With the holidays coming up, parents of autistic children might be wondering what kinds of gifts to get. Chances are, these kids have already made a wish list, but it can be good to add a surprise to the mix– and you can’t go wrong with a book. I have compiled a list of ten middle-grade recommendations– six standalone books and four series– that might be fun for an autistic child. Because it’s important for autistic middle-graders to see themselves represented in books, many of these books feature autistic characters, most of which are written by autistic authors. There are, of course, other books on this list that are written for a broader audience, but still might interest your child.
1. Can You See Me?, Do You Know Me?, Ways to Be Me, and All the Pieces of Me by Rebecca Westcott and Libby Scott
An autistic girl, Tally, feels pressured to act “normal” now that she is a tween. Most of the other kids are uncomfortable around her, and now even her best friend, Layla, is starting to think she’s weird. But pretending to be neurotypical– or “masking”– is exhausting and stressful. Is it even worth it? Can You See Me? and its sequels follow Libby trying to navigate a world that isn’t built for people like her while learning the importance of advocating for herself.
2. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Suzy Swanson and her best friend, Franny, had a falling-out in sixth grade when Franny moved on from Suzy in favor of a group of boy-crazy girls. During the ensuing summer, Franny drowns in the ocean. Suzy—whom the book strongly implies is on the autism spectrum—cannot believe that Franny, a strong swimmer, would drown. Suzy’s pet interest as of late is jellyfish, and she is convinced that one of these creatures must have caused Franny’s death. With a single-minded focus, Suzy sets forth to prove her theory, and along the way learns more about the unpredictability of life and more about herself.
3. Chester and Gus and Frankie and Amelia by Cammie McGovern
Chester and Gus and Frankie and Amelia are books that celebrate the unique bonds autistic kids often share with animals– written from the animals’ point of view! In Chester and Gus, Chester is a therapy dog for a (mostly) non-speaking autistic boy named Gus. In Frankie and Amelia, Frankie is a cat adopted by a misunderstood autistic girl, Amelia. In both stories, the pets communicate with their people and offer emotional support in the way that animals naturally do. In their respective stories, Chester and Frankie even express frustration about how they understand Gus and Amelia better than other people. That the stories are told from the animals’ points of view offers great insight to myriad forms of communication in the world.
These books are two in a series, with Chester and Gus being the first. However, you can read these books in any order, or read just one.
4. Rick by Alex Gino
Many of us on the autism spectrum also identify as asexual. But in the sex-obsessed world that we live in, there aren’t many adolescent or teen characters who are uninterested in romantic or sexual relationships. On the rare occasion that these characters do exist, it’s often implied that they have been traumatized in some way or are otherwise “afraid” of being in a relationship.
The fact is, some people are just not hardwired to love in a way that isn’t platonic.
Enter Rick, a (neurotypical) 6th grader who hasn’t yet had a crush and can’t imagine getting one. He wonders if there’s something wrong with him. But then his friend, Melissa, introduces him to Spectrum, a club at school for kids questioning their sexuality or gender identity. Rick is now able to figure out who he is in a supportive, welcoming setting.
5. Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit
Vivy Cohen, an autistic 11-year-old girl, wants to play baseball. But what will it be like being the only girl– and the only autistic person– on the team? At her teacher’s encouragement, she writes a letter to her favorite major-league baseball player, pitcher VJ Capello. It turns into an ongoing correspondence– with her parents’ approval of course! This novel is told through the letters between Vivy and VJ. Many autistic kids will find the frustrating situations Vivy finds herself in relatable– and will find hope as Vivy pursues her dreams.
6. A Boy Called Bat, Bat and the Waiting Game, and Bat and the End of Everything by Elana K. Arnold
This series features an autistic boy, Bixby Alexander Tam, also known as “Bat”. Bat is excited when his veterinarian mother brings home a baby skunk to care for until he can be rereleased into the wild. However, Bat develops a bond with the skunk– which he names Thor– and wants to keep him as a pet. Skunks don’t make good pets– do they? All three books follow the adventures and misadventures of Bat and Thor, and celebrate the unique bonds that many autistic kids share with animals.
7. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Another story for animal lovers!
Ten-year-old Opal is lonely, having just moved to a new town in Florida with her emotionally-distant father. One day, while picking up groceries for her dad at the Winn-Dixie supermarket, she encounters a stray dog who is wreaking havoc in the store. Fearing the dog is going to be taken to the pound, Opal tells the store clerk that the dog is hers and that his name is Winn-Dixie. Throughout that summer, Opal’s new pet manages to win the hearts of normally-isolated townsfolk. Life in the small town will never be the same and, as the title suggests, it’s all because of Winn-Dixie!
8. The Missing octology by Margaret Peterson Haddix
The Missing books by children’s author Margaret Peterson Haddix takes readers on the adventure (or eight!) of a lifetime. The series concerns a group of kids who turn out to be young versions of famous historical figures who were smuggled and taken into the twenty-first century for adoption into contemporary families. With altered history hanging in the balance, it’s up to the kids to fix the timeline– without having to give up their new lives and adopted families! The books in this series are: Found, Sent, Sabotaged, Torn, Caught, Risked, Revealed, and Redeemed.
9. Fifty-Four Things Wrong with Gwendolyn Rogers by Caela Carter
Nobody understands twelve-year-old Gwendolyn Rogers: not her teachers, not her peers, and not even her own mother. Gwendolyn concludes that there must be something wrong with her– or, more specifically, fifty-four things wrong with her. She makes a list of these problems to work on, treating her self-imposed “treatment” like her mother’s Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program. But is that what she needs? Maybe what Gwendolyn could use most is understanding, support and, most importantly, acceptance. This story is about a child with ADHD, and as someone on the autism spectrum– ADHD’s close cousin– I found much of it relatable. This is a great choice for any neuroatypical child who wants to feel validated.
10. Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
The year is 1986, and Nova– a 12-year-old, non-speaking autistic girl, can’t wait for the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. She and her supportive and understanding older sister, Bridget, were going to watch the launch together, but Bridget has been mysteriously missing for a long time. Despite this, Nova is hopeful that Bridget will come back in time for the launch. Planet Earth is Blue is a wonderful story about the often overlooked rich inner worlds of autistic people, as well as learning to understand those different from most– and learning to accept life’s harsh realities.
Content note: This book involves the death of a child.