Benny, the titular young protagonist of Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Touched, has Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD refers to a group of developmental delays and challenges that can include (according to the National Institute of Mental Health):
- Ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others
- Repetitive behaviors as well as limited interests or activities
- Symptoms that typically are recognized in the first two years of life
- Symptoms that hurt the individual’s ability to function socially, at school or work, or other areas of life
Autism Spectrum Disorder is estimated to affect 1 out of every 68 children in the United States. The condition effects children of every gender, ethnicity or racial background. But it has been suggested that the ways in which children are diagnosed or treated for ASD can vary widely depending on racial or socio-economic factors – African-American children, for example, are typically diagnosed with ASD 18 to 24 months later than their white peers. This delay in diagnosis (and the resulting delay in intervention) can severely impact a child’s development. African-American children with ASD are also more likely to be initially misdiagnosed with “another condition, such as ADHD or a conduct disorder, which is a condition diagnosed based on antisocial behavior.”
This is all a very roundabout way of saying that we need more books like Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged – positive, inclusive, supportive books about autism that prominently center and celebrate children of colour.
In Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged, a “little girl uses rhyming verse to describe the unique traits of her autistic friend. Benny likes trains and cupcakes without sprinkles, but he can also be fussy sometimes. The narrator doesn’t mind, however, because “true friends accept each other just the way they are.” A gentle story encouraging children to appreciate and accept our differences.” The story is narrated by a young African-American girl, and the illustrations are filled with joyous examples of natural, every day diversity. Spreads include a child in a wheelchair, a girl in a hijab, and a young Native American child (who was created at the urging of diversity champion Debbie Reese. These children play, laugh, learn and create together, as children naturally do.
The text is gentle and nonjudgmental – there are some things that Benny likes, and some things that he doesn’t, and that’s OK. He’s still a good friend, and in the end, it’s our differences that make us special and unique. The spirit of the story has been done before, (my friend is different but I like him all the same) but it’s rarely been done in such an inclusive and diverse way.
I really could go on and on and on about how much I adore Purple Wong’s illustrations. So, I will!
Gender, physical, ethnic, cultural diversity! African-American protagonists! Potentially gender-nonconforming children (one of the children is either a boy in a skirt or a girl combining conventionally feminine and “tomboyish” elements, which I love either way)! An involved, hands-on father who irons his son’s clothes because he knows his son likes “clothes that don’t have any wrinkles”! Every page offers something to love, and it’s done so seamlessly and beautifully.
As author Zetta Elliot notes in her Author’s Note, Black ASD children “face additional challenges in a society set on disciplining Black boys”. Stories like Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged center autistic African-American children in a story that celebrates and embraces them. They act as a mirror for children like Benny and his friends, and a window for the children they share their lives with. Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged adds a beautiful, colourful spin to a story that’s worth repeating.