Tag Archive for Asperger’s

Fan Mail Wednesday #30

I’ve thought about whether I should pick this one or not, because it’s sort of grossly self-aggrandizing, but isn’t that what Jamespreller.com is all about? Hopefully my reply might be helpful to somebody out there. Note: As always, I’ve removed any names that would identify the writer or, in this case, her son.

Dear Mr. Preller,

I wish I could find the words to thank you for your newest book Along Came Spider.  My son, who is in the fifth grade, has been recently diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome.  I’ve always known that he’s struggled with the whole playground rules and pecking order but after reading your book, I’ve gotten an even better understanding.  My heart breaks to see how his classmates talk to and treat him.  I’m coming to understand that it probably hurts and upsets me more than it does him.  He says he knows he weird and different from everyone else and while he’d like to fit in he’s also come to accept the fact that he won’t.  As a parent, that’s hard to hear.  I suppose I need to come to accept what my son has already accepted.  I’d like to think there are teachers and educators in the school systems similar to your characters who have these children in their eyesight and are willing to go the extra mile for them without a parent having to fight for it or for being afraid of administration.  We all have a part of us that likes to believe that everyone is there for the greater good.  I’m finding I have to fight tooth and nail for administration to see the need for special services.  Something as simple as your characters allowing Trey to have a special quiet place to escape to would be wonderful for my son.  Unfortunately, I am required to prove that he needs something as little as that and that means paying for private psychological testing, private OT assessment and therapy, and psychiatric consultations.  Short of the psychiatric consultations, the school system should have provided me with the other two but they refused.  I wish your book would be a “mandatory” reading for anyone in an educational setting. Instead of frowning upon, criticizing and singling a child out for their oddities, perhaps they would see the wonderful traits and characteristics children like Trey and my son possess.  Thank you once again for this incredible book.


I replied:


Thank you for sharing that remarkable letter. I am truly touched. As much as this book touches upon Aspergers, it is also, I hope, relevant to any child who might be something of an outcast in school. As the trend continues to move toward inclusive classrooms, it’s so important for everyone to become more alert to these issues.

I profoundly recall when my oldest son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with leukemia at two years old. Suddenly we were thrown into a world that was confusing, frightening, overwhelming. We had to become instant experts. We would be called upon to be “strong” in ways we weren’t sure we were capable of. One great solace through all that was the slow realization that we were not alone. There were communities available, support groups, information. I mean to say: There’s help out there. And you are stronger than you think.

Here’s a few links that might be useful:

* Children’s Disabilities Information — featuring an annotated list of support groups for children with autism/Aspergers/PDD.

* The Parenting Aspergers Resource Guide by Dave Angel.

* O.A.S.I.S. — Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support.

* A Directory for Asperger Syndrome — support groups and organizations.

Jana, the very fact that you read Along Came Spider tells me  you are already well on your way in finding the resources you need. For books, I’ve found the life and work of Temple Grandin . . .

to be particularly . . . insightful and inspirational.

Another book that really got me thinking is called Elijah’s Cup by Valerie Paradiz. Subtitled, “A Family’s Journey into the Community and Culture of High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome,” it is a mother’s story, and she happens to be an incredibly gifted writer — insightful and honest.

Highly recommended. There’s so much great information out there, so many amazing books.

Good luck, my best to you and your son. Remember, you are not alone — and there’s a bright future ahead.

James Preller

Along Came . . . Another Blog from Ohio

Let’s face it, we can’t spend all day clicking links and reading blogs.

Right? We just can’t, much. Things to do and all that. But still, some folks make it hard. I just found a nice blog, curiously titled, Best Book I Have Not Read’s Weblog. It’s written by Kristine Something, a former fourth-grade teacher who now serves as a Curriculum Coordinator. Yes, another blogger from Ohio — who knew that Ohio was such a hotbed for book-crazed bloggers?

Kristine wrote about Along Came Spider yesterday, comparing it to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky.

Kristine writes:

I think the fifth grade teachers are going to really enjoy sharing this book. Having this book as a shared reading experience will open windows to conversations about peer pressure and differences. I wish that the book had been around those first couple years I had a student similar to Spider, and struggled to find words to help nine year-olds accept/understand the differences in some of their classmates. Having a character in a book that can be discussed can really open conversation in an amazing way!

Thanks, Kristine. Honestly, that’s always been my hope with this book, that it would be a good “talking book” in an inclusive, community-minded classroom. For Kristine’s full comments, click here.

Meanwhile over at Literate Lives, Bill and Karen conclude their insane 28-day countdown to the Newbery. Bill somehow manages to squeeze Six Innings into Day 27.

I may have to move to Ohio. I’ve been reading, and absolutely LOVING, Ralph Fletcher’s important book, Boy Writers . . .

. . . and he gives a huge shout out to author Franki Sibberson (who suggested the book idea to him). Franki is yet another Ohio-based blogger, and you can find her at A Year of Reading. Do you see what I mean about Ohio? It’s like the little state that could.

They should make a new map. Delete the names of cities and insert the location of all the bloggers.

Fan Mail Wednesday #23

Every year I hope to be better with Fan Mail.

But I guess I might as well confess this, even if it makes me look like a creep: While I’m grateful for fan mail, and amazed, and often touched, there’s a part of me that sees it as more work. And expensive, too, because almost nobody sends a SASE these days. Part of the problem is me: I’ve never been happy with the idea sending back a standard reply. I put effort into my responses, and time. That is, when I’ve responded (I usually do). But sometimes I let time slip away. Tremendous guilt over that. So one unhappy aspect of Fan Mail for me is, “Oh, great. A new way to hate myself.”

Here inside the expansive offices of Jamespreller.com, I’ve instituted Fan Mail Wednesday. I like the blog approach, and the cost is right. I took a little break from that over the holidays, but now like a lion in a cage, hear me roar: Meow!

I got this email a few days ago:

Dear Mr. James Preller,

My name is Michael and I am a senior in high school. I recently came across your book, Along Came Spider. It was due to pure chance that I came across your book. I was at Barnes and Noble, meandering around and happened to be in the children’s section and picked up your book. Within moments of flipping through the first few pages, I lost myself in the story of Spider and Trey. At the end, I read your acknowledgments section and understood where you got the basic idea for your story from. However, I do not understand why you chose an autism spectrum disorder (which I presume from the descriptions of Trey that he had Asperger’s Syndrome). There were so many other conditions you could have chosen, or none at all. What compelled you to choose an autism spectrum disorder? Nor do I understand how you were able to so effectively capture the mind and imagination of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Given the intense complexity of autism, the fact that you were able to accurately characterize autism in a child to such a degree of detail and depth is commendable and insightful.

In addition, the friendship between Spider and Trey was a unique twist and resonated many feelings and thoughts within me. I thank you for writing about such a friendship. I immensely enjoyed the story, especially the conflicting angst that Spider was going through as well as Trey’s understanding of friendship.

I replied:

Thanks for your letter, Michael. The quality of your writing is even more impressive than the quality of your reading! Very nicely done. First of all, I should note that I’ve contacted the people at Guinness, and it’s been determined that you are the first High School senior to read the acknowlegements section of a book, any book. Your name will be featured prominently in the 2010 edition of the World Records. (Actually, um, no.)

But I wonder: Did you really stand there in Barnes & Noble and read the whole book? Did you at least buy a muffin or something? How am I going to catch up to J.K. Rowling if all my readers do this? She’ll be in her yacht and I’ll be swimming alongside it.

To answer your question, I arrived at Asperger’s in a circuitous way. At first, I was interested in an outsider. I’m often drawn to themes of inclusiveness and exclusiveness. Which I guess is a fancy way of saying, “friendship,” how we treat each other. In order to create this character, this child who did not fit in, I needed specific characteristics. You achieve that through the accumulation of small details. I began by asking questions. What does he like? Is he good at sports? What does he dream about? What kinds of things upset him? Who are his parents? And so on. I not only asked those questions of myself, I talked to experts. One principal in particular, Laura Heffernan at Glenmont Elementary, gave me an hour of her time. We talked and talked. She kind of casually brought up “kids on the spectrum” and it resonated with me. I went to the library. I bought books and underlined passages, almost filled an entire notebook. What I learned fit my conception for this character. It worked for the story.

But you are right. I could have explored the same ideas, written the same essential book, by selecting a different condition or none at all. The dynamic in the relationship was, to me, more important that Trey’s particularities. Does that make sense?

I appreciate that you feel I effectively captured the mind of a child with autism. Honestly, I don’t really know if I did or not. But I tried to do my best. I’ve had good experiences, though. I recently had a mother come up to me, pull me aside — I could see the upset in her eyes — and say, “That’s my son. He was just diagnosed with Asperger’s.”

Well, there’s more. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I feel a connection with children with autism. It’s not an intellectual understanding. It’s not even experiential. But somehow I identify with many of those common symptoms. I don’t have autism, but in some small way I feel I can glimpse its shadow. Can’t everyone? Don’t we all have at least those shadow traits? Or not? All that said: I didn’t make that a big part of Along Came Spider. I didn’t feel qualified, or ready, or brave enough, or whatever. If you are still interested in the topic, I recommend the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. He goes much, much deeper.

Thanks for reaching out and contacting me. I’m really grateful, and honored, to have a reader like you.


Fan Mail Wednesday #18

Sometimes I receive amazing letters from classroom teachers. And boy, I love amazing letters from teachers!

Mr. Preller,
Thanks so much for writing Along Came Spider. I’ve just finished it as a read aloud with my 4th and 5th graders. I selected it because I have a student who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. I thought the book was insightful, inspirational, and made my students inquisitive.

I found your post about the book covers ironic. One of my reasons for writing to you was going to be to ask you about the cover. I now understand that you didn’t have much say in the cover but thought you might be interested in the discussion that it generated in my classroom as we were reading.

Of course, the first question that the students asked was “Which one is Spider? I told them I didn’t know, but we would probably find out during our reading. As we journeyed through the story, several predictions were made about “who was who” on the cover. Here are just a few:

“Spider sounds like someone who would have green hair.”

“Trey must be the one looking to the side because in the story we read that he doesn’t like to look directly at people.”

“It must be Trey who is staring at the wall, just like at recess.”

And then the revelation……”It’s Trey with electric lime hair.”

The students wanted to know if you purposely hid clues on the cover. They also wondered if you were purposely trying to throw them off because the boy on the cover could be Ryan. Even though it appears it was unintentional, I appreciate the discussion it generated!

As I stopped in the middle of the book for a written comprehension check, one of the questions I asked was which of the main characters do you most identify with. Three of my students said they identified with Trey because they were being bullied or they felt like were being pulled in different directions by their friends. Without reading your book I am not sure how I would have known about this. Interestingly, the student with Asperger’s identified with Spider!

Sometime books entertain us and sometimes books inspire readers to reveal true thoughts and feelings. Thanks for writing one that does both!

Michele S.

After the feeling returned to my fingers, I typed this reply:

Dear Michele,

Thank you for that exceedingly kind and thoughtful letter. As a writer, I never know how a book will be received. I mean, I know what I hope the book conveys, but I’m never sure if others will find those same qualities. And then there’s this: I’m just glad (and amazed) when somebody reads it at all! I was hoping that Spider would be embraced by classroom teachers.

That’s why it was so gratifying to read your letter, especially hearing about the class discussions. I think of Along Came Spider as a “talking” book. A springboard that, in the hands of the right classroom teacher, can lead to positive classroom conversations.

As for the new cover, you are right, it just happened at the last minute without any input from me. It was more like, “Oh, by the way, we changed the cover.” I didn’t mind it, actually, and I understood where my publisher was coming from. They only wanted to sell the book — and I’m shallow enough to be all for that.

The creative license they took with the cover shoot surely caused some of the confusion. At the time of the wall scene, Trey’s hair was its normal color. He did not dye it until much later in the book. I guess the art director felt green hair would add interest to the cover. She might have been right. Part of making a book is, I believe, trusting in the collaborative process. Unless you feel like something is absolutely a mistake, you have to let talented people do their jobs. And hope for the best.


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.