Sensory Issues with Autism
Written by Jen Malia
Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Holly loved experiments.
But not today.
It was slime day.
And she didn’t want to
touch anything sticky.
My son has sensory processing issues which we first noticed when he was a baby. He cried when hearing the vacuum cleaner, coffee grinder, car horns, and blaring music. As he got older he also actively avoided loud people, shouting and rough and tumble behavior from his peers. These were not the only things that clued us into his sensory challenges. He didn’t like touching sand or walking on it, and never got into Play Doh, unlike his older sister, because of the smell and consistency. His diet was and still is limited, but he’s faced a lot of these sensory issues head on and has learned ways to adapt. He even traveled to Japan last summer, tried a host of new foods and was flexible when encountering the many different customs there.
Not everyone understands the challenges that children face with sensory processing issues that often accompany autism. Author Jen Malia, a woman who lives with autism and sensory issues does. It’s fantastic that Too Sticky! is available to help open people’s eyes and to encourage empathy for kids coping with sensory stimuli that can be overwhelming, and even immobilizing at times. You may also not be aware that it’s not as easy to recognize in girls.
We meet the main character, Holly, at breakfast time at home. Lew-Vriethoff’s expressive and upbeat illustrations offer an excellent example of how kids like Holly react negatively to something that to other kids may seem like nothing—getting sticky pancake syrup on her hands. From both the art and prose, readers know immediately what makes this young girl uncomfortable. Holly is also reminded that “her science class would be making slime today” which gets her worrying.
What’s also terrific in this same scene is how Holly’s older sister, Noelle, is understanding and apologizes after her fork falls on the floor making a loud and sudden noise. Here Malia adds that Holly replies, “It’s okay,” because that social skill was taught to her by her father. Family support, guidance and modeling acceptable behavior are crucial for children on the spectrum.
At school, Holly’s mother explains to her second grade teacher, Miss Joy, that during slime play, Holly would like to have soap and water at her desk because “She doesn’t like sticky hands.” I remember having to discuss these same types of things with my son’s teachers since my son wasn’t old enough to self-advocate.
Throughout the school day, Holly dreads the approaching slime time. In fact she’s unable to focus on much else. She begins the science experiment reluctantly with the less difficult portion sensory-wise. Miss Joy then finds a clever way to get the overly cautious student to feel curious and involved. Her encouragement and compassion are evident in her dialogue and her poses. What could have been an upsetting experience turns out to be a positive one. It helps, too, that Holly’s not teased by her classmates and that her accommodations have been taken into consideration.
Since the main character experiences “the world differently” than her neurotypical classmates, readers see that it’s hard for Holly to navigate the many uncomfortable situations she faces at school. Her sensory issues and autism color a lot of her reactions and moods which is quite common. While the premise of Too Sticky! may appear straightforward and easily resolved, for children like Holly, such is not the case in real life.
Malia adds a candid Author’s Note describing how both she and her daughter live with Autism Spectrum Disorder and her goal in writing the picture book. With one out of every fifty-nine children in the U.S. diagnosed with ASD, it’s important more children, parents, teachers and caregivers learn about how these children experience the world. With Holly, readers on the spectrum can see a mirror on themselves. Too Sticky! is the ideal read not only for parents and children with these sensory issues, but for anyone wanting to understand the experience and struggles kids like Holly deal with on a daily basis. The backmatter also includes an easy slime recipe perfect for indoor science activities and silliness.
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel