A `way out of a lonely place'

In a children's book, autistic writer gives a look into her world


Sarah Ann Stup bends over a small, cream-colored keyboard. Her eyes are hooded, face hidden. Her middle finger, crowned with a chipped half-moon of lavender polish, hovers, extended, over the little machine propped on her dining room table.

"It's OK, honey, just go ahead and start," her mother, Judy Stup, whispers.

Sarah Stup, who is 22 and has autism, turns the device on and off. She squints, then fusses with a piece of tape. Her eyes flicker up, seemingly unseeing. She rubs her nose, looks off to the side.

Slowly, her head tipped close to the table, she begins poking jerkily on the keys before her. She taps then pauses, taps, pauses. Finally, a ribbon of curling paper inches out of the side of the clacking machine and rests on the dining room table.

This is how Sarah Stup talks and writes. This is how she asks questions and writes poems, and most recently, how she painstakingly, one letter at a time, wrote Do-Si-Do with Autism, a children's book.

Illustrated by Villa Julie College students Matthew Starchak and Libby Sanders, the book tells the story of an autistic turtle named Taylor and his trials at school. The book and illustrations, along with selections from Stup's writings and photographs chronicling her life, are installed at an exhibition at Villa Julie's Stevenson campus. The self-published book will go on sale at the end of the month.

"Writing is my voice because my sounding voice is broken. With writing I become a real person," she says. "With writing I feel alive, and not like a shell with no inhabitant."

"Writing is my way out of a lonely place where only God knows," reads an excerpt at the show. "The lid opens and out comes pieces of Sarah, a girl with wings who soars above the place with no hope called autism."

Advocacy groups say one in 166 infants born in this country have autism, a developmental disorder that varies in its expression but significantly affects communication, social interactions and other behaviors. Her body "acts dumb," refusing to follow directions, Stup will say.

As the prevalence of the disorder increases, so does the literature written by experts, teachers and parents, says Hod Gray, the director of Special Needs Project, a disability bookstore based in California. He estimates that his store carries about 400 children's books about disabilities. While some discuss autism or other specific issues, many are more vague, focusing simply on a character who is a little different.

"But it's something else again to hear what a person with autism has to say about it," Gray says. "This will always be a fairly small source of books, but it is growing in importance. And I think the autism community is very accepting and respectful toward these books because they understand this is reportage from a country that we don't know too much about."

The small number of autistic writers include Donna Williams, Steven Shore and Temple Grandin, who has received national attention for her books about autism and animal behavior.

"By Sarah allowing us in, we're able to get perspective and see what they're thinking and feeling as children with autism," says Shawna Capotosto, the parent of an autistic child and the co-president of the Frederick County chapter of the Autism Society of America. "It gives you a window into their minds and, quite frankly, the window can be closed for a lot of these children."

Taylor, the cute, green, book-loving protagonist in Do-Si-Do, always wears a blue cap and big red backpack. He gets dizzy when he looks people in the face and always sits alone on the school bus.

When Taylor hears students talking about an upcoming square-dance lesson in gym class, he is filled with dread. "Oh, no!" he thinks. "I'll be dopey with autism."

Of course, class goes horribly. When Taylor grows confused and disoriented, he retreats to the bleachers to find solace in his books.

To Taylor's surprise, his classmates follow his lead, joining him one by one. Eventually, he has the whole class reading - and he no longer sits alone on the bus.

At the end of the book, Stup includes advice for young readers with autistic friends or classmates. Her hope is that the book will be used as a teaching tool to show that "those with disabilities and other differences are real people inside bodies that work differently," she says. "We are worth knowing."

Taylor lived inside her for years, she says, but his public life began when the Arc of Carroll County, an advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities, connected her to Villa Julie senior Kevin Walla. A cheerful, 21-year-old aspiring filmmaker, Walla worked as her "job coach," helping her apply for funding, complete the manuscript and search for an agent or publisher. (She has gotten a couple of promising nibbles so far.) He is also the mastermind behind the gallery show.

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