Awesome Kids' Stories That Celebrate Characters With Autism and Sensory Processing Needs
April is Autism Acceptance Month, but these fantastic stories prove that accurate representation in media matters every month. Share these stories with kids you love!
In the dark ages of the eighties and nineties, autism and sensory processing disorder weren’t represented much in the media. Kids grew up without seeing stories like theirs reflected at them through books or on those big, bulky, square TVs.
These days the screens are flatter, but the stories aren’t. Autistic kids are growing up seeing fully formed, three-dimensional characters.
The miracle of the internet ushered in an era of increasing autistic identification (according to the CDC, more and more kids are being identified each decade). Sensory processing challenges are also being supported and more often.
Having your needs identified early and being able to identify with characters in mass media is teaching a generation of autistic and sensory sensitive kids that they deserve to be the main character in their own lives!
These books, movies and shows put characters with autism or sensory processing needs in the spotlight. Watch them with a kiddo you love!
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
Most parents probably already know all about Daniel Tiger — but there’s a new kid in the neighborhood who is super relatable for autistic kids and folks who are sensitive to sensory sensations like scratchy fabric, bright lights and loud sounds.
The PBS animated series recently introduced an autistic character named Max. He’s Teacher Harriet’s nephew and is played by 13-year-old Israel Thomas-Bruce, who brings his lived experience to the role, as he was diagnosed with autism at four years old.
Max is a fully developed autistic character, but the show-runners made a crucial choice to only reference his autism once. This choice means Max’s story isn’t just about autism and is instead about his everyday life as another kid who is included and valued in the neighborhood.
Preschoolers and up
Red: A Crayon’s Story
This picture book was published in 2015 and became an instant classic because even though it doesn’t use the word autism, it is extremely relatable to neurodiverse kids (and adults)!
In a society that has traditionally over-valued standardization, feeling like you don’t conform can be a struggle. Red helps kids understand that external expectations don’t define us.
The story follows a crayon, Red, whose paper wrapper says they should be red, but whose drawings never turn out. Everything Red draws turns out, well, blue! Red’s teacher, grandparents and parents try to help them be red, but they just can’t. Finally, a friend helps Red figure out that they were never red at all — and, importantly, that there is nothing wrong with them!
Ages 4 - 8
When Things Get Too Loud: A Story About Sensory Overload
The rhyming picture book When Things Get Too Loud is for all the kids who deal with sensory sensitivities. In a lot of ways it’s just like any other picture book, but it also includes strategies families can try when things do “get too loud”. The book includes a “Feel-O-Meter” to help kids communicate their needs.
Ages 4 to 9
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me
The books, movies and shows on this list are proof of how important representation is for kids who are on the spectrum or have sensory issues.
When author Sally J. Pla was a little girl she had a hard time dealing with sensory input. To her, this felt like “the too-muchness of the world,” and others called her “too sensitive, too timid, and too silent.”
That’s why she wrote Benji, the Bad Day, and Me, a story about two brothers, sibling rivalries, sensory overload and the power of getting wrapped tight in a blanket, like a burrito.
The story ends with an author’s note explaining that no two autistic kids are alike — and recognizing that is an important way to make sure stories really represent autistic kids instead of stereotyping them.
Ages 5 - 8
PBS comes through again with another great TV option that represents autistic kids with care, and is proven to help little kids understand autism!
The show, Hero Elementary, focuses on a group of kids who are training to be superheroes and also work with them — an especially great storyline for kids who love superheroes but aren’t yet ready for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There’s a special two-part episode where it’s revealed that one of the kids, a character called AJ Gadget, is autistic. PBS did some research and found that most kids in the target age group (5 - 8) didn’t understand what autism was before watching the show, but after viewing the special episode they understood better.
Even better than that, the researchers noted the kids’ views of autism changed positively thanks to AJ’s story. Let’s see Marvel do that!
Ages 5 to 8
This Pixar animated short is streaming on Disney+ and features a character we don’t often see represented in mass media — a non-speaking autistic girl.
Her name is Renee and she loves canoeing. We follow her journey across a lake with another teen, a boy named Marcus who communicates differently from Renee.
Importantly, the actress who lends her voice to Renee, Madison Bandy, is also mostly nonspeaking and autistic. The filmmakers recorded Bandy’s voice in her home, where she was most comfortable and able to lend her authentic voice. Inclusion is literally woven into this production of this movie! It’s so cool.
Renee stims, avoids eye contact and experiences sound more intensely than Marcus in a way that is rarely seen and respects the character and her community.
It’s also only 12 minutes long, so it’s perfect for those times when you want just a little screen time.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
The Many Mysteries of the Finkle Family
The Many Mysteries of the Finkle Family is kinda like a more inclusive Harriet the Spy meets The Baby-Sitters Club — with a dad who has ADHD.
The chapter book follows a duo of autistic sisters (Lara and Caroline) who must unravel mysteries while learning what it means to be siblings. The great thing about this book is that it always reinforces what Lara and Caroline have in common with their peers, which is super important (and scientifically accurate, since a new study shows the thought processes of autistic and non-autistic people are more similar than previously thought).
The Awesome Autistic Go-To Guide: A Practical Handbook for Autistic Teens and Tweens
Going to middle school can feel like you’re being transported to another planet. Relationships and social circles change, your body is changing, and it's all understandably overwhelming for many people! For a lot of adults on the spectrum, middle school isn’t exactly a happy memory, in part because there was no representation in the media in the 80s and 90s.
That’s why this handbook for young autistics is cool — because autistc tweens can see themselves in the words of author Yenn Purkis (who is also autistic) and in the example characters Yenn creates.
It’s an easy read that celebrates kids for who they are and seamlessly integrates gender-neutral and LGBTQ+ affirming language (which is awesome, because studies show autistic kids are more likely to be gender diverse and deserve to see that part of themselves celebrated, too).
Funny, You Don't Look Autistic: A Comedian's Guide to Life on the Spectrum
Adult characters can be role models for kids, and when that character is, well, a character, being inspired is that much easier.
Comedian Michael McCreary wrote this book about his own life, looking back on his adolescence from the point of view of a twenty-something.
His inspiring story (actually he hates it when people say he’s inspiring, so let's call it a beautifully told story) shows kids that autism doesn’t mean they have to fit into a stereotype. Kids need to see relatable autistic adults (that is, adults who are younger and cooler than their parents) in media to show them that they can find their own path to confidence and adulthood.
Ages 12 to 17
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay
This TV show is for older teens, but its intentional and layered portrayal of autistic characters is remarkable. Everything's Gonna Be Okay is also the first show on American TV to cast an autistic person to play an autistic character.
That character, Matilda (played by history-making actress Kayla Cromer) is one of two sisters who are joined by their half-brother after the death of their father. The three young people have to figure out how to go on together as a family.
Matilda isn’t the only autistic character in the series. Josh Thomas (the show’s creator and a lead actor) was recently diagnosed with autism as an adult and is weaving his lived experience into the show's storylines to perfection.