Using Picture Books To Teach About Neurodiversity: Better Understanding Ourselves and Each Other
By Jenna Segall, 5th Grade Teacher, Palo Verde Elementary School, Palo Alto
I remember reading this poem a few years back, written by autistic, then 5th grader, Ben Giroux. I was so moved by his incredible self-awareness and the raw vulnerability that he shared so beautifully on the page. Immediately, I thought of my own 5th grade students and was eager to share Ben’s work as a mentor text, to motivate and inspire my students’ own Memoir writing.
“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part."
- Rudine Sims Bishop
For years, educators have been inspired by the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop (and many others!), working to build classroom libraries that include characters that are as diverse as the students within. Research supports that reading literature helps students to think critically, develop empathy and compassion, and form relationships and connections with others. Books help us to better understand ourselves and each other because it affords us the opportunity to explore and celebrate not only our commonalities, but also our differences.
“Different, not less.”- Dr. Temple Grandin
Recently, my 5th graders and I were incredibly lucky to have been invited to an author visit with the amazing Dr. Temple Grandin. I decided to make this an opportunity to “Explore Neurodiversity” with my class, reading aloud a few of my favorite picture books spotlighting neurodiverse characters and introducing my students to Dr. Grandin before her presentation. I am always so impressed with the candor and curiosity of this age group, eager to engage in sometimes difficult conversations and challenging our misconceptions to better understand. The work is messy but with such amazing reward. Picture books give us the common experience and language in order to launch into deeper, more meaningful discourse. Because my class and I had built a foundation of exploring neurovariance together, they appreciated Dr. Grandin for being authentically Dr. Grandin. They were able to connect with her and be inspired by her message in ways that I honestly don’t know that they were ready for before our conversations leading to her visit.
Finding books that include neurodivergent characters can prove challenging. Neurodiversity is underrepresented in children’s literature but, thankfully, the number of books published with neurodivergent characters is increasing. Through intentional selection of high- quality literature, kids like Ben Giroux can start to feel more visible and thus, better connected to their peer community.
There are several fantastic picture books that can be used across grade levels to spark conversation. Here are a few “tried and true” resources for sourcing great books:
Looking for picture books to spark conversation in your classroom? Here are some of my personal favorite picture books featuring neurodivergent characters:
Just Ask: Be Different. Be Brave. Be You. by Sonia Sotomayor and Rafael Lopez
The World Needs Who You Were Made to Be by Joanna Gaines
The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap: NY is OK! by Clay Morton and Gail Morton
The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca
How to Build a Hug:Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville
Uniquely Wired by Julia Cook
You’re So Clumsy Charley by Jane Binnion
Noah Chases the Wind by Michelle Worthington
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete
A Friend Like Simon by Kate Gaynor
The Girl Who Heard Colors by Marie Harris
Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Palacco
Empathy isn’t an innate skill. It must be nurtured with the same intentionality and care as all learned abilities. When we thoughtfully create opportunities for students to expand their experience and gain new perspectives, we help them get along and work together more effectively, both in the classroom and in life. We connect to one another through our stories. Shared stories that feature neurodiverse characters help more students feel valued as we recognize beauty in the uniqueness of one other. As educators, it is our goal and responsibility to help students better understand themselves and the world around them. We must, therefore, also seek out opportunities to explore the wonders of neurovarient thinking with our students.
Jenna Segall is a 5th grade teacher at Palo Verde Elementary School in Palo Alto, where she has taught for the last 6 years. Prior to that, Mrs. Segall taught 1st grade for 11 years. She has also served for many years as Principal for Palo Alto Unified School District's Elementary Summer School programs. Herself a lifelong learner, Mrs. Segall holds a BS in Human Development in Family Studies from the University of Rhode Island, Masters of Arts in Teaching from Pacific University, and a Masters of Arts in Education Administration from Santa Clara University. In addition, Jenna spends a week each summer, attending Reading and Writing Institutes at Teachers College at Columbia University.
Mrs. Segall brings many innovative programs to Palo Verde to help showcase the strengths and talents of all her students, including Genius Hour, the first classroom Maker Space and a school-wide favorite “March Madness Tournament of Books”. When she's not busy coming up with fun new ways to engage her 5th grade students, you'll find her reading, exploring destinations near and far with husband Dan and their beloved dog, Simon, and daydreaming of Paris!