Home Book Analysis Understanding Autistic Masking With A Tiger Called Tomás

Understanding Autistic Masking With A Tiger Called Tomás

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Sharing this post on social media? Use this description to make it accessible: [Image description: Illustration from ‘A Tiger Called Tomás, by Charlotte Zolotow & Marta Álvarez Migués. A Latinx boy wearing a tiger mask examines his reflection in a mirror.]


A Tiger Called Tomás

Charlotte Zolotow & Marta Álvarez Migués (2018 editon)

Picture book, Best for kiddos ages 3.5 – 8 years



>> Content warning: This post contains discussion of violence, imprisonment, discrimination, suicide, and trauma for Black, Latinx, and disabled children and families <<

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Who is welcome in your community?

A couple Halloweens back, I watched a dad viciously snap at a some kids as they walked by his house.

“No costume, no candy!” His words sliced the air, accusatory and weirdly aggressive. And these kids – who clearly had woken up one day very recently in men’s bodies, unsure of how they fit in the world with these broken voices and awkward gangly limbs – they recoiled, ducked their heads, and looked ashamed.

I guess it was shocking because this dad didn’t give off ‘asshole’ vibes at first.

I mean – he gave me candy. Our kids, had just met and were playing together like a pair of sugar-coated bouncy balls, leaving us parents to fill the silence with inane chitchat. I wasn’t wearing a costume! But I was masking and borrowing heavily from my Script to Appease Rich White Allistic Parents. The lengths we go to to support our kiddo’s social life.

White folks in our city still continue to complain (to my damn face!) about the Asian Invasion – “I’m not being racist. These new Chinese aren’t like you.” (Re: assimilated, able or willing to appease whiteness)

And allistic folks usually end an ableist complaint about accommodating students with disabilities in our schools with ‘I don’t mean all autistic people…you don’t count because you’re high functioning!’ (Re: handy to have around.)

So it was just one more abrupt reminder that Nice Allistic People turn vicious the moment we fail to assimilate, offend their sensibilities, allow our bodies and skills to be commodified, or just please them.

Those kids he yelled at – they were just a couple years older than ours. They hadn’t done anything wrong and they had nothing to be ashamed of. Who knows whether they were wearing ironically boring costumes or not? I’m old – I don’t know tik tok humor! I once went trick-or-treating dressed as my identical cousin. It was a fantastic costume and everybody loved it!

So my question is – who raised this entitled bucket of farts to believe he’s Sheriff Fashion Police of Halloween City? He lives in a million-dollar house! If he’s worried about running out of candy, he could have bought more damn candy!

It was a really hard moment to watch. I chased the kids down and directed them to my house – where the candy flows freely without discrimination, and somehow we never run out. ‘Cause those same teens Sheriff Fashion Police is afraid of? They’re the kids who leave candy behind when they find an empty bowl.

I reassured the kids that they had done nothing wrong. But still, they apologized to me (what for?!)ashamed, awkward, and confused about where to go in an ageist society that leaves no free and accessible fourth spaces for kids and teens. Wondering what to do – and where to go – with all these gawky limbs, big feelings, and crushing self consciousness.

According to Sheriff Fashion Police, they’re not even welcome to participate in their own damn neighborhood!

This was a gross reminder of how much we expect from teenagers – who are still children – navigating the complicated, confusing landscape of adolescence. We don’t give them the freedom and respect we give adults. We snap at them and expect them to submit to arbitrary, bullshit rules that are not just ableist, classist, and culturally narrow, but also ageist. We refuse them the childhood leeway of fumbling as they learn weird, arbitrary social norms and traditions no one can remember the reason for.

So what I’m saying is – don’t be the neighborhood creep who wields candy as a currency of enough-ness and growls at folks who fail to meet some arbitrary category of festive apparel.

Kids do well when they can. Like folks who get competitive about holiday and thank-you cards, Sheriff Fashion Police gives me the creeps. Why would he assume the worst of kids, unless he’s dipping into memories of being a class-A bully in his own youth? We don’t trick of treat at his house anymore.



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Judgement: a red flag of ignorance

Really though – what’s up with those lazy trick-or-treaters, who show up without a costume? Or the ones who are too old to be begging for candy? What about those rude kids who don’t bother to say ‘trick or treat?‘ or please and thanks? Oooh! Or those suspicious neighbors who won’t look you in the eye?

…Does it matter what their story is? If we can afford to give out candy – does it hurt to give these kids candy, too?

Not because we fear them and their late-night hijinks – but because lots kids (and plenty of adults), see highly-scripted events like Halloween as the only night they can safely join the community and meet neighbors with less risk for emotional violence.

For example, many people on the autism spectrum, including myself, use ‘scripts’ to navigate confusing social interactions. Halloween gives us ONE safe night to get out of the house with a specific, fool-proof script. To feel like a part of the community without collapsing in exhaustion at the end of the day.

I can look you in the eye, and greet you warmly – but it didn’t come naturally. I had to practice. Trick-or-treating was a safe space to practice without too many curveballs. Let your neighborhood kids and their awkward caregivers practice! If you can spare a clump of nougat for the non-disabled kids who can afford etiquette training, then do the same for kids who don’t have all those resources.



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Judgement: a red flag of ableist and cultural bigotry

That kid who remained silent, grunted, or who didn’t say exactly the right thing? That kid very likely has a communication disability, speaks another language, could be d/Deaf, or has an auditory processing disability! Good gosh. Be decent to people. It really just isn’t that hard not to reserve judgement for the 15 seconds it takes to hand out candy.

The kid without a costume likely has caregivers too overwhelmed with work, disabilities, care-taking, and lack of support to cobble up a costume. Or, given that about 28% of children under 18 in the US are from immigrant families, maybe they’re just getting their footing on how to prep for this bizarre autumn holiday where we dress like sexy unicorns and extort our neighbors for treats.

Given that 5-13% of the population has a diagnosed sensory processing disorder (not counting those undiagnosed due to healthcare barriers!) – many of us can only wear one specific set of clothes so we can get through the day without pain – and we don’t owe anyone our pain in exchange for humane treatment.

That kid who is too old? (Is there a rule? Like, you hit 13 a and you’re not allowed to celebrate holidays anymore?) This big kid is not at your door for candy! That kid has a mustache and a weekend job – they can buy their own candy! Older kids and teens are worried about getting mocked for dressing up for Halloween – but also they are social animals, members of our community, and they just really want to connect with you and hold on to the last remnants in the tail end of childhood.

For those self-appointed Sheriffs of The Right Way To Do, you’re telling them they can’t participate in Halloween because of their disability, their class, their culture, their perceived age, and their confusion. Which is a SHITTY THING TO DO, and doesn’t seem worth risking a kid’s safety-net sense of community just so you can bogart one more snickers.

Okay, right. The books. What do A Tiger Called Tomás and Tomás’s earlier avatars have to do with all this?


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Understanding the coping mechanisms of targeted kids

A Tiger Called Tomás and A Tiger Called Thomas are two modern variations on the same 1963 story. I ADORE both of them.

Tomás (aka Thomas) has social anxiety. This is common with kids targeted because of their identity, those perceived as ‘other’ by the dominant group. After years of being rebuffed, rejected, or outright bullied when trying to connect with other humans – you learn to avoid the risk.

Social anxiety is a prevalent side effect in people with a social disabilities, such as autism. Neurotypical folks born with … I dunno, those weird psychic abilities that help you allistics know how a person is feeling without examining body language, voice tone, and facial muscle clues? …those folks get angry when they expect us to magically obtain the privileges they were born with, and some of us just can’t keep up.

Saying the wrong thing, failing to read the room, missing social cues, taking longer to realize a conversation has turned sour, and generally being out of step with social norms – these social disabilities make neurotypicals nervous and jittery. And we all know the happens when entitled people with unlimited power get nervous.

While not an inherently biological part of being neurodivergent, growing up disabled in an ableist society puts us at a deeper risk of developing social anxiety and avoidance to minimize harm. After years of being worn down by a mix of open bigotry and the ever-present microaggressions of assumptions, kids of color, kids with disabilities, and third-culture kids learn to keep their heads down, and to approach new people with caution,. For those times when we have no choice but to interact with others – we often try to artificially assimilate, to mask our confusion, our natural thought patterns and even our pain and the exhaustion of it all.

The toll of masking

For our family, Tomás codes as Autistic, and the safety net of his Halloween costume is a not-so-subtle allegory to Autistic masking. I see myself and my autistic peers in his hesitation approaching unscripted interactions, in the way he internalizes his social unworthiness, and his fear of rejection, social backlash, or even allistic violence. All this hiding, all this masking – it wears on you. That Script to Appease Rich White Allistic Parents (and even it’s annoying little sister, the Small Talk With Other Caregivers at The Bus Stop edition – UGH) is So. Fucking. Exhausting.

As a teenager, I listened to a recording of myself for the first time and was horrified (hello, internalized racism!) to realize how ‘Asian’ I sounded. I immediately proceeded to aggressively voice-train myself to whiteness. Although I can sound white without thinking about it, I can feel the effort it takes, deep in my neck. But twenty years later – physically can’t get my throat to relax. I can’t remember how to speak naturally. I’ve lost my real voice.

You mask for long enough, hard enough, and it’s hard to remember who you really are.

I turned 38 yesterday. I’m two years past the average life expectancy for Autistics like me (content warning for murder, abuse, eugenics, and death by suicide). And I can feel that pull to give up, to stop scrambling and just crumble to the earth. As a kid, I never imagined that I would be able to hold on performing this long. Writing, revising, and adapting social scripts, warily connecting with folks who might destroy me if my mask slips, it’s a non-stop job. The only break is when you’re completely alone, or asleep. So opting out, staying home, and avoiding other humans is part of how I survived these extra two years.

 



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Thomas is a young Black boy. He is sweet. He’s shy. He’s lonely.

The breakout star in A Tiger Called Thomas (2003) is his mom – a single woman who is loving, independent, and trusts her son to work through his challenges without the soft childism of low expectations. She encourages, but doesn’t force him to go out and meet people. Always facing away from the reader, she’s not an object created to accessorize her son, but she is mysterious – refusing to helicopter over Thomas, refusing to solve his problems for him.

Some critics see her as cold – but I see her as an independent person with a life to live and places to be, outside the pages of Thomas’s story, beyond a singular identity of motherhood.

This update of the book (Thomas was white in the original 1963 version) adds a validating narrative to this story. What assumptions are people making of you, when you’re a new kid on the block? Particularly – when you’re the Black boy in a mixed neighborhood – with all the assumptions people force on you?

Thomas’s story is quieter than the more recent 2018 Tomás. His story leaves more space for us to extrapolate Thomas’s internal dialogue, the genesis of his fears, and how he’s working through them. When reading this aloud, the Earthquakes ask more questions and offer more theories behind Thomas’s hesitation.

When we read Thomas’s story, we talk about what it means not just to be Autistic, but to be #AutisticWhileBlack – how Thomas has learned to be afraid of in a country where more than half of young Black men with disabilities are likely to be arrested. What it means to be arrested and sentenced to 50 years for speaking to people after a a car accident while disabled and Black.



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Tomás is a young Latino boy. He’s gentle. He’s nervous.

In 2018, this era targeting Latinx immigrants, forced family separation, and the aggressive police state of ICE enforcement, Tomás’s story reflects not just social anxiety, but a real and present fear many Latinx kids are facing today.

In A Tiger Called Tomás (2018), Tomás’s mother is still single, still loving – but more hands-on. Her warm presence under-girds the story as she cheers him on. Less allowing him to be with his thoughts, but more ‘I’m here for you.’

With drastically different parenting styles, Tomás and Thomas’s mothers are both good moms – a reminder that there is no 1-2-3 guide to perfect parenting.

In my city they ripped a father from our community. Ripped away from his two children and his wife as she battles brain cancer. Across our hyper-liberal city, non-Latinx students and staff in our schools taunt and spit slurs at Latinx students – some taunting even our youngest students with threats to call ICE and have their parents deported. Under that daily threat – I can see wanting to hover near my child like Tomás’s mother – to be saturated so deeply in all parts of his life.

Updated to fight back against the anti-Latinx sentiment in the US today, Tomás’s bilingualism and his ethnicity force him to wonder what his new neighbors will think of him – what they will expect of him – and the fears of what they might DO to him and his family if he dares to say hello.



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Parenting is Praxis:

These conversations have to go somewhere. We can’t just read a book for ‘awareness’ and consider our work done. Here are a few ways we transform our family discussions from A Tiger Called Tomás into building an actively inclusive neighborhood:

  • Within our family, we talk about the ways our police and educators target young Black & Latinx children with disabilities. We tell our kids to watch for double standards in their classrooms, how to avoid saviorism with peers while reporting abuses of power, and how to give other kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to interpersonal, culture-based conflict.
  • Within our community, we work to strengthen individual and organizational community relationships and practice transformative justice responses so we don’t just have alternatives to calling the police, but learn to deescalate small problems before violence escalates. When white neighbors call the cops on kids playing in our neighborhood and Black teachers standing outside the school (this is still a thing!) – we invite those who have been harmed, and those who have done harm, and members of the affected community if they want to join us in a transformative response.
  • We participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project and have a separate basket of non-food treats, welcoming kids with allergies so they can join the trick-or-treating.
  • We wholeheartedly reject and fight the appropriation of blue pumpkins to out Autistic kids and paint a target on their backs. THIS IS A NO-GOOD-TERRIBLE-ABLEIST-IDEA for all the reasons, but particularly because outing autistic kids around dangerous allistics doesn’t make kids safer and it actively derails and endangers kids relying on similarly-colored teal pumpkins to avoid deadly allergens.
  • We smile and welcome teenagers and kids without costumes, not just on Halloween, but all year round. Imagine treating a entire group of maligned people like humans instead of potential criminals! You want to live in a safe and healthy community? Treat the actual members of your community with basic dignity and respect.
  • We avoid decorating with strobe lights and bright blinky things because we are too lazy for decorations and my landscape is already rocking a year-round dilapidated aesthetic.   BUT ALSO because folks with photosensitive epilepsy shouldn’t have to risk their lives so we can feel spooky.
  • For our more social friends – check out this guide to creating a support initiative for families new to your school’s language and cultural norms. Use it as a launchpad to kick off a similar support program at your own school. Credit: This committee was designed by 1st generation immigrant families at our local school, along with my buddy and the Raising Luminaries Emissary to the Real World, Kerry P. Over the last few years, they have successfully integrated strong ties with our school’s immigrant population and inspired more schools to do the same.


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Read this book in rotation with…

This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. We need to bring the conversations started with A Tiger Called Tomás back to kids from multiple angles.



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Is this #OwnVoices?

Nope – but it…used to be? Interesting backstory!

Author: Charlotte Zolotow (she/her)
Illustrator: Marta Álvarez Migués (she/her)

Álvarez Migués is from Coruña, Spain. From her illustrations, I perceive her as white –  Hispanic, but not Latinx. Based on some light internet stalking, it appears that neither maker grew up in a place where they had to learn a second language to make friends with the neighbors, and neither has disclosed any neurodivergence.

Now on to the genesis of Thomas: Zolotow died at the age of 98 in 2013 – five years before this latest update from Thomas to Tomás with his Latinx identity. She was alive to enthusiastically approve the 2003 edition, updating Thomas from a white boy to a Black boy worried about potentially racist neighbors.

Zolotow created the original 1963 Thomas to reflect her social anxiety growing up as the new Jewish kid on the block, with a visible disability (including a conspicuous back brace), as her family moved frequently throughout her childhood. In the most recent posthumous 2018 edition, Zolotow’s daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon (what a name!!!), tells us her mother had enthusiastically endorsed updating her books to be more inclusive for children with targeted identities. Dragonwagon assures us that Zolotow would have been thrilled with the latest update to push the envelope on identity and inclusion in a political landscape of anti-Latinx violence.

Based on her body of work, I suspect the same. Similar to Ezra Jack Keats, Zolotow used her whiteness to subvert the racist gate-keeping of the publishing industry, writing stories to reflect kids with targeted identities. While Keats focused on normalizing kids of color from urban neighborhoods, Zolotow attempted stories to validate the experience of being perceived as the other.

Sometimes, she missed the mark. We now know that the most effective accomplice work requires stepping back and amplifying #OwnVoices makers. Unfortunately it’s too late to ask Zolotow if she had ever made an attempt to amplify targeted authors.

Long before #ItGetsBetter became a thing, stories such as William’s Doll provided validating reassurance for gender-creative boys struggling through the demands of toxic masculinity. Within a modern landscape, the text in William’s Doll is problematic, introducing language such as ‘sissies’ and the suggestions that boys loving dolls and practicing feminist dad skills would  be weird in the first place. However – it was revolutionary at the time, and William’s Doll set the path for modern normalizing stories like Clive and His Babies and Teddy’s Favorite Toy.

In A Father Like That, Zolotow attempted to validate the experience of Black boys with absent fathers – an early (and imperfect) precursor to #OwnVoices stories like Knock Knock and The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett. Zolotow centered the child, but erased systemic racism and the prison pipeline that had targeted these fathers in the first place.

Within that context – at that time – when there were no validating stories out there for gender-bending kids, a full generation before the Stonewall riots, she faced a popular backlash from a white-centered misogynist readership. Her books were first pancakes that required courage – and they paved the way for more nuanced #OwnVoices books to replace them. Based on my familiarity with her body of work – I think she’d be thrilled to have her books grow old and forgotten in the stacks, replaced with the validating and celebratory #OwnVoices reflections she wanted for every child.

Learn more about #OwnVoices, coined by autistic author Corinne Duyvis


How we calculate the overall awesomeness score of books.


Transparency & Cahoots!

I purchased a used copy of both A Tiger Called Tomás and A Tiger Called Thomas.  Although the underlying message validating social anxiety and offering comforting reassurance – the tone and details of each book sparks different, but equally awesome conversations with the Earthquakes.

We originally screened these books with copies from our local library, (which we support with donations). If you don’t have access to a library, learn how to support your local indie bookstore on Bookshop.



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