Everyone has heard the term quirky, right? Used in varying contexts, often in slightly apologetic, hushed tones: “she’s kind of quirky.” Yeah, those kids are a little quirky.” “They have their hands full with that one – he’s really quirky.” Maybe even, “I hear that’s a school for quirky kids.”
And on and on.
“Quirky” has become the socially acceptable way of saying “not normal.”
Or doesn’t fit in. Normal isn’t something people can say anymore– with good reason, mind you. People (myself included) bristle at the term “normal,” thrown around as though its without judgment when oh, it so is. But quirky is the term for now.
Clearly, the word “quirky” is NOT without judgment. It means not adhering to acceptable norms. Or perhaps you are more familiar with quirky’s cousins: spirited, explosive, high-energy. Did I forget any? No matter. Same thing.
That is to say, society has designated a very small slice of itself to things that are blissfully, happily, “NORMAL:” medium-high intelligence (but not too high!), a particular body type, follows the rules, etc. I’m sure the definition changes depending on geography, income, and education– each community has it’s own quirks (see what I did there?!), but you know what I mean.
For developing kids of school age, “normal” tends to mean sitting quietly in chairs as instructed, raising hands instead of calling out, not challenging authority in any way, dressing “appropriately” (another term that, let’s face it, is ALL about judgment), and generally not making waves.
My kids don’t do those things. My now-teenager got kicked out of three preschools because they didn’t quite know what to do with him. They all agreed he was exceptionally bright. And he wasn’t a trouble maker– he just didn’t follow the rules like the other kids. In one, for example, instead of creating whatever daily project was assigned, he took all the different colored tapes and wrapped them around and around the bases of the chairs (now we have to unravel all this; what a waste). Or stapled designs on colored paper (not okay: wasting staples). Or he stood up and spun around the classroom when it was circle time because spinning felt good to him (well, everyone will want to, and we can’t have that).
If I wasn’t visibly judged, like the director of one preschool* did every single day at pick up when she was visibly irritated with having to step in yet again, I found myself explaining him, sometimes apologetically, to other parents. I’m so angry with myself now for feeling the need to do that– and for them for making me feel like I had to.
At age five one of my kids tried our town’s popular pre-and post kindergarten tradition: Kindergarten Soccer. It’s an awesome program, by the way. I’m not judging (for real). But my guy just didn’t get it. Racing up and down the field freely came naturally to him– huzzah! — but when he finally got the ball, he guarded it fiercely. Another teammate zoomed over to take it from him and pass it toward the goal, and he was totally distraught. He looked to me and my husband in the sidelines for help and we immediately understood the problem. He had worked so hard for that ball, so it was his. He knew the usual rules: you can’t take something from another kid just because you want it. If he did that in preschool, he was reprimanded and reminded to share. So why was it okay for another kid to just up and take the ball from him– and get CHEERED for it? His confused face displayed the five-year-old equivalent of WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!!???
The kid had a point. It’s intuitive for some kids– the “normal” ones, to get this. It’s never explicitly taught, but they understand. In team sports you share in a different way– if it’s your teammate, it’s okay, desirable even, for someone to take the ball from you in the interest of scoring a goal. In school, don’t grab that ball/truck/block/doll – can’t you see that so-and-so is using it?
Did my other son try Kindergarten Soccer? I can’t remember.
I must have blocked it out.
You get the point. In each school, and in public school thereafter, my kids were given such labels right away– especially if they didn’t know the other, more scientific (or at least diagnostic) labels already weighing them down. Not by the excellent special needs educators, who got it, but by the regular ed teachers, other parents, and certainly other kids, who may have or may not have used the term but often kept their distance because different = weird and maybe even bad. This too is something they aren’t taught, but seems intuitive nonetheless.
Have you ever noticed that kids with learning disabilities are never called quirky? It’s a social or behavioral term, a weak euphemism to signal different or unique– but not in a good way. Even the definition requires intuition, as though making it vague will ensure that the actual kids with autism won’t get it and be offended. Because different = weird = bad, but it’s not okay to say that.
Hence: “quirky.” A word that uses onomatopoeia to sound downright jubilant, so it must be good.
A quick keyword search on amazon for “quirky kids” reveals such titles as:
Quirky Yes, Hopeless No
Problem Child or Quirky Kid?
Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In- When to Worry and When Not to Worry
How to Set Boundaries for Your Child and Take Back Your Life
8 Keys to Raising the Child Who Doesn’t (Quite) Fit In
The Out-of-Synch Child
The Top 100 Social Rules Your Kid Needs to Succeed
…..And so on.
When I search the term “quirky” in The Horn Book Guide‘s online children’s book database that includes every single title published for children, it’s clear that reviewers (disclaimer: I am one of those reviewers, and though I didn’t see any of my own reviews for that search term, I can’t say for sure that I’ve never used it) my not at all scientific study suggests that book professionals use “quirky” to describe characters with Asperger’s or another form of high functioning autism, anxiety, and ADHD. In that order.
Here’s a few of the titles:
Sophie’s Squash Goes to School, in which strong-willed, change resistant (read: difficult, rigid) Sophie realizes that her parents are right when they say “it’s good to have friends. Especially human ones.” Or Remarkably You — whose title says it all. There’s Quirky the Porcupine, the story of a misfit porcupine trying to make friends. Ugh. I’ve long complained that too many books – particularly picturebooks, treat autism (and other issues, but I’m trying to stay focused here) with a heavy hand, reminding kids that everyone deserves love and acceptance. (Especially if they are quirky.”)
Again, you get the idea.
Don’t lose hope.
There are good ones out there too — though fewer at the picturebook level. One is Peter Reynold’s lovely I’m Here, which is beautiful and thoughtful without being didactic. Consider the subtle power of “they are there” on the verso (or left side) and “I am here” on the recto (or right) with accompanying images of a group happily playing vs. one kid, sitting quietly alone. Reynolds doesn’t label his protagonist, by the way, which I love.
Because don’t all kids feel lonely sometimes, quirky or not?
Compare that to Uniquely Wired, described by the publisher as a book that teaches “valuable lessons about patience, tolerance and understanding”… so “young readers gain a better understanding of his behaviors.” Ok, sure, some kids need a little of that too, but does it have to be so preachy? Why does autism have to have “its gifts” in order for it to be okay to have autism?
Indulge me while I return to my son spinning in his classroom. I wanted to ask, WHY THE HELL CAN’T HE JUST SPIN? Once, I just asked, risking immediate ridicule for my stupidity and/or lack of deference to the rules. It was a huge classroom that had only five or six kids– to my mind their low enrollment that year was my son’s lucky break. But the rules were the same whether there were 5 or 15 kids: no spinning. In answer to my question, I was given a blank, incredulous stare and then, carefully because I was obviously a tad slow: “Well, imagine if everyone was spinning. Wouldn’t that lead to absolute chaos?” Um, probably not? Why do you assume they all are dying to spin over there? At least one of them would probably puke. I know when I was a kid I just wanted to use circle time to take a nap.
Where is the harm? I may have said this to her, but probably not. (I wasn’t introduced to the elementary school mantra that EVERYONE GETS WHAT THEY NEED until a few years later.) But her mantra was clear. Anything outside of classroom expectations was unacceptable. I was afraid that if I pushed, well, we’d both be labelled as difficult. Apple, tree, blah blah blah.
Here are some fantastic middle grade titles about kids who have autism and friends and real problems of growing up. Just like other kids. Sure, they teach too.
But they teach in the way all children’s literature should (and the good stuff does): by opening up a window to another experience, another perspective, and therefore implying that it’s– dare I say– normal.
Books that teach by planting seeds of empathy that carry over into other facets of the readers’ lives. By telling a compelling story that features a character with autism without having that be the entire story, a problem to be solved. By depicting fully developed characters with autism who have fully developed lives, real friendships, and in YA, even have relationships (and are sexual! GASP! More on that in another post).
Phil Bildner’s Rip and Red Series follows two best friends through the many changes and challenges their fifth grade year brings them. Red has autism; Rip does not. Yet their friendship is real. It’s not quirky or played for laughs or sympathy. Rip wants to be Red’s friend because Red is kind of awesome, even when he’s having some trouble with loud noises or misunderstanding something. Rip helps him out sometimes, sure, but not because he’s supposed to. Because he’s a friend and that’s what friends do for each other.
This series (Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, A Whole New Ballgame and Tournament of Champions) also features one of my favorite fictional teachers, Mr. Acevedo, who totally got the memo that “everyone gets what they need.” He also fights against standardized testing, reads great books out loud, and coaches the boys’ basketball team. I wish he’d been my teacher.
Another series that gets it right is Elana K. Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat and Bat and the Waiting Game.Bat (or Bixby Alexander Tam) is dealing with his parents’ divorce, loves animals, and has a love/hate relationship with his sister. Bat struggles with the usual real-life middle grade dramas around fitting in and making difficult choices– but it’s not really because of his autism (though that complicates things sometimes, naturally). It’s because he’s a kid.
In the first book his veterinarian mom brings home a baby skunk (awesomely named Thor), and in caring for Thor Bat learns a few things about making connections that help him at school– where, by the way, a kid has been trying to befriend him for awhile and Bat just hasn’t noticed. It’s funny and poignant and has lively, emotional illustrations by Charles Santoso.
And there’s a skunk named Thor. What’s not to love?
This post is already too long, but I will keep the autism books coming. And I will never, ever, call these characters quirky. They seem pretty normal to me.
** a few years ago, that pre-school director was FINALLY fired for generally sucking at supporting kids with special needs, behaving combatively with parents, and not being remotely good at her job. I have never felt so validated in my entire life.