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by Kate E. Reynolds
Jessica Kingsley, 2014
Review by Kristin Nelson on Oct 7th 2014

What's Happening to Tom?

This simple, illustrated book is intended to help boys and young men with autism and related conditions understand the physical changes that occur during puberty. Special emphasis is placed on the ideas that these changes are natural to all boys and that changes happen gradually over time. It is one in a series of books on sexuality and sexual safety for adolescents with autism or related disorders who are often vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse due to a lack of sex education. The text is accessible to young people with a wide range of language comprehension skills and social development and can be easily modified to reach audiences with greater language challenges. It is designed to be read with an adult but the large type and clean illustrations will attract the interest of readers at all levels. The story, as much as there is one, includes concrete examples of physical changes that happen to all boys during puberty and is intended as a platform for further discussion. The book would be useful to refer back to as changes happen throughout puberty.

The author, Kate Reynolds, uses language that is clear and unambiguous. Since it is characteristic of people with autism to have a lot of anxiety about the unknown, the book pairs information about physical changes with positive statements about what an adolescent might think or feel about those changes. By portraying the main character as comfortable with and able to handle natural changes, the reader is invited to share in his confidence and even look forward to doing new things as he becomes a young man. Puberty is a big topic and this book does not try to explore the changes in depth nor does it attempt to explain the role of puberty in reproduction. For young people with delayed social development experiencing new and unusual changes in their bodies, this focus is welcome as an alternative to navigating the complex world of sex education as situated within the context of reproduction and relationships which is generally how it is framed for neurotypical peers.

Like the other books in this series, the illustrations are superb. Combining clean lines, engaging color and accurate detail, a reader could learn much simply from looking at the pictures, especially with guidance from an adult. It is worth paying attention to the choices the illustrator has made. While the main character is portrayed as a young Caucasian male, boys with different body shapes, skin tones and circumcision status are also represented. The core message that physical changes are something that happen slowly and naturally to all boys is apparent in the illustrations.

It is not clear why the author made some of the choices she did. Commonly used terminology has been left out of the text. Excluding this vocabulary is a disservice to those young people who will inevitably encounter these terms in real life and may not associate them with information they already have. Perhaps the most glaring omission is the term “erection” which never appears in the book, not even on the pages dedicated to describing and illustrating the physical changes of the penis when excited.

Another curious editorial choice regards the inclusion of a cleaning routine to be followed upon waking from a nocturnal emission/wet dream (no term is provided in the book for this phenomenon.) Details of the cleaning process are far more extensive than the information provided about the experience itself, leaving one to wonder who the real beneficiary of this information is – the young man experiencing physical changes or adults who would undoubtedly be delighted to see him change, shower and launder his linens after such an occurrence. I question whether this would be included in educational materials for typically developing peers and wonder why it is considered sufficiently important to include in materials for young men with autism and related conditions. By doing so, a behavioral expectation gets upgraded to the status of fact. Even if there were legitimate reasons for including behavioral expectations as part of a larger concept, there are more important expectations to be conveyed than how to respond to a particular presentation of a specific body fluid.   

Adults preparing to share this book with a young person are advised to read it ahead of time to determine if they need to add terms or other specific details relevant to the reader’s own experience. 

 

© 2014 Kristin Nelson




Contact Information

Sarah Dinklage, LICSW
Executive Director

sdinklage@risas.org

Charles Cudworth, MA
Director, SAS

ccudworth@risas.org

Leigh Reposa, MSW, LICSW
Program Manager
lreposa@risas.org

Colleen Judge, LMHC                  Manager, SAS
cjudge@risas.org 

Kathleen Sullivan
Manager, Community Prevention
ksullivan@risas.org


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