Author: Written by Kirsti Evans and Illustrated by John Swogger
Publish Date: Second Edition July 2016
Publisher: Jessica Kingsley Publishers (imprint of Hachette)
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1785920127
Review by Soph Myers-Kelley
Something Different About Dad by Kirsti Evans (illustrated by John Swogger) is a book meant to help educate children between 7 to 15 years of age who might be confused or frustrated with the differences they notice in an adult they know or live with who is autistic. I was especially interested in reading it as a late diagnosed autistic and ADHD person. This kind of content is important- especially when it covers aspects of the relationship that a child might find negative AND the parts that are positive. Often autism is portrayed as an explicitly negative diagnosis. This is disparaging to the autistic person and the people in their life. Autistic people are not deficient; they see the world in different ways than neurotypical people tend to, and that’s just who they are and can be powerful. This book leans a little more on the negative as its purpose is to help children process the harder parts of having a relationship with an autistic adult. The art is friendly, warm, and relatable. The book cover shows the art in color and the inner pages are black and white.
The book is written by an autism quality development advisor who works with autistic adults and children. To the best of my knowledge, she is not autistic herself. Ideally one would reach for books written by autistic people about autistic people before someone who doesn’t have that identity. This term in literature is called #ownvoices.
The authors primarily use the terms Autism Spectrum Condition and Asperger Syndrome to refer to the neurotype. Asperger’s is a term that most autistic people don’t use anymore when describing themselves. Dr. Hans Asperger was an Austrian psychiatrist who is tied to Nazi eugenics and was an active member of the regime. This background information and the fact that a soviet, Jewish, Russian woman, Dr. Grunya Sukhareva, was the first to publish detailed descriptions of autistic symptoms in 1925 gives many people reason to avoid the term Asperger. However, this book was published in 2011, when it was perhaps more common to use such a term. If sharing this resource with a child, it may be helpful to discuss how the term Asperger’s is now outdated and how most autistic people prefer to use the term autism/autistic. Evans and Swogger introduce Hans Asperger to the readers, but depicts him as a smiling, older gentleman behind a shelf of books; leaving out his Nazi connection.
The story centers on a young girl named Sophie, a 9-year-old, and her older brother Daniel. They happen to have an autistic father who learns about the diagnosis after his wife researches more and gives him a brochure about it. Sophie shares details about her nuclear family living in the UK as well as more distant relatives, her dog, and friends. She talks about vacations, school, hobbies, what her parents do for a living, and the fiascos that can occur due to her father’s autism.
Her dad works as an inspector at the Bus Depot. Buses appear to be his special interest; he loves inspecting them, talking about them, thinking about them, and maintaining models of them. His interest is presented as a strength of his, which I appreciate. Autistic people (in general) can learn so much and have such dedication to a hobby or subject. That interest can change overtime, but is often a long love affair.
Evans accurately shows how an autistic person might have a hard time with unfamiliar or “unsafe” foods, loudness and messiness, socializing, and changes in routine. She appropriately shares that some people are diagnosed autistic at a young age, while others are diagnosed as adults, and some don’t ever get professionally diagnosed. As more is being shared online about autism, more and more people are recognizing autistic traits within themselves and self-diagnosing.
We see Sophie share her story as she’s writing in her journal, but we also get to see the author and illustrator step in to describe autistic experience and terms that Sophie, a younger protagonist, may not be able to express at the same level. The presumption is that the reader is neurotypical and may need extra context to understand an autistic person. This unfortunately ends up othering the autistic person and doesn’t consider that, since autism can be passed down genetically, the reader themselves could be autistic.
Still, the way Evans describes scenarios where miscommunications could occur between different neurotypes is helpful for a child who is frustrated when they don’t understand their parent’s behavior. What can feel like rude or belittling behavior can come from a very logical place- and the book seeks to share the logic behind what feels like irrational behavior to a non-autistic. It’s clear the intentions of the author and illustrator are good. They hoped to help children process what can be a difficult relationship with an autistic adult; and that that adult is inherently loveable as they are. The way an autistic person manages sensory input, communication, schedules, and emotions can be different from a person who fits as “neurotypical”; this book goes into detail about how those differences might feel and show up. This is a great book that, in the end, also discusses the father’s talents as well as his more difficult or troublesome characteristics. That’s important. Some of his talents include loyalty, attention to detail, cleanliness, special interests, and skills like fixing or making things.
The story highlights a family vacation that was fun, but not for Sophie’s father. It was too loud, confusing, and unscheduled for him. The following year after learning more about autism, the family goes on a much more successful and relaxing trip for everyone. It’s a huge win.
Perhaps because it’s older, it doesn’t address that an autistic adult is also more likely to be queer, trans or gender nonconforming, and additionally disabled. I’m hoping in the ten+ years since this publication, more autistic educational content aimed for children has been published and filled in the gaps that time and progress have made clear.
Soph Myers-Kelley is a medical librarian, herbalist, and activist living in North Carolina. They can be contacted at https://www.smyerskelley.com/ and followed at https://www.instagram.com/sophmyerskelley/