You and your children probably know a person on the autism spectrum, it may be a family member, a close friend, or you. Books and stories can help children accept autism and learn that the autistic community is not a monolith. Autistic children are unique individuals with their own feelings, hopes, and emotions, just as allistic (non-autistic) children are.
These books will also allow ASD kids to see their own experiences represented–and everyone deserves to see themselves in books! I've include books narrated from the point of view of the autistic person as well as stories told by allistic friends and siblings. Just as autistic kids want to hear voices that sound like theirs, siblings of autistic kids will welcome reading about protagonists who have loved ones on the spectrum.
On this list, I've curated a selection of picture books to read aloud to kids ages 4 and up. Further down you can find chapter books for independent readers ages 6/7 and up and then middle grade books for readers 8 and up. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Picture Books that Show Life with Autism
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla. Every kid (and grown-up) has to deal with a bad day, or lots of bad days, really. Sammy has a really, really bad day. It seems like everything is going wrong and not only that, but his autistic brother, Benji is also experiencing a rough day. Sammy notices that Benji has a special place just for him when he starts feeling overwhelmed but Sammy doesn't have a spot like that. Benji notices Sammy's sadness and helps his brother out with the aid of a blue blanket. This heartwarming book teaches kids how having a go-to spot can help them self-regulate and the positive power of connection with others (especially family).
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca. Temple Grandin may be the most well-known public figure with autism. This lovely biography is written in rhyme and shares how Grandin's differences are actually her strengths. When traditional education cannot adapt to Grandin, she finds her place on a farm where her inventions help build better farms and improve the lives of animals.
A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey. Henry looks about his classroom, he notices all the details about the objects and his fellow classmates. He is looking for a friend and wonders how he will fit in. As he tries to find a child to be his friend, there are some misunderstandings and set-backs, and a bit of sensory overload at times. Even kids who are not on the spectrum will recognize the challenges and rewards that come with learning how to be a friend.
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete & Ryan Elizabeth Peete. Many people believe this book presents a harmful picture of autistic individuals. I leave it on the list, not to encourage you to read it, but so you can make your own decision and know you might want to avoid it, as it is commonly recommended by others.
Ian's Walk by Laurie Lears. Many people believe this book presents a harmful picture of autistic individuals. I leave it on the list, not to encourage you to read it, but so you can make your own decision and know you might want to avoid it, as it is commonly recommended by others.
Early Chapter Books with Characters Who Have ASD
A Boy Called Bat (series) by Elana K. Arnold. Third grader, Bixby Alexander Tam, goes by the nickname Bat and exhibits behaviors that might place him on the spectrum. He flaps his hands and avoids eye contact, but the author never labels Bat "autistic." She simply allows us to see Bat, and all his friends, as unique individuals. Bat's mom is a veterinarian and one day she brings home baby skunk. Bat wants to take care of it and must prove to his mom that he knows what he is doing. Full of wonderful characters and lots of interesting information about skunks, this is an absolutely delightful story. It makes a nice read aloud for ages 6 and up or a great independent read for ages 7-10.
West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher by Liam O'Donnell is the start of a series featuring two special needs* kids who bond over a mystery at school. Myron, who is autistic is starting a new school. He earnestly narrates the story, describing his unique way of seeing the world, his need for structure and how his special ability to focus on the detail makes him the perfect sleuth. His energetic friend, Hajrah, who acknowledges she has a bit of ADHD, becomes his partner. This is a feel good story with a positive portrayal of a range neurodiverse kids.
*NOTE: It has come to my attention that the term "special needs" is considered by some to be problematic. You can read an opinion about that here.
Slug Days (series) by Sarah Leach. Lauren is on the spectrum and "slug days" is how she refers to her days when things seem slow and slimy. In other words, they are the days when things don't go well and others don't seem to understand why she does certain things. But Lauren has certain routines that help her get through slug days and today is special because she meets a new girl and her day might turn out to be a butterfly day after all.
Autism in Middle Grade Books
I'm pleased to report you can find a growing collection of middle grade books with autistic characters. Publishers and authors recognize the need for kids with ASD to be represented in literature. Plug in autism-- fiction into the library catalog to find more! These middle grade books are the ones I have most enjoyed.
The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla. Charlie's widowed father has been wounded in Afghanistan and so he and his bi-racial (their mother is Mexican, father is white) siblings set out on a road trip to see him. The narrator, 12 year old Charlie, is autistic and fascinated by birds, his siblings include a boy-crazy teen sister and 10 year old twin boys. When their road trip stalls, Ludmila, a stranger who has been at their father's bedside intervenes and takes them on the journey from California to Virginia. Along the way, Charlie decides to watch for all the birds he had hoped to one day spot with his father.
Al Capone Does My Shirts (series) by Gennifer Choldenko is just plain good fun. The year is 1935 and 12 year old Moose and his family move to Alcatraz after his father gets a job there. Moose’s older sister is autistic and their mother attempts to get her into an approptiate school while Moose gets wrapped up with crazy money-making schemes dreamed up by the warden’s daughter. This is fast-paced, realistic fiction that has big heart and big humor.
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. Ted and Kat take their cousin, Salim, to ride the London Eye. They balk at standing in the long queue but then a stranger offers them one ticket. Salim takes the tickets and gets on the ride, but never gets off. Ted and Kat must solve the mystery of what happened to their cousin. Although never stated as such, Ted is autistic. (He describes himself as "having a different kind of brain.) Ted studies the clues, using his systematic way of looking at things to finally find his cousin, just in the nick of time.
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin. 12 year olds Jason is autistic. His self-stimulating behavior includes flapping his hands and fingers. He feels totally out of place among his peers and at school. He finds comfort online and begins to correspond with Rebecca who suggests they meet at a writers conference. Although Jason considers Rebecca his only friend, he is terrified to meet her in person and show her how "nontypical" he is. Your kids will get sucked into Jason's narration from the viewpoint of a boy with ASD.
The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore. Lolly's brother was killed a few months ago and Lolly is having a hard time adjusting to life without his sibling. His mother's girlfriend brings him bags of LEGO, which he takes to his after school program and begins an epic building project. At the same time as Lolly is being pressured by local kids to join the crew that swallowed up his brother, he is learning to make friends with Big Rose, a girl on the autism spectrum who moves in on his LEGO territory. Moore's debut novel is a moving story of how our choices move us down paths, and how trauma affects those choices.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. I could not put this book down! Willow is 12 years old when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash, leaving her totally alone. Willow is intensely gifted but doesn't make friends easily. At the counselor's office, she makes befriends with Mai and her brother, Quang-ha. The siblings take her home to their mom, who convinces social services to allow Willow to stay with them. Willow's narration of the story, her observations of others and her approach to learning how to interact with others is compelling. The cast of characters, including her underachieving school counselor, and Vietnamese foster mother struggling against poverty are both touchingly human and quietly funny. Absolutely wonderful.
Superstar by Mandy Davis. Up until now, Lester Musselbaum has been homeschooled by his mom. But after his astronaut father is killed in a shuttle accident, his mother goes back to work and Lester is headed to public school. Lester is on the autism-spectrum and has a lot of difficulty with the new sensory experience of the classroom. He doesn’t always understand ordinary school dynamics, but he does understand science and he looks forward to the upcoming science fair project. Lester narrates the book so readers see the world through his eyes in this sensitive story about finding your way when you don’t fit into the box
Slider by Pete Hautman. When David accidentally charges $2000 to his mom's credit card, he concocts a plan to get the money by winning a pizza eating contest. In between prepping his stomach for the contest and being a good brother to his neuro-atypical brother, Mal, David must also figure out where he stands when his two best friends find themselves in a relationship. This book has lots of laughs but is also a meaningful read and many 13 year olds will understand David's struggle with friends and family.
A Star Is Born is book three in award winning author Walter Dean Myers' The Cruisers series. The Cruisers are a group of middle schoolers who write a newspaper at their school for gifted kids in Harlem. LaShonda gets a chance to receive a scholarship for her work on costumes but it conflicts with her need to take care of her autistic brother. The heart of the book is the way the group of friends come together to help LaShonda. Myers tackles some important subjects about disadvantaged kids, poverty, and tolerance, but the story is not at all depressing. Interspersed between the chapters are pieces that the kids write for their newspaper, which comment in some way on the main action of the story. The text of the kids' script, based on what happens to Shakespeare's characters during "Act 6" is at the end of the book.
How to Speak Dolphin by Ginny Rorby. Lily's half-brother is severely autistic. Since her mother died two years ago, Lily has been living with her stepfather, Don, and figuring out how to cope with her mother's death. Don, who is an oncologist but a gruff father, does not want to acknowledge Adam's disability. He leaves Lily with much of the caregiving work. Adam is obsessed with dolphins and finds happiness when he is swimming with them. Lily loves the dolphins, too, but one in particular, Nori, is a wild dolphin and Lily knows she should be let free instead of staying in captivity, even if it means Adam will be happy. Lily also makes friends with a blind girl, Zoe. I liked how Zoe was not letting others define her by her blindness. I have to consider whether some would be put off by the narration of Lily's feelings. Yes, she does see her brother as difficult, but she also loves her brother, wants her father to see him and wants Adam to be appreciated and known. Many people also thing the type of school Adam attends is harmful, even though it is presented as positive in the book. The book also rejects "fad cures" like dolphin therapy.
More books that reflect the lives of non-typical kids:
- Books with Characters who Have Medical Conditions
- Middle Grade Books to Teach Empathy
- Picture Books about Neurodiverse Kids