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Everyone is good at something

This year's TESNational Association for Special Educational Needs book awards have attracted record entries. Geraldine Brennan reports

For a children's book that most successfully provides a positive image of young people with special needs

Award winner

Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: a user guide to adolescence. By Luke Jackson. Jessica Kingsley

Too much homework; making friends (or not); dating (or not); coping with bullies; navigating new territory that seems to be familiar to everyone else. Some worries are the same for every adolescent, but for young people with Asperger Syndrome there are added complications.

Luke Jackson (pictured), 13 at the time of writing, now 15, set out to explain how AS affects his life and concluded that being different is not only OK, it is cool. The result, the judges decided, is "a remarkable book from a unique boy", recommended for teachers and parents but also certain to increase understanding of AS among Luke's peers because of its "authentic voice".

"It's a good read, funny and moving," says one judge, Nicola Grove. "Its really strong card is the sense that diversity is part of being human, that everyone has strengths in some areas and difficulties in others.

"As well as a book about Asperger Syndrome, this is a book about what it's like being a teenager. The rant about homework could have been written by any young person struggling with a top-heavy education system. It has immediate appeal for the adolescents that it is aimed at, and all professionals should read it too."

Luke dictated the book to his mother Jacqui during a summer holiday shortly after he had left his comprehensive school because of bullying. He now goes to a small independent school in Lancashire. The TES published an extract on publication in August last year.

He outlines how the AS child's relationships with teachers and other children can be affected by difficulties in reading facial expressions or body language and making social small talk.

School presents particular challenges: handling pressure to take part in sports (which AS children usually find difficult), coping with changes of teachers and following instructions that imply rather than state logic.

Luke describes being retrieved from under his teacher's desk hours after home time in infant school; she had asked him to put his folder away under the desk, but not told him to come out again.

His tone is broadly positive - people with AS who have trouble sleeping, he points out, "can get more done" - with emphasis on how young people with AS can manage their condition and a useful resources section.

Among the 22 entries, teenage fiction was the area of publishing best represented. The panel appealed for more good stories for younger children.

"There are children who have things to tell us but whose cognitive skills are very severely impaired, whose experience of the world is sensory, and they need to be given voices," says Nicola Grove. "It would be interesting to read a novel that represents the world as it might be for such a child.

We are more likely to read about those who might be non-verbal but are geniuses in another direction such as art or music."

* Meet the Jacksons, Friday magazine, pages 6-7


Naked Without a Hat. By Jeanne Willis. Faber

The story of Will, who is revealed to have had surgery to remove the characteristics of Down's Syndrome, his friends in supported housing and his girlfriend, Zara, was the young judges' choice.

Some of the panel objected to the way in which Will's condition was revealed well into the story: "As a dramatic device it is unconvincing"; "It gives the message that surgery is the answer." But it was also rated "a brave attempt, beautifully written" with "a very positive ending that challenges many stereotypes".

Haze. By Kathy Hoopman. Jessica Kingsley

Seb, an ICT whiz-kid, is diagnosed with Asperger, but manages to build friendships amid an exciting computer fraud mystery. "This gives a real sense of what Seb's world feels like but does not present it as impenetrable," say the judges. "Again, he's a young person first and a person with Asperger Syndrome second. The way the friends talk and behave together feels very authentic."

Stoner amp; Spaz. By Ron Koertge. Walker

A "quirky and very funny" rites-of-passage story set on the US West Coast about a relationship between a boy with cerebral palsy and a young drug addict. "It doesn't minimise the difficulties of the relationship and the ending is not saccharine. The sexual content is well handled and tender."

But the title attracted objections, "even if it is ironic".

No-Flinch Lynch. By Jonathan Kebbe. Corgi Yearling

"It takes bullying seriously without demonising the bullies, but looking at the issues that bullying comes out of."

Special mentions

Read My Lips. By Jana Novotny Hunter. Walker

An American novel about the tensions between signers and lip readers at a school for hearing impaired students. "It uses contexts of choice, friendship and loyalty to examine issues that are not often explored."

Health Issues: Dyslexia. By Paula Wiltshire. Watts

"Conveys complex information in an accessible and readable way. There is much sensible and practical information on living with dyslexia. The format is attractive and very importantly the book includes some very positive role models with dyslexia.

"A book which can be read and understood by a range of young people and their families (and those working with and supporting them), and a useful addition to any school library because it helps to make dyslexia understandable to classmates."

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