With the holidays coming up, parents of autistic teens might be wondering what kinds of gifts to get. You can’t go wrong with a book. It is important for autistic teens to see themselves represented in literature, but it is also important for them– as all teens– to read books that are interesting, fun, and tackle important issues. I have compiled a list of ten young adult (YA) books that either feature autistic characters or that I think might interest an autistic teen for a variety of reasons.
- Sensory: Life on the Spectrum edited by Bex Ollerton
For autistic teens wanting a relatable and interesting graphic novel, I recommend Sensory: Life on the Spectrum. This comics anthology relates the diverse personal stories by people on the autism spectrum, including people of color. These stories are written by young adults who express relief at an autism diagnosis after years of feeling inexplicably different. It tackles topics common to the autism community– such as intense interests, masking, social acceptance, sensory sensitivities, meltdowns, and holding a conversation. Some of the stories address stereotypes about autism as well as the difficulties about being an autistic woman and/or person of color in a society where sexism and racism are still major issues. Importantly, it urges neurotypical readers to listen and be receptive to the too-often misunderstood experiences of autistic people.
Content note: Contains references to self-harm
- Game Changer by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Eighth-grader KT Sutton is a passionate softball player– and she’s so good that she is considered one of the “cool” kids in her school– a far cry from the “uncool” kids who are passionate about math, science, and other academic pursuits. One day, KT wakes up to find herself in a world where the roles of sports and academics are reversed. In this world, every class consists of athletic drills, and things like math are relegated to after-school activities. In fact, academic interests are “cool” and being a passionate athlete makes you “uncool!” Will KT get home and reclaim her place in the social hierarchy? And is being at the top of the proverbial food chain really what’s best for her?
Game Changer is a great story about a popular kid learning what it is to be an outsider. It is very thought-provoking, and I found the situation that KT found herself in as an outsider in school life to be very relatable.
- Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
Many autistic teens might recall having had an imaginary friend when they were younger. Max, an eight-year-old autistic boy, has an imaginary friend named Budo, who protects him from bullies and other difficult situations. What makes this book unique is that it is written for an older audience– and from the point of view of Budo! When Max’s teacher, Mrs. Patterson, kidnaps Max, it’s up to Budo and the imaginary friends of other children to rescue him. But in order to do that, Budo may have to sacrifice himself. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is a fascinating look into the kinds of relationships– real and imagined, and even in an uncanny gray area– that people have.
- Girl Mans Up by M.E. Gerard
Although Girl Mans Up does not have an autistic protagonist, it does tackle the issue of being different when surrounded by people pressuring you to conform, along with other important social issues. The 16-year-old protagonist, Pen, is more traditionally masculine in appearance, hobbies, and behavior than other girls her age. Pen encounters an array of problems throughout the story. First, she has to deal with her old-fashioned parents who won’t accept a masculine daughter. Second, she finds herself coming face-to-face with toxic masculinity: her longtime best friend, Colby, uses Pen to help him pick up girls. This doesn’t bother her until she befriends Olivia, a girl who felt used by Colby. Pen has to reevaluate her relationship with Colby as she looks for new friends– and finds love with Blake, another girl that Colby wanted Pen to help pick up for him!
Content note: Contains references to sexual assault
- Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Sometimes what a teen needs is a story that is just plain fun, and Meddling Kids is especially perfect for teens who are fans of Scooby-Doo and Stranger Things. It concerns the Blyton Summer Detective Club, consisting of teen members Kerri (the genius), Andy (the tomboy), Nate (the nerd), and Peter (the leader)– and, of course, their dog member, Sean.
In the summer of 1977, teen sleuths of the Blyton Summer Detective Club solved their final mystery and unmasked the Sleepy Lake Monster as a run-of-the-mill criminal looking to get rich quick. Fast forward to 1990: the former detectives– who are now in their twenties– haven’t seen each other in years, and continue to be haunted by the case. Something doesn’t add up, and it seems like the criminal was only part of the story. It’s time to get the gang back together– with Tim, one of Sean’s descendants– to figure out what really happened– and if there actually was a Sleepy Lake Monster all along!
Content note: This book contains references to suicide
- How to be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual by Rebecca Burgess
In this graphic novel by autistic artist Rebecca Burgess (they/them), Rebecca recalls entering adolescence and watching in confusion as their peers began to express interest in romance. Rebecca, on the other hand, expressed a single-minded focus on drawing comics. Growing up in an era in which “asexual” was a largely unrecognized term, Rebecca did not have the vocabulary to understand who they were. Perfect for anybody– autistic, asexual, both, or otherwise– who has ever felt different, this compelling memoir follows Rebecca’s journey to ultimately discover and embrace their own identity.
- The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games trilogy might seem like a strange choice for a recommendation specifically for autistic teens, but I included it because of a popular fan theory circulating in the autism community: that the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is autistic. I personally disagree with this assessment, but whether or not your teen views Katniss that way, she is a strong, complex, and compelling character.
If you’re late to the party, The Hunger Games is a series of dystopian novels that take place in Panem, a new country in the ruins of North America. In the first book, we are introduced to The Hunger Games, an annual televised event in which one boy and one girl from each of Panem’s twelve districts are randomly selected to fight to the death in an arena until only one victor remains. When Katniss’s younger sister, Primrose, is recruited, Katniss volunteers to take her place. It is not only that Katniss wants to spare her sister’s life– which is a given– but she also has a chance of winning. She is brave, smart, streetwise, quick-witted, and skilled with a bow and arrow.
Since there are two sequels– Catching Fire and Mockingjay– it should not surprise you that Katniss survives the Hunger Games. The sequels follow the revolution that Katniss unwittingly starts against Panem’s government. In addition to the trilogy, there is a prequel– The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes– that takes place decades before the events of the first novel.
Content note: This book contains graphic depictions of violence and death. But you probably already knew that!
- Under Shifting Stars by Alexandra Latos
Fifteen-year-old fraternal twins Audrey and Clare used to be best friends. But things haven’t been the same since the tragic death of their older brother, Adam. In addition to the sorrow of Adam’s death, the twins are grappling with their own personal issues. Audrey is neurodivergent in a way that hasn’t been conclusively identified– she seems to be autistic, but maybe she has ADHD. Clare is neurotypical and has long enjoyed popularity among her peers. But when she starts to question her gender identity and falls for her nonbinary classmate, Tayler, Clare has to reevaluate a lot of her assumptions. Told in alternating voices, Audrey and Clare tackle first crushes, social dynamics, and the frustrations inherent in growing up.
- Act Cool by Tobly McSmith
Sixteen-year-old transgender boy and aspiring actor August Greene has spent his entire life in rural Pennsylvania. When he gets accepted to a competitive performing arts high school in Manhattan and decides to move in with his Aunt Lil, his parents allow him to go– as long as he promises not to transition, including using his new name and pronouns. August’s parents are very conservative and do not accept his transgender identity, so he is forced to pretend his earlier requests to transition were “just a phase.”
August plays many roles in his new life– for his parents: their daughter; for his new friends: the class clown, the party guy, and even the transgender kid with accepting parents. However, there is a fine line between adapting to new situations and pretending to be something you’re not in order to survive. Is that part of the world of acting, or is it something more insidious? Can August figure out where he belongs and still pursue his passion for the stage?
Although not featuring an autistic character, I felt this book was relevant to the autism community because it tackles an issue that many autistic people face– masking: that is, going beyond small adaptations to different situations and making oneself seem neurotypical in order to survive socially. August is a very real and compelling character, and his story is an important one for teens– and adults– of all walks of life to read. Plus, it celebrates New York City as an accepting place for people who feel like outsiders elsewhere.
Content note: This book contains homophobic and transphobic language and interactions as well as instances of suicidal ideation
- Fangirl by Rebecca Rowell
This is another story about twins– identical, in this case. Cath Avery and her sister, Wren, are college freshmen at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Both are huge fans of Simon Snow– a wildly popular Harry Potter-esque series of novels– but Wren seems to be moving on from the fandom while Cath continues to immerse herself in it. Cath, who is content to spend her Friday nights writing Simon Snow fanfiction, feels like she is losing Wren to college party life.
The book does a good job of shedding light on– and even celebrating–the often-misunderstood world of fandom and fanfiction writing: many fanfiction writers are talented individuals who take their work every bit as seriously as writers who create their own universes, expanding the existing material into something unique that the creators might not have even imagined. Additionally, Fangirl tackles important issues about family, social anxiety, and the joys and frustrations of transitioning to adulthood that college life brings.
Although there are no autistic characters in this series, I chose Fangirl for this list because fanfiction is very popular in the autism community. In fact, a lot of fanfiction writers are autistic. If nothing else, many of us follow television shows, book and film series a lot more religiously than the average person. Sadly, this passion is often dismissed by the neurotypical world as “immature” and “obsessive.” I hope that this book will make many “fangeek” teens feel seen and celebrated.