Tag Archive for Autism

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.

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.


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.

Backstory: A Sense of Smell

Like most people, I have a nose. But mine doesn’t seem to work very well. Smells don’t really register with me on a conscious level. I mean, sure, I get the big unavoidable ones, like fresh brownies in the kitchen or dirty diapers on a toddler. But I’m not a guy who is going to smell a glass of wine or a bowl of soup; I just throw that stuff down the gullet and move on. I’m sure that on an unconscious level I respond to many smells. Who knows, on some animal level I’ve probably formed personal likes and dislikes, felt attracted or repelled, based on odors — not that I’d know it.

Good writers, I think, strive to engage all the senses in their writing. For me, when it comes to the sense of smell, that means work. It doesn’t come naturally. When I was writing from Trey Cooper’s point of view (POV) in Along Came Spider, I knew that I was writing about a sensitive kid. A boy who smells things. The book loosely alternates POV between Trey and Spider Stevens. In Trey’s chapters, I made an effort to bring the sense of smell into the descriptive passages. Part of his affection for crayons comes from that comforting odor, that sweet olfactory sensation, entangled in childhood memory, the smell working on him on some deep level. Crayons feel safe. Therefore in this book, when Trey encounters people, smell is often part of the description.

Of the classroom aide, Mrs. Mowatt: “She was large and overflowing and smelled of cocoa butter.”

Of Ryan Donovan: “Ryan was loud and his face was too near and his staring eyes hurt and his mouth smelled like garlic.”

On the night sky: “The air was cool and smelled of pine and moved like a panther from rock to rock.” And: “The smell of decayed leaves and the corpses of flowers filled his nostrils.”

On the library: “Trey glanced at the shelves that lined the walls, the new books, the smooth polished tabletops that smelled of Lemon Pledge, the chairs tucked in and neatly arranged.”

And so on. It was just a little thing I did to build character, nothing major, one attribute that I gave him which seemed consistent with his condition. He smelled things . . . even if I didn’t.

By the way, my daughter Maggie has a heightened sense of smell. She’s always commenting on various odors (some of which her father carries, alas, and Maggie frowns upon — she hates peanut butter breath). We were in the car the other day; I was driving Maggie and a friend to gymnastics. The subject of the mall came up. Maggie stated that she did not like the mall. Her friend, Katie, an enthusiastic shopper, was surprised: “Why not?”

“I don’t like the way it smells,” Maggie said. “It’s all . . . buttery.”

Funny, right? But then you think of those pretzel shops that are everywhere, and the movie theaters with buckets of popcorn drenched in a yellow liquid vaguely butter-ish something, and the overall pungent queasy smell that pervades, and realize that Maggie is absolutely right.

The nose knows!

More Backstory: Writing Spider

Teachers often ask about “the writing process.” That’s an uncomfortable thing for me, since it seems fertile ground for pretentiousness. But to answer the question honestly, “my” writing process is the only one I can speak about with any author/ity. I can’t really talk about IT without dragging MYSELF into it. So apologies in advance if I come off as just another self-absorbed, belly-gazing ninny. I’m not, really. Honest. I mean it!

So in the interest of discussing “the” writing process, I have to talk about my own. When I began Along Came Spider, I started by sitting in on a fifth-grade classroom (previously discussed here). At one point, after a few months, I tried a different classroom of fourth-graders taught by Mary Martin at Glenmont Elementary. Now one of the things I love to do is look at everything hanging on the walls. I copy a lot of it down, word for word. One of the posters I found, evidently penned (markered?) by Mary, was this:


Say Something Nice to Someone

You look nice * Hello! * Thanks for your help * Way to go! * Nice day, isn’t it? * A-OK * Bravo! * Well done * You are awesome * Keep up the good work * Remarkable * You rock * I know you can do it * How are you? * Super * You’re the best * Cool!

Somewhere along the line I combined that poster with a specific character and a specific event. The character was Trey Cooper, a boy who struggled with social cues. I imagined what he might make of such a poster, how he might interpret it, find it helpful, or possibly confusing.

Then I remembered a moment in Chris Porter’s classroom, something I had scribbled about in my notebook weeks previously. This is exactly what I wrote on 2/2/07 while in that classroom, here in it’s crude form, lifted from a spiral notebook:

Here’s Ms. Porter getting the class’s attention for a social studies lesson. She’s explaining something when — whirrrrr — you can see the eyes spin in her head like the wheels of a slot machine. She stops and looks, there’s Lee , sharpening a pencil. Ms. Porter had a rule about that, and it made her crazy when it was broken. She gave her students a lot of freedom — they were fifth-graders after all, the crowned kings and queens of Erstwhile Elementary, and, in turn, Ms. Porter expected her students to behave maturely, to act further along the evolutionary spectrum than the chimpanzees they sometimes resembled.

Of course, none of that survived even the first draft of the book — except for the basic dynamic of the scene. Here’s how that scene actually concludes in the final version, Chapter Two, pp. 14-15. Note that I moved the point-of-view closer to the character (now named Trey, not Lee), and away from the adult teacher’s perspective:

Mrs. Wine was looking intently at him, hands on her hips, lips tight, like she was sucking on a Sour Patch Kid. The tips of her ears had gone bright red. Three rhyming words — hips, lips, and tips — all signaled Mrs. Wine’s unhappiness. Trey was getting better at figuring these things out. Hips, lips, tips. Hips, lips, tips.

“Are you finished?” she asked.

Trey thought for a moment, considering Mrs. Wine’s question. He decided that it was a trick question, one that he had better not answer (since, of course — obviously! — he was not finished, nowhere close, for he still had seven pencils to go). At the same time, she expected a response of some kind. Mrs. Wine stood looking at him, that sour expression still on her face, waiting for something.

Thinking of the poster, Trey blurted, “A-OK!”

“Excuse me?”

“Super!” Trey exclaimed, beaming.

“Please take your seat, Trey. We’ll discuss this later.”

“Mrs. Wine,” Trey answered, “you are awesome . . . and you rock!”

Strange, Trey thought as he made his way back to his seat. Mrs. Wine didn’t smile back.

Something must be wrong with that poster.