In Maya Angelou's famous autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," she imagines that her mother is a superhero who banishes a racist dentist who refused to treat Angelou because of the color of her skin.
Inspired by this part of the book and a sophomore English class assignment at Gunn High School based on it autistic senior Emily Nelson has published her own superhero story, in which a superhero with autism discovers he has a special power to calm and help others with autism. Though it's a colorful children's book, "Autism+Awesome=Autisome" touches on issues like bullying, student stress and the difficulty of autism therapy.
In the book, which Nelson published this month through self-publishing website CreateSpace, the superhero is a high school student named Justin Quinton who works part time in an "autism department" to help people with autism become higher functioning. He also supports families who can't afford therapy by helping to organize charities and fundraisers.
The blond, blue-eyed main character is based on Nelson's autistic boyfriend, Justin Quigley.
"I used to be really insecure about having autism and he made me feel less insecure because he was just always really sweet and kind to me and a good friend to me," Nelson said.
Their friendship, plus Gunn English teacher Ginny Moyer's class assignment to write a superhero story in the context of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," inspired her to write the book.
After reading Angelou's book, "I thought about the times when I was bullied for being a Special Ed student and decided to write about a superhero with Autism and then Autisome was born," Nelson wrote in an author's note on the back of the book.
She also dedicates the book to Quigley, because "he showed me that having Autism doesn't make me less of a person, it makes me special instead," she wrote. "The purpose of this story is to teach everyone that people with Autism can still do many things that regular people can do."
In the book, which was illustrated by a Gunn graduate, Justin transforms into "Autisome" after discovering he can shoot a strange, colorful glow out of his hands that has an immediate calming effect on anyone, both those with autism and without. The glow stretches out from his palm like a rainbow, with four puzzle pieces at the end a ubiquitous image associated with the autism spectrum.
He calms an autistic boy at school, his crying younger brother, his upset mother; at one point, his girlfriend, Ariel, who is also autistic and is stressed out about school.
Nelson, who hopes to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas next fall, said it's difficult being autistic within Gunn's academically competitive environment. She said she wishes she could take more advanced classes.
But she loves her creative writing class, and plans to continue the "Autisome" story.
"(Justin) doesn't know how he gets his power in this book but he will in the next one," she said.
There will be a book launch for "Autism+Awesome=Autisome" Saturday, Sept. 20, from 2 to 6 p.m. at Juana Briones Park, 609 Maybell Ave., Palo Alto. The first 30 attendees can purchase the book for a discounted $5; RSVP to Monica Sawyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The book is also for sale on Amazon.