An Interview with Jennifer Elder

Interview by Elaina Daniels

Author Jennifer Elder is becoming a very familiar face to the world of autism. She has written two books, entitled Autistic Planet, and Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes. Jennifer has used her real life experiences in dealing with an autistic child of her own to help her write her books. I recently reviewed Different, and was given the opportunity to ask this author a few questions about her life and her work.

Elaina Daniels:  How did you come up with the idea for Different like Me? Do you have experience with the autistic spectrum in your family?

Jennifer Elder: My 12-year-old son, Morgan, was the inspiration. After his diagnosis, my husband and I started to look at our backgrounds and realize that the spectrum was all around us. It’s especially evident in the male line–my father the math major and musician, my father-in-law the engineer–but I have enough traits of my own that I used to joke about it, long before Morgan’s birth. Looking at the world through this lens, a pattern seemed to emerge, linking a certain brand of brilliance with spectrum qualities.

Elaina Daniels:  How much research was involved in writing this book? How did you come up with all of these examples of autistic heroes? Was there any criticism about using any of these particular people, since many of them were before the time of autism diagnosis?

Jennifer Elder: I should start by saying that not only do these figures predate diagnosis, but I can’t even claim that all were on the spectrum. This book is an entirely speculative look at people who embodied one or more traits associated with autism. That said, I do believe that many of my subjects might have found comfort in an explanation for the differences that set them apart from their peers. As for the research, it took place almost entirely in the reference room of the Multnomah County Library. I first came across Benjamin Banneker, for instance, in an encyclopedia of notable African Americans. It was just one of those situations where you get a feeling for something: I would scan page after page of bios, and something would catch my eye: socially awkward, extreme ability to focus, various eccentricities. If I could relate to them, there might be a chance..

Elaina Daniels: You have filled a really large gap in the autism community, in my eyes. ALL kids, not just ASD kids, need to know that there is opportunity for everyone. Everyone can succeed, no matter their circumstances. What was your ultimate goal when writing this book?

Jennifer Elder: I’m not sure that I can say that better than you have. I definitely had typical kids in mind, not only to help them understand their spectrum siblings and peers, but to encourage them to embrace their own differences, rather than suppress them in an effort to fit in.

Elaina Daniels: After this book was published, did you find even more examples of these heroes? If so, do you ever plan on doing an update to the book, or even a second book?

Jennifer Elder: I would love to do another volume someday. One of the challenges in writing the first book is that I had to limit myself to people who were no longer with us–apart from the living treasure Temple Grandin. Since then, several well-known personages have come forward with their own diagnoses, making me wish I had been able to include them.

Elaina Daniels: Who was the inspiration for Quinn?

Jennifer Elder: Quinn is an amalgam of young boys I have known, spectrum and typical. I felt that the book needed a host, of sorts, to bring the reader in. In a nod to my adopted home town of Portland, I dressed him in the t-shirt of our local Science Museum, OMSI, a mecca for spectrum kids…and adults.

Elaina Daniels: What advice would you offer to parents on how to best utilize this book with their children?

Jennifer Elder: It’s funny, with my own kids I started out thinking that I had to explain everything we read, until one day my younger son said “just read it, don’t tell me what’s happening.” For me, that’s when the penny dropped: kids will absorb what they can, and let you know when they have a question.

Elaina Daniels: Do you currently have anything in the works that you would like to talk about?

Jennifer Elder: This will not come as a shock to fellow community members, but I am obsessed with math, and am currently researching a book on that subject. So not autism, but not exactly foreign territory, either.

Elaina Daniels: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Jennifer Elder: I am so thankful that my son is alive in what I consider the golden age of the autism spectrum. There are more resources, and a better understanding than ever before, thanks to all the voices out there like yours.


Elaina Daniels is a 13 year educator, who had taught at the elementary/middle school level for all of those years.  She has taught all subjects, but her passion is Reading.  She has two children, aged 9 and 7.  Her oldest son was diagnosed with autism.  Elaina lives on a farm in Southwest Missouri with her husband of 11 years. Together, they raise children, dogs, and cattle.



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Posted in Author Interviews on December 14th, 2011 | Permalink | Comments »
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