Book review: Everybody is Different: a book for young people who have brothers or sisters with autism

Everybody is Different: a book for young people who have brothers or sisters with autism, by Fiona Bleach. Reviewed by Prof Sue Fletcher-Watson.

Date published: 2001 

Paperback price: £10.00

Everybody is Different cover image

Link to book on Amazon

Reviewer: Sue Fletcher-Watson, Director, SMRC

Reviewer expertise: PhD in developmental psychology, and has been specialising in autism research since 2004.

What is the book about and who is it aimed at?

This book, written by an art therapist at a National Autistic Society school, aims to help children understand their autistic sibling. The book has a reading age of about 8-12 years and is illustrated throughout with small characters and scenes in the life of a young person.  

A brief description of the book.

The book starts with a 'What Is Autism' section covering general behaviour, where autism comes from, and also describing epilepsy – which frequently co-occurs with autism. It is also asks “If there a cure for autism?” and while I don’t disagree with the answer (“No”) I wish the author had also taken the chance to refute the idea that autism needs to be cured at all.

The next section runs through the characteristics of autism in a bit more detail, covering Communication, Friendship and Imagination. Part 3 has a question and answer structure, addressing some common sibling queries and concerns such as “why does my brother or sister not speak?” and “why does my brother or sister not like change?”.

Part 4 focuses more on the sibling themselves, and Part 5 discusses available supports – for both the autistic child and the reader of this book. The book ends with a glossary of terms.

Is the content in line with best practice or research evidence?

At the time of writing, this book is 20 years ago and unsurprisingly then, it is not up to date with latest thinking. For example Part 2 on the characteristics of autism adopts an outdated “triad of impairments” structure.  The emphasis is squarely on challenges, which is somewhat out of step with a more progressive and rounded view of autism in the context of neurodiversity.

Challenges are probably what siblings notice most of course – and it can be important for children to hear that their concerns have not gone unnoticed. At the same time, a book like this has an opportunity to draw attention to some more positive aspects of autism, and this was largely missed.  One exception is towards the end of the book, when the author considers how a child with an autistic sibling might develop problem-solving and communication skills as they work to understand and support that person. 

Today, we might elaborate this idea further by considering the neurodiversity framework and how it changes or view on the differences between people.  The author does make some key statements which are very progressive – such as “talk about your brother or sister as you would like other people to talk about you and you will not go far wrong”. All in all, the book does hold up better than expected given its age, and could still be useful now for the right reader.

Would this book be helpful for its target reader?

My key takeaway from this book is that it would be useful for a child whose autistic sibling had a learning disability as well as autism. It presumes a profile of autism that might be much less relevant for a young person whose sibling attends a mainstream school, reads and writes fluently and whose autistic behaviours are manifest more subtly than this book describes. For the right reader, the question and answer format is very accessible and immediate. The book might also give a young person a wider vocabulary for talking about autism, and thus enable them to discuss any further questions they have with their parents. In the absence of more recent literature targeted at this age-group and category of readers I think this could be really useful.

What is your final, overall opinion on the book?

Despite being rather dated (inevitably) this book still has a lot to offer the right reader. I would advise parents purchasing the book to read it through before handing it over to their child, and considering whether the picture of autism that it paints will be authentic and relevant to their experience.