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Every Turtle Counts: Accepting Those with Autism

May 22, 2014

Sara Hoagland Hunter is the author of ten books for children, including her most recent, Every Turtle Counts, a sea turtle rescue story which stars a character based on her niece, who is on the autism spectrum. A former journalist, teacher, and documentary producer, Sara has devoted her career to telling stories of unsung heroes, including the award-winning picture book The Unbreakable Code about the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, which won a Smithsonian award, a National Council of Teachers of English award, and a Governor of Arizona Book of the Year award. A writer for Warner Bros. Animation, her songs for the Baby Looney Tunes cartoon series air around the world.

Autism Speaks Staffer Kerry Magro sat down to discuss Sara's book and what she is doing today in the autism community.

Kerry Magro: Thanks so much for your time today Sara! First off, how did you come up with the title of your book "Every Turtle Counts?"

Sara Hunter: The title came to me whole, through inspiration not perspiration, which is a rare occurrence and a gift for which I am most grateful.  It's hard to answer the question, "Where do ideas come from?" but in this case, the idea for the title comes from a tender spot in my heart for all creatures, especially humans, who have been maligned, ignored, or made to feel less important than they truly are. I'm a firm believer that every turtle and person is on the planet for a reason. The more we tune out voices of discouragement, criticism, and judging -- voiced in my book by the evil landlady, Mrs. Sims -- the freer we are to commit to our life's purpose. Each of us has goals and a desire to be of value. In my book, it takes the love and dedication of a mother, the support of two animal caretakers, and the hard work of an autistic child to realize and prove this value. 

KM: As an author of ten children’s books, what roused you to write a book featuring the main character as a child with autism? Can you tell us more about your inspiration to write the character of Mimi? 

SH: Close as I am to our family’s ray of sunshine, my niece, Mimi, who happens to be on the autism spectrum, I’ve realized through the years of reading books with her that she is not really interested in books about autism. Like most kids, she wants to read about animals, adventures, families, friends, and how to triumph over challenges great and small. That’s why I decided to model the main character in my newest picture book, Every Turtle Counts, (University Press of New England) on her as a seven year old.  It is an adventure story for general audiences about the  rescue of a rare sea turtle on the shores of Cape Cod by a child who “happens to be autistic”.  That may sound frivolous in light of  the magnitude of the challenges facing young adults on the spectrum and their families, but, in fact, I feel it is just the opposite. Each child deserves to be known as more than a sum of her or his issues.  It is time for contemporary children’s literature to reflect what our children already see and accept in the classroom, that although someone may have challenges, they also have gifts and are capable, with the dedication of others, of starring in a story, and a life, of fulfillment.   

With 1 in 68 children now diagnosed as autistic, we need to be thinking about purposeful ways to engage these children when they have aged out of our schools and classrooms.  The message of Every Turtle Counts is a hopeful one — based on the triumph over great odds by those on the high-achieving end of the spectrum, such as animal scientist, Temple Grandin.  It was with great joy that I received her endorsement of the book, which did not contain any reference to autism but instead recognized that the book “will motivate children to seek the wonder and beauty of the natural world.”  I smiled when she asked that her endorsement be credited simply to “Temple Grandin, author, Animals in Translation”.   

KM: What do you hope our autism community takes away from reading your book?

SH: Let’s join in recognizing the infinite individuality expressed by those on this broad, so-called, spectrum and the possibility that, like everyone else, they can star in their own version of life’s adventure.  As an example, here is my irrepressible niece, Mimi, starring in my book trailer!

KM: We loved the review Dr. Temple Grandin gave of Every Turtle Counts where she said "A lovely book that will motivate children to seek the wonder and beauty of the natural world." Much like Dr. Grandin, Mimi seems to have found a connection with animals. Any thoughts on the relationships between individuals with autism and animals?

SH: I wish I understood this natural affinity better. I can only say what I've observed as an aunt and friend. I'll have to leave the rest to the scientists! When I've asked parents of children on the spectrum this question, they've often mentioned words such as "purity of thought", "innocence", "openness", and a heightened "in-tuneness".  I'm sure not all of the millions on the spectrum enjoy animals so I hesitate to generalize but I will say that my niece is devoid of the affectation, hypocrisy, and meanness that would distance her from an animal (or person).  She seems to naturally take the childlike path of expecting good when approaching a relationship be it with her beloved golden retrievers or with me. As I said in the book's dedication: "For my niece, Mimi, whose unfiltered joy and affection expand our spectrum." 

KM: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to write on the topic of autism?

SH: The same advice I would give to any writer: write from the heart and from a place of the purest truth -- as you did, Kerry, in your recent book, Defining Autism From The Heart.  The reason I love writing children's books is that often the place of purest truth is in our most stripped down, childlike hopes and dreams.  We all have those hopes and dreams and shouldn't be afraid to express them honestly.  What sings in your book is the devotion of a mother, the persistence of an individual through years of challenge, and the glimmers of hope and achievement that encouraged you to believe that a life of purpose, beyond what the naysayers predicted, was possible. I am in awe.

KM: What can we expect from you next?

SH: As you can see from my website: I am in the throes of my book tour for Every Turtle Counts. Two incredibly rewarding presentations were at the Riverview School, where Mimi is an alumna, and at the fabulous Newmark School in New Jersey, a model for all schools, not just for those with students on the spectrum.  I think the possibility of an autistic heroine really resonates with these kids. This book tour has altered my priorities. If you had asked me this question last year, I would have jumped right into telling you about a new book I'm writing.  Now, I'm more focused on helping the autism community. I see such a need, as you do, for more opportunities for purposeful activity for the young adults (and older adults) aging out of educational opportunities. Thanks to organizations like Autism Speaks, we are learning not to be helpless, but to actively seek solutions.  My interest is in spending more time with those on the spectrum who humble me with their persistence, joy, and affection.  I am currently involved with a group on Cape Cod (the setting of my book), developing a social residence situation for autistic adults. I hope to develop curricula and projects for this clientele because it's the most rewarding audience to work with.