Autism on the beach

I’ve noticed a common cover design in recent autism books: that of a child, usually a boy, hovering near a body of water. In fact, the more memoirs I read, the more I tend to notice this autie-water depiction. These representations appear on books I love, books I despise, and books I feel luke-warm about. It isn’t as though the autie-water portrait appears solely on curebie diatribes or solely on neurodivergent musings. And so I wonder about these aquatically-oriented representations of autism.

Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

The RDOS Aspie Quiz asks whether or not I have a fascination with flowing water. I’m not entirely sure how this relates to autism, but perhaps it has to do with perseveration, or attention to detail, or the fact that flowing water is very entrancing and makes really cool whooshing sounds?

Reasonable People by Ralph Savarese

Other than the quiz-question theory, my only other thought behind autism on the beach involves metaphor. Does the water symbolically represent autism somehow? Why all the blue? Are we supposed to feel a certain way, think a certain way, assume a certain way before we read these books? An old, overused adage tells us that we should not judge books by their covers — an adage perhaps devised by a cantankerous, ne’er-do-well book salesman? But we do judge books by their covers. And I wonder what we’re supposed to judge about autism on the beach.

Weather Reports from the Autism Front by James C. Wilson

I know that Wilson’s cover photo is an actual photo of his son, a happy moment from a vacation. The cover makes somewhat more sense with this tidbit of knowledge. Yet, I’m very surprised by the puzzle-piece motif on Wilson’s particularly beachy cover: despite being a parent narrative of an autistic son, I consider his work largely neurodiverse in scope. In fact, one thing I most appreciated about Wilson’s work was his frequent reference to autistic bloggers. His (positive) mention of Autism Hub blogs far exceeded references to medical manuals and statistics. He did not portray his son, nor autistic individuals generally, as a medical mystery in need of research and neurobiological scrutiny. Though Wilson claims that he cannot fully understand his son and that his son cannot fully understand him, he portrays NT-autistic communication in a way that speaks to a social, neurodiversity model of autism rather than a model that seeks to eradicate autistic difference in favor of a wholly NT understanding.

Thus, the puzzle motif here is quite puzzling.

Making Peace with Autism by Susan Senator

Making Peace with Autism by Susan Senator

Of course, there are many people and protocols involved in producing, editing, and publishing a manuscript, discussions and decisions that readers simply aren’t aware of, aren’t privy to. How much influence did Wilson hold in the design of his cover? His photo made the cut — but was this the photo he was originally hoping to use? Did he vie for the (ab)use of the color blue in his cover? Did he hold any sway in the puzzle configuration? Was this his cover or his publisher’s cover?

The cover of Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day makes sense: the blueness of the cover directly relates to the title and perhaps the synaesthetic topic of the memoir. Moreover, more so than the other images offered here, Tammet’s cover focuses intently on sky. Ralph Savarese’s Reasonable People also shows more sky than water, with the child’s face being framed by the expanse of sky. With Senator’s cover, it’s hard to discern whether the water ends — and, interestingly, in all of these covers (with perhaps the exception of Wilson’s), expanse or limitlessness seems to be a rather large theme.

Women from Another Planet? by Jean Kearns Miller
[omg, women can have autism?] </sarcasm>
[ETA: my sarcasm isn’t directed toward the book — which is awesome — but toward the statement before the sarcasm brackets.]

DJ Savarese, Ralph’s Savarese’s teenage son, wrote the last chapter of Reasonable People. DJ uses FC to communicate, and a large focus of the book is dedicated to legitimizing FC as a potential channel of communication for non-speaking autistic. In the context of the book cover, I find this particular passage from DJ’s chapter to be quite illuminating:

“I dream of being a political freedom fighter. I read that pure real people in especially just free waters insist my real decisions really wasted. They think well respected, tested as normal kids are the okay to teach ones. They forget those lost kids. They’re the ones like me who poke or look like they’re not paying attention” (432).

The mention of “free waters” following “being a political freedom fighter” really strikes me here. This is an image I can digest, can embrace when considering autism on the beach. There is something freeing about water, calm about blue — peaceful, to borrow an idea from Senator’s book cover.

Yet, I don’t think that the audiences for these books — or other books that sport autism-on-the-beach covers — will immediately recognize or infer the freedom element of these cover illustrations. As calming and peaceful as blue is, as free as it is, I think blue also runs the danger of being melancholy, solitary, bluesy. I also wonder what stereotypes are reinforced by these images: in each, the (presumably) autistic individuals stand alone by the water as if they are locked into their “own little world.”

This isn’t to say that autistics never go off into their own little worlds, that autistics never stand alone, that autistics never love water and beaches. But I daresay that the frequency of this alone-on-the-beach-and-deep-in-thought imagery constitutes its own weird little genre. And any time a metaphor becomes popularized in autism discourse, I think we need to examine it, to rhetorically analyze it and question it.

7 thoughts on “Autism on the beach”

  1. Oh, interesting. That makes a lot of sense, actually. Thanks. I’m always curious about the stories behind covers (if there is one)! I took a disability studies grad seminar last year, and we spent a lot of time talking about book covers and how authors don’t make the decisions a lot of the time. (So, we’d read a book that was very much about the social model of disability, e.g., anti-cure, anti-alarmist rhetoric, yet the cover would be very… medicalized, pity-inducing, and so forth. Opposites between cover and content, almost.) It made it hard for us to analyze the covers, because we were never sure whose assumptions were at play: was it the authors making a commentary on popular assumptions and stereotypes, or was it the press doing their “job” and creating a cover image without having read the book?

  2. In some ways I don’t get the logic (or perhaps rhetoric) of the WFAP? cover except I’ve always liked the look of it. It was designed by contributing editor, Daina Krumins, an experimental filmmaker by trade, based on the photo of the daughter of another contributing editor, Dr. Ava Baker. Daina’s films and stills make frequent use of land/water dreamscapes. fwiw.jean

  3. I designed the cover for “Women From Another Planet?” and it just seemed to appear out of nowhere, as my images always do.

    One of my favorite places to go wander around, make photographs, and occasionally fish in the canals is the salt marsh near Tuckerton, NJ. It’s vast and mysterious. I was messing around with a marsh photo on the computer and somehow it just turned into the book cover by itself. Then Dr. Eva Baker sent me the picture of her daughter to add to the image.

    I believe it works because it came out of the wiring of my aspie mind with its aspie wiring. There was very little conscious thought involved except in technical Photoshop type decisions.

  4. Dear Aspie Rhetor,
    Thanks for the kind words about my Weather Reports memoir. I agree with you about the cover (especially after all the nasty things I said about Autism Speaks and similar orgs). It was a last minute cover design created by my publisher without my feedback (although I did give them the photo). I should have objected and insisted they eliminate the puzzel motif. If there’s a second edition, I’ll try again.

  5. Dear Aspie Rhetor,
    Thanks for your kind comments about my Weather Reports memoir. I agree with you about the cover (especially after all the nasty things I said about Autism Speaks and similar orgs). It was a last minute design created by my publisher. Next time I’ll object and insist that the puzzle motif is eliminated.

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