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How Books Like 'Finding S.A.M.' Harm the Autistic Community

Editor's Note

If you are not neurotypical, the following post could be potentially triggering.

When I was diagnosed with autism during university, I went through what I now know to be a grieving process that many people experience when they are told they have a lifelong disability or illness. I was scared, confused, anxious and most of all I felt very alone. 

I remember sitting at that appointment and thinking to myself, “So I guess I’ll never understand jokes then.” This might seem like a small thing, but it has forever been a symbol for me. Throughout my childhood I remember seeing everyone else just knowing automatically when someone was joking, and when was appropriate to laugh. I rationalized to myself for years that this is just something that comes with age, and that one day it would click with me. At 20 years old I was told it likely never would. 

There are so many challenges each autistic person faces every day, and it truly is a unique experience for every one of us. But, it also means that we have certain skills that others don’t. If you play a song that has been in a movie I have watched, I can tell you what movie it is in and if I have seen that movie often enough, I can even tell you the exact scene. This isn’t something I have worked at, it’s just something my brain does automatically.

In a more practical sense, I have skills that really do benefit me in the workplace. I have been at my job for two months and I have already been identified as skilled at teaching others new tools and writing documentation to support it. This is because I understand the importance of clear communication, concise writing and supporting diagrams. 

Why am I telling you all of this? Well because of the reason I went through that grieving process in the first place. When I was diagnosed, I was given a letter listing all of the things that were “wrong” with me that lead to my diagnosis. It was 14 pages long.

Despite my loved ones trying to reassure me that this was not a good reflection of my character, I could not believe it. Because almost every depiction of autistic people I had seen up until this point had been negative. They were stories about how we were embarrassing, rude, awkward and worst of all, how so many of us are “burdens” on our loved ones. Autism is apparently so bad that parents are refusing to vaccinate their children out of fear they could develop it. 

So when books like “Finding S.A.M.” come along, they are not the heart-warming tale of love and acceptance the author apparently intended. 

You probably have never heard of “Finding S.A.M.” (which I will abbreviate to FS from here), and if that is true then I am very glad. It was a middle-grade novel (aimed at ages 7-12 roughly) due to be released in April, autism awareness month, by a small independent press in the U.S. It told the story of 12-year-old Zach, who is horrified that his older brother is going to be in the same middle school as him, because said older brother is autistic. The blurb alone was full of hateful, ableist rhetoric and I don’t wish to reproduce it here because it would likely upset many people. 

It is clear from the blurb that Zach hates his older brother purely because of his autism, so much so that the brother isn’t even named in the blurb. Zach’s imaginary brother is though, that’s the “Sam” from the title. Braden, the unnamed autistic brother, is reduced down to just being autistic and is called embarrassing more than once. He is quite literally a device for his brother’s character development.

When I saw this blurb, my stomach dropped. I have an older sister who is neurotypical and we attended the same schools, overlapping in both. It immediately made me paranoid that my sister may have felt the same way about me, that she was horribly embarrassed to be in the same school as me. That she wished I wasn’t around and of course, many other autistic people spoke up and said the same thing. 

I couldn’t stand by and let this book go out into the world without letting the publishers know that this kind of rhetoric is not OK. Yes, every story deserves to be told, but it must be done compassionately and without tearing others down in the process. Disabled people are tired of books always being from the perspective of our loved ones, and always about how much of a burden we are and how embarrassing we are.  

I made a thread explaining why this was harmful, and I politely asked people to share and send an email to the publisher. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I am all too used to autistic people and disabled people as a whole being ignored, but I was fortunate enough that a few of the “right” people saw it, boosted it and from there it grew. At the time I’m writing this, the thread has over 2,500 retweets, and I would like to hope a good chunk of those people got in touch with the publisher. 

Of course, we were met with resistance, and an insistence that we read the book before we judge. So, some of us did, or at least we tried to. I made it 60 pages in before the toll on my mental health became too much and I had to stop reading. Another reader was pushed to the point of needing to call a mental health crisis hotline. 

Nearly every other sentence, Zach says something to insult, belittle, make fun of, dehumanize or disrespect Braden. Every ableist thought, trope and insult was thrown Braden’s way. Whenever Zach disliked something or someone, it was compared to his brother Braden. At multiple points he wished Braden was “normal,” that he would be “taken away by the autism police,” or that he would simply disappear. That was just in the first 60 pages. 

Even if the book eventually reaches the point where Zach realizes he is wrong, it spends hundreds of pages (confirmed by another reader) giving kids 101 different reasons to hate their autistic peers. Let’s not forget that this is middle grade, and who exactly the target audience was. Kids are impressionable. If you give them 250 pages of ableist abuse and 50 pages of “acceptance,” which part is more likely to stick? Especially when every single event in the book is brought back to why Braden being autistic is so bad. 

As I said, FS is not unique in this. There are many books with the same rhetoric and the same “abled sibling learns to love their disabled sibling” trope. We do not need more of those books. Instead let’s have more books featuring positive depictions of autism by autistic authors, like “A Kind of Spark” by Elle McNicoll. Additionally, let’s support more autistic authors who are writing both neurotypical and autistic leads like C.G. Drews. Most importantly, let’s get autistic people in the publishing houses. 

I am happy to say that in the end, the publisher opted to pull FS from distribution. No autistic child is going to stumble across it and have those messages reinforced in their mind. The author has not commented or apologized, but at least the book will not be released and no more harm will be done. 

I have received a lot of attention over this, which I guess I should have expected. I have found some excellent new autistic pals and seen just how many of my neurotypical ones care. I am doing OK now; therapy has done wonders for my resilience and acceptance of myself, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had seen this blurb a year ago. Would I have been the one calling a crisis team? 

If books like this continue to be published, they will only endanger more disabled people in the way FS did. Let’s hope publishers know that we are watching, and that we will speak up when they have made a mistake like this one.

Image courtesy of the author’s twitter account (@ahomeforthelost)

Originally published: November 13, 2020
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