddon
Speaking of crime dramas, this slim novel provides another one. Fifteen-year-old Christopher sets out to discover who killed the neighbor’s dog, but the clues lead right back to a secret in his own family. Be sure to grab a physical copy of this book, because it’s filled with logic puzzles, constellations, letters, math equations and pictures. Although this book is considered adult fiction, it won the ALA Alex Award, which is awarded to books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults.
‘When My Heart Joins the Thousand’ by A.J. Steiger
Falling in love for the first time throws any teenager off balance. For Alvie, an autistic 17-year-old living by herself, meeting Stanley tips her precariously constructed life nearly over the edge. Stanley, who lives with the genetic affliction osteogenesis imperfecta, is sweet and caring. Alvie is terrified that falling for him will be a huge mistake. Be warned that several scenes in the novel are related to sex, as Alvie and Stanley navigate topics such as consent, virginity and desire, through the lens of disability and neurodivergence.
‘On the Edge of Gone’ by Corinne Duyvis
In this dystopian novel set in Amsterdam, Denise and her mother unexpectedly find themselves on a generation ship, which provides shelter from the comet that hits the Earth. Following the comet’s impact, Denise and her mother face being kicked off the ship before it leaves Earth forever. Denise has two days to convince the powers that be that she, an autistic teenager, and her mom, an addict, have a right to stay on board. Also, there is the matter of Denise’s sister, whose whereabouts are unknown.