I was invited to serve as guest reader for a local upper elementary (5th and 6th graders) and I wanted to do something special. I asked around for an advanced reader copy (otherwise known as an ARC) to read from and then giveaway to a student in a random drawing. Kathryn Erskine reached out to me and offered a copy of her upcoming book The Absolute Value of Mike. In that book, Mike has a math learning disability, and in her previous book (Mockingbird) the main character Caitlin has Asperger’s Syndrome. In honor of Disabilities Awareness Month (which is March — I bet you didn’t know that) I invited Kathryn to do a guest post, and she generously agreed. So Thank YOU Kathryn! May I say I think it’s somewhat ironic that we both choose to quote the same scene… you obviously did something right when it speaks to both of us.

As the author of Mockingbird and The Absolute Value of Mike, both of which have main characters with “disabilities” (although I would argue with the use of that word) people ask why I choose such topics.  Well, I simply write about things that are important to me, that speak to me.  I think we can all relate to having a disability because we all have things that are hard for us.

Also, people in my own family have learning disabilities or Asperger’s and I’ve seen how it can rob them of self-esteem, leave them open to teasing, and generally add a lot of difficulty to their lives.  It’s hard, and it’s hard every day.  I think sometimes it’s a challenge to “see” and understand certain disabilities because the people look “normal.”  So, when people don’t follow what we’re saying or don’t catch on to a joke, it’s easy to start dismissing them and perhaps even name calling, in our heads, at least.  As a writer, it’s my job to go inside the story, find out what’s really happening, and give that view.

What does it feel like to have a disability?  For a language related disability, think about hearing only every other word, or what it sounds like when you try to hear under water, or what it would be like to try converse in another language when you only know some of it and you have to find a doctor or an emergency room, fast, and explain the medication someone needs.  That actually happened to me — a great opportunity for me to appreciate what it must be like to have a language impairment — and believe me, my language was incredibly impaired!  It’s both frustrating and frightening.

For Asperger’s, think about being in a totally unfamiliar culture where eye contact is seen as threatening, handshaking is rude, and certain hand gestures, that we’re used to, have different, and sometimes very offensive, meanings.  Or going to a house of worship with which you’re not familiar, and trying to do all the right things at the right times, some of which you’ve never done before and all of which you don’t understand the meaning of.

For a math disability, think of having to do multiple calculations in your head when you’re really sleepy.  Or using an abacus or slide rule if you haven’t used one before (or it has been so long that you don’t remember) and someone is staring at you wondering why you haven’t come up with the answer yet.  Think about balancing your checkbook.  We’ve all made a minor error on occasion and it’s a pain to find and clear up.  Think if that were a regular occurrence.  And the ramifications of those mistakes.

Fortunately, there are many tools and organizations to support a variety of disabilities.  You can access most online.  There’s a wealth of literature out there, too.  You may have friends or family who have learning or other issues, or work with those who do, so you can get some first hand knowledge.  That’s probably the best way to gain an understanding of what it’s really like.  For my writing, I use all of those sources.

Using humor in writing, and in real life, is one of the best tools to deal with any difficulty.  In Mockingbird, Caitlin is very matter of fact in her behavior, which is authentic to many kids with Asperger’s, and yet it provides some comic relief for the rest of us from what can be a very heavy topic.  In The Absolute Value of Mike, we can hear and feel Mike’s insecurity, which makes us chuckle about both his and our own.  Humor can bring us closer together.  And understanding can break down barriers.  In Mockingbird, Caitlin has just lost her brother and tells her counselor that she feels like she’s in TiVo because things seem to start and stop and she feels removed from them.  She really doesn’t want to talk about her feelings, though, so when her counselor keeps talking, Caitlin thinks, I want to tell her that I prefer TiVo on mute and I wish she’d cooperate.  But if I do it’ll start a whole Let’s Talk About It discussion so I say nothing . . . haven’t we all felt that way?

Yes Kathryn, I think we have.