Tag Archive for Spectrum Disorders

Research: Finding Gems

I want to tell a quick story about doing research. Specifically about Crayola crayons and the book, Along Came Spider. But first, a little back story:

As I was writing Spider, I did a lot of research in different directions. As I began circling this character of Trey Cooper, trying to figure out who he was, I wanted to show in his personality a number of traits that were consistent with children “on the Spectrum,” as they say.

Trey has difficulty reading social cues, struggles during transitions, and generally comes off to his classmates as a quirky, even weird, kid. I also wanted to show Trey’s many strengths and outstanding qualities. He’s an expert on birds, for example, and builds wonderful bird houses. One of his talents is an interest in art and coloring. He loves his huge set of Crayola crayons.

In order to write about that, I did some quick research on Crayola. Specifically, I was looking for the names of their crayons. Well, one click led to another and I found this factoid:

1962: Partly in response to the civil rights movement, Crayola decides to change the name of the “flesh” crayon to “peach.” Renaming this crayon was a way of recognizing that skin comes in a variety of shades.

Wow, I thought, and immediately knew it would have to find its way into the book. Just a little nugget, a gem I came across while looking for something else. And I think that’s the core of research, trying to stay open to what you might find, casting a wide net, and recognizing the gems along the way. Sometimes what you (think you) want isn’t what you need.

What would Trey think of a crayon called Flesh? Would he know, or care? (He hates the name Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown, which was added in 1998 — way too babyish.)

I’ll sometimes talk about all this on school visits. I’ll say something like, “When doing my research, I learned that Crayola used to have a color named Flesh. But they changed that name in 1962. Would anyone like to guess why?”

The answers are often surprising. And maybe a little disappointing. One boy speculated that it was too disgusting — flesh, yuck, gross me out the door. But sooner or later, with or without a hint, somebody figures it out. We’ll talk about it briefly and move on. But hopefully it gets these kids to think a little, about research, about differences, our assumptions and our attitudes.

Readings: Autism

Recommended reading: A fascinating article in The Sunday New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2008, titled “Reaching an Autistic Teenager,” written by Melissa Fay Greene.

The article focuses on a small private school that serves — educates — teenage boys with autism or related disorders. When I started working on Along Came Spider, I was initially interested in isolation, kids who were cut off from their peers. I began to read about autism, sensing that it would help me understand (and in turn, build) a character in the story, Trey Cooper. For some reason, I connected with aspects of autistic behaviors, although I had little real-life experience. So the file gets thicker. And now it goes electronic.

Is that how writers work? Do we work on ideas? Or do the ideas work on us? The images crawling into our dreams?

Here’s one basic sentence from the article, and I’ll tell you why it resonates:

Children with autism — especially Asperger’s — are famous for all-consuming interests in Matchbox cars, bus maps, train schedules, oscillating fans, Civil War battles, baseball statistics, black holes, dinosaurs, chess or Star Wars.

Don’t all boys do that? Didn’t I? But somehow these boys who reach the point of clinical diagnoses– and I say “boys” because boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls — go farther, spinning, spinning, unspooling out. Obsessed with trains? Baseball statistics? Dinosaurs or Star Wars? Sounds like every boy I’ve ever known. Sounds like me. It’s just a matter of how far along the spectrum we travel. But we’re all on that same track. Connected by that invisible thread. Separated only by degrees.

In some limited but meaningful way, I identify.

Two more excerpts:

“I had a very bad night!” Edwick yelled from the floor. “Nightmares all night!”

“What was disturbing you, Edwick?” Nelson asked.

“What do you think?” Edwick cried in exasperation. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day!”

“What’s upsetting about that?” Nelson asked.

Edwick dropped his shoulders to relay how tiring it was to have to explain every little thing. “Leprechauns,” he yelled.

Hey, that’s funny. I mean, yes, it’s real, it’s poignant, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s funny.

Ty Martin, 14, is a cute and curly-haired guy who lives in terror of loud or strange noises. The faux thunderstorm in the produce aisles at the grocery store makes it difficult to take him shopping. A classmate’s coughing or a siren in the distance distracts him from schoolwork. His mother often was obliged to retreat to a windowless basement room at home, hugging and soothing her son when the outside world — especially lawn crews next door with leaf-blowers — overwhelmed him. “He doesn’t like crows,” Judy Martin told me last spring. “If crows are at a park, he’ll go from happy to berserk in five seconds. If we go to a restaurant, we’re all on edge, praying the bartender doesn’t turn on the blender.”

Here’s my favorite line in the article:

“You meet one child with autism and, well, you’ve met one child with autism,” says Linda Brandenburg, the director of school autism services at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland.

As a writer, dealing with one character named Trey Cooper, I felt a sense of obligation to the community at large — an impossible obligation to fulfill. There are so many different stories to tell, and I only told a small part of one. I couldn’t possibly get it all right. Couldn’t be complete or comprehensive. In the end, you have to accept the limits of a book, the limits of storytelling itself, the limits of my own skills.

Kirkus Reviews Spider

Here’s what Kirkus Reviews had to say about Along Came Spider:

Spider Stevens and Trey Cooper have lived next door to each other their entire lives and have been best friends throughout their years at Spiro Agnew Elementary School. Trey has a type of autism that seems to accentuate the worst traits of ADHD and OCD. He has poor self-control, peculiar habits and awkward social skills. In fifth grade, Trey’s obvious eccentricities, once acceptable and even endearing, are now a liability, and Trey’s peers now regard him as weird and an outcast. This puts Spider in the difficult position of having to choose whether to remain loyal to his oldest friend or to abandon him to join the ranks of the popular kids. Preller adeptly portrays the psychological and social dynamics of this age group, and Trey is realistic and sympathetic as a misfit, if not as memorable as Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza or Jerry Spinelli’s David Zinkoff. The pressures Spider feels from his peers to belong and conform will resonate with middle-grade readers

I don’t know, reviews are so weird. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this review, though naturally is doesn’t inspire me to do the Dance of Joy. The Spinelli/Zinkoff reference is from the book, Loser, btw, which several people told me to read when I first discussed Spider with them. The problem is, though I hugely respect Spinelli — first book, age 41! — I find it’s distinctly unhelpful to read another author’s take on a similar topic. It’s paralyzing. There are many times when I use books as sources of inspiration, but when I’m deep into writing, I stay far away from any material that might be close to what I’m doing.

One other thing about that word, autism. Trey Cooper is never diagnosed in the book. I never said that he is autistic, intentionally. I did that for several reasons, primarily because I don’t think that kids relate to each other that way. If somebody makes another child angry or annoyed, a typical eleven-year-old isn’t going to think, “Oh, his mother is an alcoholic,” or, “That’s cool, he’s got OCD.” The response is more direct and immediate. The second reason is that I’m not qualified to put a medical label on Trey, though I gave him many traits common with the vast array of characteristics that fall under Spectrum Disorders. Lastly, one aspect of the book is getting away from labels (jock, geek, brainiac, weirdo, whatever), and of trying to see the individual underneath, i.e., walking a mile in someone else’s sneakers.