Authors tell you what inspired their work

Tish Cohen, Author of "Inside Out Girl"

My close friend is a family therapist and once told me her favorite clients are children with non-verbal learning disorders, because of their loving dispositions—naiveté, clumsiness, big hearts, and an utter inability to connect with other children. She loves that they talk too close, constantly knock things over, say the wrong thing, and still get lost on the way to the restroom down the hall in an office they've been coming to for five years. Often they can't walk up the stairs and talk at the same time, their clothes are inside out and their lack of motor skills means they can't brush their own teeth. If you tell them to jump in a lake, they probably will. Frustrating, to say the least.

But they will hug you until you weep. They not only wear their hearts on their sleeves, but on a neon sign above their heads. They see nothing wrong with marching straight up to the meanest clique in middle grade or the bully everyone fears and wrapping themselves around them in a full-body hug. And they cannot for the life of them see why they're rejected.

I thought about what it would mean to have a child with NLD and the joy and pain that would entail. Then I wondered what that parent would do if he found out he was dying and had to leave his daughter in a world that doesn't understand her. The reason I chose a father and daughter for this story was very deliberate. Parents of girls with condition such as NLD or Asperger's face a very real threat, especially as their daughters reach adolescence. Girls with social disorders can be so naïve that they can be easily preyed upon by males. And lacking a healthy level of skepticism or wariness, they can easily be lured into dangerous situations. 

This book required a fair amount of research. I worked closely with family therapists to fully understand the intricate behavior and life experience of a child with NLD. I also had the opportunity to spend time with a 12-year-old with the condition and it wasn't until meeting with her that I fully understood how completely her life was colored by bullying. She took me down to her family's basement into a space she calls her "Loft." It's a place behind the furnace where she goes when she's been bullied. She pointed to a huge glass bottle, about knee high, that contained balled-up Monopoly money and explained that whenever she's bullied, she takes another bill and crumples it up. Yells at it. Throws it around the furnace room and names it after the bully. After she has stood up to the fictitious bully, gained some feeling of power, she stuffs it in her bottle, which she'd had for only three months. It was nearly full of paper bullies.

NLD is a particularly poignant condition. Often misdiagnosed as Asperger's Syndrome (high-functioning autism) or Savant Syndrome (a developmental handicap accompanied by extraordinary mental abilities in one or more fields), children with NLD typically excel in early speech and vocabulary development, and display a remarkable memory for things that interest them. Like the Aspie child, Olivia Bean in Inside Out Girl is capable of discussing the elimination habits of the Norway rat long after you've thrown out the dinner you no longer have the desire to eat!

Just like Aspie's, kids with NLD tend to fall short with social, motor and visual-spatial skills. The subtlety of language eludes them. The subtlety of social innuendo eludes them. They tend to be the kids in 7th grade who show up wearing sweatpants pulled up to their armpits and the musty woolen liners of their winter boots—social suicide in middle grade. The other kids often pick on them and they can fall prey to relentless bullying.

And here lies the poignancy of NLD. Aspies tend to exist within their own isolated social bubble, uninterested in connecting with other children. Not so with the NLDer. The child with NLD—so sweet and naïve—typically wants to be loved, wants to be accepted. Every snub in the playground wounds them to the core. Olivia Bean longs for her birthday party so she can invite everyone from her class. But her father knows no matter how many invitations his daughter doles out, not a single child will show up. The NLD child wants social acceptance more than anything, and more often than not will never achieve it.

Just imagine your own child going through this. I did and it drove me to write the book.

Tish Cohen's novel is Inside Out Girl. Please visit her website for more information.

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Saturday December 13th 2008, 12:03 PM
Comment by: PMC (Ketchikan, AK)
Good Day Mates!
Playing with Visual Thesaurus is like watching a four dimensional bicycle wheel trundle down the wagon road. It is fun! Now if I can get the kids to play.
Saturday December 13th 2008, 1:10 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I've worked with learning disabled youngsters, teenagers, but their problems, though sad, were not this sad!

I feel for these children and the rejection that life deals to them.

I wonder if it's possible to explain to them that they've a problem that other children never will be able to deal with. Can you tell them, as I told one girl rejected because she was so much older in her years knowledge wise, that when she's older, she will meet people who are more in her league?

Is there any hope for friendships as they get older?
Sunday December 14th 2008, 5:02 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
I kept finding myself thinking of my mongoloid cousin George as I read this. Totally loving but definitely not an idiot savant nor one that could be mistaken as suffering from autism. Your book sounds like one that I should read to broaden my knowledge of social disabilities, though I think it might break my heart.
Monday December 15th 2008, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Tish C. (Toronto Canada)
Jane, the rejection is tough, definitely. I think some of these kids can form friendships as they meet more kids like them. It's one way parents can begin to help. Or sometimes they strike up friendships with younger kids. But this is a neurological deficiency so there's no real hope of moving past it. They can make things easier as they get older by learning some social coping skills through rote memory learning, but may never understand social subtleties. But, wow, these tend to be sweet kids. FOrever young, in a way.
Monday December 15th 2008, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Tish C. (Toronto Canada)
Beryl, cousin George has already stolen my heart! I think you'd find the book has a real positive message and ends in an uplifting way for little "Olivia."
Friday January 2nd 2009, 11:04 AM
Comment by: paulette W. (Auburn, CA)
I read "Inside Our Girl" to see if an adult friend of mine suffers from that problem. The story is nice but kind of "sappy"; too good to be true sort of thing. I think my friend suffered from this malady and still does, but controls it well.
Monday March 16th 2009, 8:02 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
What a warm and sensitive article. However, parents of young men must also be as careful as possible. I
know a young man who is aspergic. He was tormented and humiliated by his high school classmates. He too was lacking the social and verbal skills to stand up for himself. He was jeered at and coerced into showing his body parts. This in turn left him with a lot of displaced anger. Please remember abuse is about humiliation, power and control. These children, male and female are both vulnerable. Parents of male children should not
be lulled into a false sense of security. Sad and heart breaking. Thank you Ms. Cohen for keeping us aware.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 7:16 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Sensitive and very mystical... I enjoyed it so much.

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