Jess L. Cowing
“Sometimes it’s nice just being beside you…”
As publishers continue to release and market books that pathologize autistic kids such as Finding S.A.M. by Mary Bleckwehl, it is refreshing when a children’s book about autism includes an autistic character who is just an ordinary kid playing in the sandbox after school. So often depictions of autistic children for non-autistic people portray autistic kids as oddities and problems who must conform to neurotypical social norms in order to make friends and build community.
Written by Daniel Share-Strom with a foreword by Maxine Share, and with illustrations from Naghmeh Afshinjah, Do You Want to Play? offers readers ways to reimagine shared experiences that do not pathologize autistic kids as problems, but instead encourage creative play between autistic and non-autistic kids as just another aspect of social negotiations on the playground.
Do You Want to Play? flips the script for how autistics are always expected to adapt to neurotypical social norms and expectations. Main character Jamie is playing after school, and when she sees a boy that she does not know, she attempts to play cars with him. Jamie learns from her friend Caroline that this boy named Dylan is autistic, and her friend suggests that that might be the reason he “doesn’t play with anyone.”
For most of the book, Jamie is confused because Dylan does not play with her in the way she expects. But autism is not the barrier to playing; rather, as the author suggests, Jamie’s confusion prompts a quest where she tries out different kinds of play that might initiate a friendship. As Jamie posits early on, if “but.. he liked cars…/and I liked cars…/…so we could be friends, right?!”
Do You Want to Play? is not about an autistic kid conforming to his peers’ expectations, but rather, follows Jamie, the narrator and non-autistic kid, as she takes the initiative to meet Dylan where he is, lining up cars in the sandbox beside him. Dylan remains in the sandbox most of the story and Jamie is the one who approaches him, attempts to play, leaves, and then comes back when she thinks of a compatible way to share the sandbox.
Dylan’s introduction even occurs upside down—that is, the unique format of the book requires the reader at two different points to physically turn the book upside down to read Dylan’s narrative as if to emphasize the moves people are required to make to shift their focus to a different perspective. And while Dylan speaks only at the end of the story to consent to Jamie’s request to play, he communicates throughout the story via actions beyond conversation. For example, at one point, he returns Jamie’s favorite yellow truck to her after she thinks it is lost.
As Jamie swings next to her friend Caroline, she realizes that there are different ways to play and share time with someone, or as Caroline states, “I like when you push me, but swinging beside you is nice, too.” Jamie latches on to the idea of being “beside someone” as a way of engaging and interacting, and decides to try that approach with Dylan. Eventually, Jamie plays next to Dylan and they share the sandbox together, Jamie playing with trucks next to Dylan who lines up cars.
Ultimately, Do You Want to Play? models how to build friendships through shared interests and negotiated interaction. Dylan is not singled out for being weird, he just happens to be different in an interesting way that Jamie is invested in accommodating and adapting for. Eventually Jamie recognizes how playing beside Dylan is also an equally valid way to play with cars that she just had not considered before.