The Human Brain Is a Storytelling Brain
Award-winning author of acclaimed middle-grade novels Sally J. Pla talks about how her own autism informs the characters and stories she writes.
When Sally J. Pla was a kid, she desperately wanted to understand how people made their way in the world. For her, school and friends — everything, it often seemed — left her feeling utterly bewildered. Her teachers spoke too fast, making her wish they had a speed setting she could adjust. The scratch of pencils on paper hurt her ears, the lights made her want screw her eyes closed, and sometimes even a rivet on a chair could make sitting still and attentive, like her classmates, excruciating.
Several decades past those harrowing school years and with a diagnosis of autism in early middle age, Sally uses her experiences — and her deep sense of empathy — to bring to life characters and stories for kids like her, kids who don’t always fit into a mold, kids who sometimes feel as if they are “out in the wilderness trying to figure out social interaction and how people deal with each other.”
The many gifts of The Someday Birds
Sally and her husband loved taking their three boys on car trips — “chaotic trips in the minivan with the kids screaming in the back where we’d camp out and visit all the educational spots along the way.” These trips were often challenging for her middle, autistic son who as a kid was a very picky eater. Each adventure included a quest for chicken nuggets, the only food he would reliably eat. One day, her oldest son said, “You know, mom, we should write a travel journal and call it Chicken Nuggets Across America.”
Sally’s career as a writer had taken many forms over the years from business journal editor to freelancer of family-focused stories. After a break from writing to advocate for her autistic son during his formative years, she had been dreaming about writing a travel journal of sorts, one for kids. “In that ‘spark moment,’ when we laughed about the quest for chicken nuggets in every place we visited, I knew I wanted to write a book about someone whose brain maybe worked a little differently but who nevertheless finds his way to feeling more at ease in the world,” she says.
“Halfway through writing what turned out to be The Someday Birds, I realized that the voice I was writing — this book I thought was a heart gift to my autistic son — was actually describing my own childhood,” say says. “Writing it triggered a lot of emotions so I started therapy, which in turn led to my getting diagnosed with autism.”
Being diagnosed autistic was difficult for Sally to process at first. It wasn’t something she necessarily wanted to share. “After the publication of The Someday Birds, I was outed on social media. Somebody challenged me, questioning my authority to write about a character like this,” she says. “Even though I had never labeled Charlie, the main character, as autistic, it was pretty clear. The tweet afforded me a real ‘wow moment.’ I wasn’t super comfortable with being outed, but I did tweet back and say that well, I did have a diagnosis myself. Ultimately, I realized that being open about my own autism with my young readers was going to be helpful for them and for me. The honest path allowed me to shed light on the fact that we’re all different, we all have struggles and challenges, and we can all change and grow. Of course, this is a personal decision, and will be different for everyone.”
“Books and stories are the best way to get at topics like acceptance and inclusion, especially for kids. They allow us to slip inside the skin of a different character and feel what life is like from that character’s point of view. It’s the ultimate empathy exercise.”
“In time, my diagnosis brought not only clarity but a new depth of confidence,” says Sally. “Through the lens of the diagnosis, I looked back at my childhood and adolescence and it was like everything went click, click, click right into place. The root of all those struggles became so clear, and it was a relief to know that there was a reason — actual neurological reasons for all of those wounding experiences.”
More than windows and mirrors
“I was a quiet kid. I was desperately, desperately suffering inside and trying to deal with feeling totally overwhelmed and baffled by things that seemed to come so naturally to other kids my age,” says Sally. “Books were what got me through.”
An early reader, Sally read everything and anything. She loved Dickens for all the “starving, shriveling orphans” who eventually made it through their many layers of adversity. She loved Nancy Drew because she refused to gossip, and Jo in Little Women who was strong and firm in her convictions. She loved characters from Judy Blume who showed such strength and forthrightness, who made mistakes but could shake them off and emerge the better for them. “I especially loved kid biographies of famous people. What were their lives like? What were their struggles and how did they learn to navigate the world? I wanted to understand how people found their way. I was obsessed,” she says.
“As writers and educators, we talk a lot about the importance of books serving as windows and mirrors where all children, no matter their background, gender, race, ethnicity, and experience, can see themselves reflected in characters and stories, But, for me — as a kid, as an undiagnosed autistic girl — I read to see models of whom I might someday be or aspire to be. I really wanted to see that. Now, as a writer for kids, I understand the need for windows, mirrors, and models.”
A Novel Mind
“There’s a saying that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. So, in that same vein, if you’ve read one story with an autistic character that story portrays just one small little facet of a very large, glistening, diverse, intricate, complex, different world of human behavior,” says Sally.
“The only way to counteract people drawing horrible stereotypes about any group is to put out a plethora of stories that reflect the nuances and complexities of that group, and how many different types of experiences and personalities there really are within that group. So, I cheer for every book that comes out with a neurodivergent character in it!”
The non-profit We Need Diverse Books, among other efforts, does a resolute job of advocating for essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people, but as Sally says, the collective effort toward this goal needs to continue to grow and expand. “As a whole, the publishing industry is definitely trying to step up and get us many, many more diverse books,” she says. “But even in the language in which we talk about diversity, neurodiversity is often left out of the conversation, which is ironic since one in 52 children has been diagnosed with autism. So, yes, we need more stories and more awareness around this invisible disability that is often excluded under the larger umbrella of diversity.”
Including disability on the diverse bookshelf
In 2018, Sally and her friend Merriam Saunders, a writer and licensed marriage and family therapist, created A Novel Mind, a resource for exploring children’s literature that deals with mental health and neurodiversity issues.
“We would lament that although there were wonderful, new examples that represented neurodiverse characters and storylines, they seemed to be missed by teachers and librarians because they were fixated on this old list of old books that basically had storylines like ‘This is my brother, he has autism, here’s what’s wrong with him, but we love him anyway.…’ We wanted teachers, librarians, parents, and kids to find books where neurodiversity is a natural part of the story, not the point of the story.” A labor of love, the site now has more than 1,000 books in its searchable database.
The legacy and lessons of Mr. Simpson
As a kid, Sally remembers feeling a sense of what she calls “too-muchness.” And now as an adult, she wishes teachers could better appreciate this concept when it comes to understanding and including their neurodiverse students.
“The too-muchness is the sensory component of autism and, I think, grossly overlooked as the root cause behind a lot of inexplicable autistic behaviors that teachers and parents sometimes see but don’t quite comprehend,” explains Sally. “For autistic people, everything — those nerve endings being so prickly on your skin, your body, your sense of hearing, your sight — is dialed up past 11 on the intensity meter, and unless you’ve lived it, it’s hard to understand how much that can affect behavior.”
Small actions can transform a classroom for neurodiverse learners. Maybe there is a safe space for kids when they need a pocket of calm and quiet. Maybe a teacher writes down instructions or provides a visual instead of explaining directions. Maybe a teacher checks in with students, asking them if they’re getting the information right or if there’s anything they can do to help make a class or a project — or the day — go a bit more smoothly. Maybe neurodiverse behaviors are more consistently normalized, and workarounds easy and available. All seemingly small actions, but for autistic kids, game changers.
In sixth grade, Sally was lucky enough to have Mr. Simpson. “Being in his class felt like being one of the patients from Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings. I, for one, awoke and thrived!” she says. “Because he didn’t care so much about the rules and the rigidity of class, I didn’t feel the pressure of having to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ which paralyzed me with fear in the rest of my classes and life and I was able to learn more easily on my own terms. It was almost like an unschooling experience and because of his more easy-going methods, we finished the entire sixth grade math curriculum by March and started in on seventh grade concepts. I absolutely blossomed.”
In her book, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, the eponymous and very anxious Stanley Fortinbras grapples with many fears but, in so doing, learns what it really means to be brave. Unlike Charlie from The Someday Birds, Stanley is labeled neurodivergent. “One huge goal for me is to normalize my characters, for them to be who they are naturally, the opposite of pathologizing them,” says Sally. “I want my readers to follow along with my characters, to cheer heartily for them, relate to them even if they are different, and revere them as heroes. My characters are neurodivergent, yes, but their experiences and feelings are relatable to every child. What child has never felt anxious or fearful of something new and unknown? We are all who we are; there is no need for stigma.”
“Stigma arises from fear. The only way to get rid of that fear and to make the world a better place for every child is to help society as a whole realize that different is not bad. Neurodivergent behavior is just human behavior. It’s manageable and treatable and simply part of being human with nothing to be ashamed of. Our attention needs to focus on getting every person the respect, the right education, and the right stories needed to help them thrive.”
In her next book, a new middle-grade novel out in 2023 and in a few other works in progress, Sally is focusing on creating female protagonists. As a girl who flew under the radar and who remained undiagnosed till adulthood, she understands the special challenges that can come with being an autistic girl. “Even today, I think the statistics say that one girl is diagnosed for every four boys. And that means that there are three undiagnosed autistic girls somewhere out there suffering silently. In some ways, being autistic may be harder for girls because they are more aware of what they’re lacking in terms of social abilities, but don’t quite know how to get there. I definitely want to create some neurodivergent girl characters who can provide those windows and mirrors and models for my readers.”
Demystifying sensory and emotional issues through kids' books
What would they order at the diner?
Recently, Sally had a virtual visit with a bunch of middle school students from Portland, Oregon. One of the students asked her, “If you were around a table at a diner with all of your characters, what would you guys order to eat?”
Sally says it is the absolute best question she has ever been asked. “The kids were so funny and engaged. ‘Oh, Charlie would have chicken nuggets, of course! And Stanley, he’d have a crumb of toast because his stomach would be acting up from nerves,’ they laughed as they lobbed ideas. From our delightful back and forth, I could tell that my characters had become friends to these kids … not just characters on a page but friends they made through reading. Maybe even lifelong friends they’d think about, friends who’d stay in their hearts like flesh-and-blood friends.”
“We read for insights into the human condition. We read to make friends with other humans on a deeper level than we sometimes may ever get in real life. And for kids to be able to make friends like this and relate to the characters is just my greatest, greatest dream and the holy grail of writing and why I do it. And stories are what kids need. We all learn through stories … the human brain is a storytelling brain.”
Never underestimate the power of a story
To learn more about Sally, her books, school programs, and speaking events, visit the official Sally J. Pla website ›