Children’s book offers perspective on autism

Dr. Carol Cujec

Children’s book offers perspective on autism

By Nick Ng

“Real” is a book about Charity, a 13-year-old girl with autism who faces her biggest fears when her parents enroll her in a public middle school. She is a math savant and has a camcorder-like memory, but she is shunned since it is assumed that she is unable to learn because she cannot speak and has unpredictable movements.

This story is based on the experience of a San Diego resident, Peyton Goddard, who co-authored “Real” with Scripps Ranch resident Dr. Carol Cujec. Sharing similar traits with Charity, Goddard was assumed to be “mentally challenged” until she was 22-years-old when she was able to communicate with supportive typing. 

“[Peyton] was kicked out of public school at an early age and was forced into a private, special school where they didn’t bother to teach the children because they thought they were incapable of learning,” Cujec explained.

Once Goddard’s parents realized how their daughter was being treated, they got her out of special education and enrolled her back in public school, which is the start of Charity’s story in “Real.” Eventually, Goddard attended Cuyamaca College and graduated in 2002 as a valedictorian.

In 2007, Cujec met Goddard and her family when she was covering a story about Goddard’s life and autism for USD Magazine. She then helped Goddard and her mother, Dianne, write and publish their memoir “I Am Intelligent.” 

“Once that was published, I felt that the story should be adapted to children because children are the ones who can make a difference in the way people are treated,” Cujec said. “If you give them that perspective of someone who is autistic, they can grow that empathy early on. We hope that they will see people not as labels but as human beings.”

The authors had to invent a lot of details and create characters in “Real” because of Goddard’s and Charity’s age difference when they were introduced to supportive typing. 

“It’s a re-imagining of what Peyton’s life might have been like if she had this opportunity in middle school,” Cujec said. “We have some spunky, sassy characters in the story that are typical of middle school kids. The kids in the book realize that this girl is awesome. She’s really funny, has a lot of interesting things to say, and they become more comfortable to hang out with her. For the first time, Charity is able to develop new friends.”

Writing a children’s fiction book was a “whole new ballgame” for Cujec and Goddard because they have only written nonfiction before. It also took them several years to find the right publisher for “Real.” 

“It was kind of slowly ‘killing’ me because we felt so strongly about this story,” Cujec said. “It wasn’t a hobby; it was a mission. This story needs to get out in the world because it can profoundly change the way you see people who are different from you.”

Cujec and Goddard hope that “Real” will teach children to be more inclusive to people who are different from them. 

“If you did not speak for 13 years, what would be your first words to speak to let people know who you are?” Cujec said.

“Real” is available to purchase at any bookseller, including Amazon. 

Peyton Goddard