Sally J. Pla Discusses the Importance of Honest Depictions of Autism & Mental Health

By Rebecca Kirshenbaum

As the parent of children on the autism spectrum and who also struggle with anxiety, I am a big fan of Sally J. Pla‘s books and their representations of neurodiversity. Her most recent middle grade novel Stanley Will Probably Be Fine illustrated by Steve Wolfhard (HarperCollins, 2018), and her debut The Someday Birds, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin (HarperCollins, 2017), offers respectful and honest depictions of mental health.

And I certainly recognized my children’s complicated dynamic in her picture book Benji, the Bad Day, and Me, illustrated by Ken Min (Lee & Low, 2018).

Welcome, Sally. What are you working on now? Can you tell us about it?

Thank you so much for reading, and for your kind words. It means so much! As for new projects, there are a few in the works. I recently finished drafting a middle grade novel, set in California 100 years from now, about a world coping with a changed climate. New technologies have brought climate hope and improvement, but other aspects of society, such as gene-enhancement, are problematic. Anyhow, it follows a girl, a genetic outsider among her classmates, who falls in love with a mysterious, contraband baby mammoth, hidden deep in the forest near her school.

The theme of what traits a society values, of examining why certain of our human attributes are favored and “selected for,” and certain others are not – this was a sci-fi way for me to examine disability, sort of in code. I loved writing this story and learned a lot while researching it. Fingers crossed it finds its way to print.

I also just finished drafting a verse memoir of my childhood and adolescence. And my two newest projects are a neurodiverse surf novel (set where I live, in a beach town near San Diego), and one about a middle child sandwiched between two autistic brothers. She’s also on the spectrum, but no one notices, so she struggles alone. (In reality, girls are notoriously underdiagnosed when it comes to autism spectrum disorders, because it manifests so differently. In general, girls have better social awareness – they can often fake it, they can pass. But doing so takes a big toll.)

As a member of an under-represented community in youth literature, how do you bring your perspective to your work? Why is it important for you to bring neurodivergent voices to the page?

I think all writers who write for children are really writing – at least in part – for the small people they once were. The small person I once was struggled with anxiety, social phobia, auditory processing, and sensory processing issues. My world was filled with Too-Muchness. It still is, although I’m much better at managing that, day to day.

Anyhow, I wasn’t tested and told it was autism spectrum disorder (what used to be called Aspergers) until my own autistic son was fully grown. Until after I’d started writing my first book, The Someday Birds, and had the odd feeling I was writing not just a fictional character, but a personal truth. Until after I sought therapy for that.

The truth is, one in 64 children in the US is autistic. And for every girl, there are four boys who are diagnosed. (Because the diagnostic criteria were created around males, females are lost/missed.) But autism is just one aspect of neurodiversity, a term that includes many other forms of diverse brain-wiring. ADHD rates, for another example, are at 9.6% (2.4 million) of children aged 6 to 11 in the US today, according to the CDC. Almost one in ten.

So I may be writing to my inner child, but there are a ton of kids out there who can relate today. Statistically at least one child in every classroom in the country is differently wired or dealing with mental-health challenges. (Heck, these days, aren’t we all?) And all children need a good wealth of stories that speaks to their reality.

I was moved by your recent blog post about anxiety during the pandemic and quarantine on A Novel Mind which you helped create! Tell us about the site and what prompted you to start it. What do you hope it will bring to readers, librarians, and educators?

Thank you for asking! A Novel Mind is a website resource for educators, librarians, parents, and fellow writers, dedicated to exploring representation of mental health and neurodiversity (ND) in today’s children’s literature. We have weekly guest writers and a searchable database (so you if you’re looking for picture books dealing with ADHD, or YA books dealing with eating disorders, for example, you can find a list).

I co-founded it with my friend Merriam Saunders, LMFT. We met years ago through an online critique-partner match-up site. We both write picture books and middle grade, both have neurodivergent families, and we became good friends. We observed that some wonderful new books, ones that represented mental health/ND in natural, positive ways, were not receiving much attention. Meanwhile, older, slightly dated books with more questionable representation were still being held up as the only go-to standards. People weren’t noticing the good new stuff coming out. So we wanted to change that.

We also observed how often disability and neurodiversity are left out of the ‘diverse-books’ conversation. Starting the site was our way to help shine a light where we thought it was needed.

Now we are four – Kate Piliero is our wonderful graphic designer/tech support. And Margaret Lennon, our intern, came to us through Able-Disabled, a non-profit that connects disabled workers with job and training opportunities. Margaret’s singlehandedly brought our Airtable database to over 1,000 books. So things are humming pretty well. Please check us out!

I’m curious as to whether your representation of differently thinking brains has changed since your first book, The Someday Birds (HarperCollins, 2017), was published. Can you talk a little about that? Is there one particular character you’ve created that you feel particularly close to? Dare I say, a favorite?

In The Someday Birds, I didn’t want to label Charlie as autistic. I thought more kids would relate to him if he wasn’t labeled. I wanted him to be just Charlie, and for the book to be not “about autism” or “pathologizing” in any way – but instead, just an engaging story about a kid who likes things immaculate, having to get his hands dirty in the real world, during a life-changing inner and outer journey.

But now I think maybe I kept Charlie a little bit too much in the closet. I mean, if one wants to shine a good light, one should make sure the switch is all the way on, right?

So, if I had to do that over again, I think I might have named his autism. Not to make a big deal. But just so it was out there, in the sunlight. And in Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, I did name his sensory and anxiety issues outright, for this reason.

I still believe the story should always come first – not the diagnosis. I’m not a fan of books that pathologize their characters by pinning a laundry-list of symptoms onto them so readers can “learn.” Or the technique of adding a sidekick or sibling if it’s just as a PC nod or plot device. We should dig deeper, be truer.

Writers like Elle McNicoll, Jen Wilde, Susan Vaught, Leslie Connor, Susin Nielsen, Jess Redman, Margaret Finnegan, Mike Jung, Elana K. Arnold, Sarah Kapit, Nicole Panteleakos, Alyson Gerber, Elly Swartz, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Anne Ursu – to name just some of my favorites – are writing natural, honest stories that portray mental health/ND with true insight and compassion. That give kids the real chance to slip inside the skin and the life of someone new — to learn new ways to see and be.

As for my own favorite characters? I’ll always cherish Charlie from The Someday Birds, and Stanley from Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. I have three real-life sons, but in another sense I’ve got five.

Anything else you want to add? (can be about what you’ve learned about neurodiversity and/or #ownvoices representation in children’s lit along the way, advice might you pass on to others, etc?

Childhood Sally

When my first book came out, I didn’t want my personal diagnosis to be public knowledge.  But one day, someone on social media challenged me, inquiring what gave me the right to be writing about autism. They were polite about it. But it still felt like a slight to my credibility. I felt a bit insulted, actually!

And it got me thinking: maybe I should be honest and reveal my diagnosis. What was I hiding, really?

And so, with a pounding heart, I took a deep breath, and said I was on the spectrum. It felt scary and dangerous, when I’ve tried desperately to hide every difficult part of myself for my whole life.

No one should be forced to declare themselves an #ownvoices writer if they are not ready to. And we shouldn’t assume that just because a book isn’t labeled #ownvoices, that the author lacks authenticity or authority. Especially regarding mental health issues. They may just want to be private. We should respect that.

But for me, this actually turned out to be a positive push. At the time, I was upset. But now, I am quite glad. Because I have discovered that it’s wonderful to openly share myself with the kids I meet at school visits and online.

Autistic/ND kids really need to see examples of autistic/ND grownups who will have the courage to stand up and say: “I’m with you. I get it. I’ve sat in that same seat, and struggled. And I grew up and found something I love to do in life. So, someday, I think you can, too.”

For me, that’s become maybe the biggest part of writing for children – to enlarge the realm of the possible. For them. And for myself.

Cynsational Notes

In addition to being an advocate for neurodiversity and autism acceptance, Sally J. Pla is the critically acclaimed award-winning #ownvoices author of middle grade novels The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and the picture book Benji, The Bad Day, And Me, all of which feature ‘differently brained’ kids. She’s also co-founder and editor of A Novel Mind, a web resource on mental health/neurodiversity rep in children’s lit. Find lots more about her via Linktree@SallyJPla, and follow her on Twitter @sallyjpla.

Rebecca Kirshenbaum has an MFA in WCYA from VCFA, an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University, and an MA in English literature from Columbia. She really, really likes being a student. She grew up in Cleveland and roots for all Cleveland sports teams even though she now lives in Boston.

She lives with her husband Mark, her teenage sons, Caleb and Eli, plus a lot of animals – guinea pigs Frisky and Sprinkles, a bunch of fish, and her family’s therapy dog (aka best dog in the world), Quimby. (All you kidlit people should get the Ramona reference!). When not reading and writing, she teaches fourth and fifth grade literacy and organizes her bookshelves in rainbow order.