Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

You’ve got a friend, but she’s from outer space

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Everybody needs a friend. Sometimes, though, it’s the kid who craves understanding most who finds it hardest to negotiate the social landscape.

So it goes with Jay, the 9-year-old hero of the new children’s book ‘‘Jay Grows an Alien” by Rockville writer Caroline Anne Levine.

The reader is introduced to Jay just as he learns there’s a substitute teacher in his homeroom. Because of his Asperger’s syndrome, Jay has a hard time understanding common sayings, and when the teacher asks the class to take their seats, Jay does exactly as he’s told: He stands up and picks up his chair. When Jay has trouble interpreting a fable, the unsympathetic substitute teacher calls Jay a ‘‘space cadet.”

In class, Jay has an ally, Drew, who watches out for him and corrects him when he misinterprets his teacher or classmates. But Jay is old enough to realize that Drew is helping out because he’s been asked rather than out of some deeper, personal connection.

Jay finally finds friendship in 2X, a half-robot, half-living cyborg from outer space. He is drawn to the cyborg not just because of his deep fascination with outer space, but also because of the similarities between the two.

‘‘They both have a problem with idioms,” Levine says. ‘‘They take all those literally.”

To help the cyborg understand human expressions, the cyborg has a special computer program that translates for her.

‘‘Because the cyborg wasn’t raised on earth, she doesn’t understand the niceties either,” Levine points out.

The children’s author became interested in Asperger’s syndrome and other conditions within the autism spectrum six years ago when her hairdresser mentioned a young client who would not talk to her. Levine read whatever she could about the topic online and in libraries. Her husband, a doctor and scientist who works at the National Institutes of Health, pointed her toward relevant publications when he found them.

Levine’s research led her to the Carl Sandburg Learning Center in Rockville, where she now tutors children with autism every Friday.

‘‘I thought kids with autism would be really hard to handle, but I didn’t see that,” Levine says.

She admits they have a hard time socially and with emotions, ‘‘but there is absolutely no deceit — they almost can’t lie. They’re just so sweet.”

After a mainstream publisher rejected ‘‘Jay Grows an Alien,” Levine pitched the book to a publisher that specializes in books on autism and Asperger’s.

‘‘Their mission is to get the word out about autism,” Levine says. ‘‘I am not making any money on the book, but it is very professionally satisfying.”

Levine started writing the book before she became interested in autism; she worked Asperger’s syndrome into the plot line later. Her editor at Autism Asperger Publishing Company asked her to add at least two chapters showing Jay in a school setting, because that’s typically where such children encounter the most conflict.

Written for high second- and third-grade reading levels, Levine sees the audience for her chapter book as siblings and teachers of children with Asperger’s, as well as the children themselves.

‘‘They have a very difficult life and suffer with lack of self-esteem,” Levine observes. ‘‘They’re constantly being corrected.

‘‘They have to be appreciated for what they do have.”

She notes that people with Asperger’s tend to be of average or above average intelligence with excellent analytical skills.

‘‘These people turn into our scientists and inventors,” Levine adds.

The author is revising a children’s novel set in Rockville about an 11-year-old girl with a brilliant younger brother who has Asperger’s. Their parents have a new store called Top to Bottom Underwear Outfitters, ‘‘so the girl is embarrassed about everything in her life.”

Levine retired from teaching before her first daughter was born to write children’s books. Her first book, published in 1978, was called ‘‘Knock Out Knock-Knock Jokes.” She wrote it to help encourage children who had trouble reading.

‘‘If they laughed, it reinforced the idea that reading can be fun,” Levine says.

Now her mission is to help educate the public about autism, she says, ‘‘to give them hope.”

‘‘Jay Grows an Alien” ($14.95) is available at Borders in Rockville and Gaithersburg, and online at, and