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By Wendy Henrichs/Correspondent
“If I could snap my fingers and be non-autistic, I wouldn't do it. It's part of who I am.”- Temple Grandin
As writers, we learn that readers like to be represented in literature by characters they can identify with who can also solve their own problems. This is especially empowering for young readers. Even for readers not on the autism spectrum, Sy Montgomery's soon-to-be released biography, “Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World” (Houghton Mifflin, April 2012, ages 10 to 14, $17.99) will awe and inspire.
"Weirdo!” and “Dummy!” were names Grandin was called by her classmates in the late 1950s and 1960s. As a baby, her parents knew she was different, and at age 3, she was diagnosed with autism. Her father insisted throughout her youth that she be institutionalized, but Grandin's determined mother did all she could, despite Grandin's hatred of hugs, not speaking until age 5, twirling in her own world for hours on end, and expulsion from seventh grade for exploding at a classmate who called her, “Retard!”
Yes, she was different. Yes, she had autism. But what her father and others couldn't see was that Temple Grandin was also brilliant.
In Montgomery's book, we are introduced to Dr. Temple Grandin: an international hero, one of Time's Top 100 Influential People of 2010, and the only person to be honored by People for the Ethic Treatment of Animals (PETA) and inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame.
Montgomery shows how Grandin's autism - her heightened senses, dislike of change, and sensitivity to details - allows her to think like horses, cattle and other prey animals, understanding them far better than her human counterparts. Using her gifts of spatial visual thinking, creative invention, and great understanding and compassion of animals, Grandin created a new field of study in designing humane facilities for butchering. Half of all beef cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in facilities Grandin has engineered, thus helping to vanquish the needless suffering of millions of animals.
Although the life story of Temple Grandin appeals on levels of girl power and animal advocacy, the extra twist is that she has become a spokeswoman for those born with autism, showing them how she found ways to not only function in an overstimulating world, but also to make profound contributions. The author of eight books, she is currently a professor at the University of Colorado and is a frequent lecturer.
Three fictional offerings with main characters on the autism spectrum that other youth readers may enjoy:
“Mockingbird” by Katherine Erskine, National Book Award Winner, 2010 (Philomel, ages 10 and up, $15.99). Caitlin, an 11-year old girl with Asperger's syndrome, struggles to find closure for her and her father after her older brother's death.
“Anything but Typical” by Nora Raleigh Baskin (Simon and Schuster, 2010, ages 10 to 14, $15.99). Twelve-year old Jason is a not “neurotypical” and is painfully aware of it. His only successful social interaction is from an Internet storyboarding site where he posts stories he's written. After striking up a friendship with a girl on the site, he is panicked when he realizes they will be meeting face-to-face at a storyboarding conference and he has nowhere to hide.
“The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes” by Caroline Lawrence (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2012, ages 8 to 12, $16.99). In this fun, fast-paced Western Mystery series, 12-year-old, twice orphaned P.K. Pinkerton is forced to go on the run after his foster parents are murdered. Deadly determined to become a detective, P.K. has some close shaves from not knowing how to read faces, but a wild west band of characters work together to help him learn.
Wendy Henrichs is a children's author living in Iowa City.