Gunn High senior publishes children's book on autism


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

The book is also for sale on Amazon.

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12 people like this
Posted by Katie
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2014 at 9:03 am

Sounds great. (PA Weekly, FYI: Typically, the acceptable phrasing would be 'student with autism' not 'autistic student' or 'student who is autistic.' A person is not his or her disability; they have a disability...)

5 people like this
Posted by karen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 18, 2014 at 10:46 am

Congratulations Emily. I can't make it to your book launch but I've just purchased this on Amazon.

Good luck!

1 person likes this
Posted by Victoria Eversole
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 18, 2014 at 11:43 am

Emily sounds like she is destined to have an extraordinary career as a Special Ed teacher. What a dynamo!

1 person likes this
Posted by Mary Connell
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Emily, you are an inspiration. I live in Daly City -- but I'm a loyal reader of Palo Alto Online -- and have a friend and neighbor whose 7-year-old boy has autism. Like you, he's a joy. Keep writing and good luck in college!

5 people like this
Posted by Sonya Bradski
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 18, 2014 at 12:59 pm

I am so proud of Emily for publishing a book! You make us all proud!

2 people like this
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 18, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

Good to read such a story. Well done, Emily!

3 people like this
Posted by Well done, Emily.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Well done, Emily!

More stories like this, please, Weekly. Local kids are doing really great things. Let's hear more!!!!

12 people like this
Posted by Michelle
a resident of another community
on Sep 19, 2014 at 5:47 am

For those suddenly making comments about "pc" "person with autism" vs. "autistic," be aware that there is a huge autism community of adults and teens with autism, who define ourselves as autistic. I am an autistic adult. I have an autistic son.

The way it works is as follows - if you are talking about toolboxes for treatment of sensory issues, anxiety, and social skills development, then you are talking about helping someone with autism. That is where it is appropriate to use "person with autism" language.

If you are talking about a person whose entire experience of life, and therefore their self-identity, is through an autistic lens, as a person, you are talking about an autistic person.... just like you would talk about a shy person, a happy person, an intelligent person, a creative person. Personality and self-identity descriptors are adjectives. Do you talk about average people as "people with normality?"

What is worse than using "autistic?" Not listening to the autistic community about using it in the correct context, and insisting on treating the person's entire experience of life and of themselves as wrong, in the guise of being "sensitive."

4 people like this
Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Sep 23, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Congratulations on a fantastic achievement!

And yes, many people self-identify as "autistic." Person first language tends to make the neurotypical community feel better, but I choose to go with what the autistic people tell me they prefer.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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