‘Too Sticky!’ Dr Malia infuses children’s book with her experiences of autism and sensory overwhelm


Emma Robdale talks to Dr Jen Malia, Creative Writing and Literature Associate Professor at Norfolk State University, Virginia. ‘Too Sticky’, her first book, was published in April 2020. She now expands upon how authentic female-led autism narrative can be harnessed.

illustrated front cover of a children's book

The front cover of Dr Jen Malia’s ‘Too Sticky’

‘Too Sticky’ revolves around the life of Holly, a primary school autistic girl, dubious about participating in a science experiment producing slime. It’s aimed at children between 3-7 years. Dr Jen Malia is autistic; two of her three children are also autistic. She oozes her own appreciation of sensory distress and overwhelm into its pages, 

“I wanted to write a book that wasn’t so much about autism, but about a girl, who happened to be autistic. I wrote the book I didn’t know I needed, but that I wish I’d had as a kid. If I’d read this book when I was younger, I would’ve known I wasn’t the only kid having these experiences. And, that there are ways to cope!”

In 2019 Malia took part in ‘Autism Through a Literary Lens’; a symposium of autistic writers and journalists. She headed a workshop on creating authentic autistic characters, advocating that authors (non-autistic) need to know their story’s and characters’ motivations: Why is autism relevant to the plot? Does the author have connections to autism? Is the message of their narrative progressive? Malia believes, that if a writer cannot satisfy these queries, then they should consider not writing an autistic character,

“I don’t like children’s books where the autistic characters don’t make decisions for themselves. Sometimes these books even depict autistic characters as a burden to their family. These books are not written by ‘own voices’ autistic authors. ‘Own voices’ autistic books are usually what I read and identify more with.”

Expressing that she can usually differentiate between autistic and non-autistic authorship, Malia stated that she recognised ‘naturally nuanced’ characters who exist organically within innovative plotlines. Plotlines which don’t revolve around incapacity. Plots that depict idiosyncrasies and perceptive difference that cannot be found within diagnosis guides or manuals, she commented,

“A lot of books, films, and TV shows suggest that if you’re autistic, you need to be a savant with a super-power. They often lack nuance. Many narratives are not written by autistic authors. Most TV shows and films do not have autistic producers, directors, or actors… so it’s no surprise that they lack authentic autistic representation.”

photo of the author and her three children in their garden each with a copy of the children's book 'Too Sticky'

Jen Malia and her Children Noelle, Holly and Nick, reading ‘Too Sticky!’

If this were to change, readers (and TV watchers!) could gain a wider appreciation of ‘average’ autism that isn’t either: a non-verbal person with high needs (often depicted as a burden), or, ‘Rain Man’, a male savant lacking social skills. Mainstream media generally refuses to pair ‘autism’ with sleek, glossy tropes of sociable, fashionable, multi-tasking femininity. This is damaging not only to women, but also to autism acceptance. It encourages society not to adapt its ‘autism parameters’. Malia’s ‘Too Sticky’ challenges preconceptions by depicting autistic femininity as integral to identity and self-worth. Expanding upon how important the act of writing is to her, as an autistic woman, Malia remarked,

“Writing is my preferred form of communication. Growing up I wanted to put everything in writing… because that was the only way I felt I could truly communicate. When other forms of communication were difficult, it really got me through.”

Malia is publicly ‘out’ and open about being a late-diagnosed autistic woman, having written extensively upon the topic. In 2019, she was asked to write a children’s book featuring a female protagonist, Malia expanded upon her objectives,

“I wanted to write a book from the point of view of an autistic girl. For every four boys diagnosed in the US, there is only one girl… Girls are often overlooked or misdiagnosed (with a different condition). Many repeatedly mask their autistic traits, making it hard for them to get a diagnosis.”

Although more men are currently diagnosed, this statistic is skewed by autistic qualities in women not being recognised. Malia knows that what she finds easy or difficult fluctuates. Within ‘Too Sticky’ Holly struggles speaking to her teacher, and her mother steps in. Malia revealed how she drew this from her experiences with speaking difficulties,

“With each decade some things have gotten easier (with autism). I had a lot of trouble speaking to people outside my immediate family, especially as a child, and even as a PhD student… but now I lecture and teach Public Speaking. However, other things have gotten harder. As a mother of three, I’ve found that my executive functioning is often pushed to the limit.”

After having her third child Malia felt extremely overwhelmed and started to become quite emotionally unwell. She also recognised that her younger daughter, Holly, was starting to present some unusual behaviour. Holly’s school and GP dismissed her concerns. Malia requested to be referred to a specialist, who diagnosed both Malia and her younger daughter as autistic (on the same day!)

After striving for her own recognition, Malia hopes that channelling her and Holly’s qualities into ‘Too Sticky’ will build an appreciation to autism and femininity. She illuminated upon how parts of the book mirrored her own family life,

“The opening scene of the book, where Holly gets sticky maple syrup on her fingers, starts protesting, then gets a dishcloth, that was taken directly from a scene in our household!”

Malia wanted autism to be recognised as a normal, valid way to experience the world; not something to be remedied, fixed, or overcome. Holly exists naturally within her family and school environment, surrounded by people who accept her. Malia explained,

“I didn’t want my main character to ‘overcome’ sensory issues with her autism, but rather to find ways to cope with them. It’s also not a story where Holly is forced to do anything. Adults encourage her, but ultimately, she decides to make slime and play with it.”

‘Holly’ is named after Malia’s younger daughter; two other central characters are also named after Malia’s older daughter and son. She has not only channelled her family into ‘Too Sticky’, but also her own dislike of certain textures, commenting that, “An aversion to sticky things is something I have struggled with, especially as a kid.” Holly has visions of slime on the pine trees outside the car window, on the playground monkey bars, and on her lunch tray.

page from the children's book too stickyYoung children may not have a concept of the word ‘autism’. Owing to this, Malia hasn’t used the word ‘autism’ within the body of the narrative, instead, she infuses Holly with autistic tendencies. She wanted ‘autistic’ children to have a character who is listened to and respected; Holly is reassured by her teacher, that, if she partakes in the experiment, there will be a bowl of water and soap on her desk to wash her hands with. She stated that,

“I wanted ‘Too Sticky’ to be a book primarily for autistic kids, because they aren’t well represented, especially in the picture book category. But I also wanted to reach other kids, educators, and parents, so that they have a better understanding of autism.”

‘Too Sticky’ illuminates hypersensitivity, communication, processing, and executive function differences that autistic peers face. Malia spoke upon how Holly’s character finds it difficult to use and respond to language when under pressure,

“Holly is articulate, but I wanted to show, especially when she is really frustrated, that she loses this language ability.”

Despite loving ‘Too Sticky’s’ sentiment, I reflected upon how, when I was struggling at school, this wouldn’t have been a reality; teachers penalised me for processing slowly, and fed back to my parents that I was ‘stubborn’ and ‘unwilling’ to fit in. If classmates were to discover I disliked slime, it swiftly would have been applied to my ponytail. I asked Malia if she thought ‘the climate’ had changed… she believed educational institutions have progressed, but also clarified that she’d wanted to ‘set a good example’ in her writing,

“I didn’t want to show other kids bullying Holly, because kids reading this book might think it’s ‘OK’ to treat autistic kids this way. In books intended for older children I’d like to involve more nuanced, and perhaps negative situations.”

‘Too Sticky’ depicts non-autistic individuals as accommodating to difference. It demonstrates the importance of effective communication between Holly, family, and teachers. Reflecting upon her own past, and needs, Malia expressed how important it is for her to factor time in for ‘self-care’,

“I still have trouble going to grocery stores and gas stations that aren’t part of my normal routine, because I don’t really know what to expect!”

Bright light, loud overlapping noises and prolonged social interactions take their toll on her overall energy and mental health. Malia now plans breaks into events she attends, and since diagnosis, feels comfortable directly voicing discomfort and withdrawing from over-stimulating situations. Autistic women can also be prone to hyper-focussing and being perfectionistic, knowing this about herself means she gives adequate time to planning work and setting aside space for things she enjoys,

“Sports and traveling have always been some of my special interests. One of the challenges with traveling is that I don’t always like the uncertainty of going to new places. But at the same time, I have this adventurous side to me, so I’ve pushed myself to try new experiences.”

Malia has been brave enough to ‘come out’ publicly as autistic, in a climate which expected her to camouflage; the strain of masking has led many AS (Autistic Spectrum) woman to develop anxiety and mental health difficulties. Malia commented, “At social events, I found myself hiding in bathroom stalls, avoiding social situations that provoked stress. I found it hard to keep up with conversations.” Fighting to be taken seriously as an autistic woman, Malia now brandishes the social hoops that she was forced to clumsily jump (and contort!),

“I’m uncomfortable with making direct eye contact. When having a conversation, I often look at people’s mouths, because then I’m at least facing the right direction, so someone knows I’m talking to them. When I was younger, I felt it was hard to pay attention… I was always trying to figure out how not to do weird things with my hands and body when speaking, like flicking my fingers, or sitting rigidly. I experienced a lot of light sensitivity so wore sunglasses. They meant I wasn’t under so much pressure to make eye contact.”

Illuminating real autistic perspective, Malia’s writing and lifestyle promote that, with support, acknowledgement and encouragement, nothing should be an inherent barrier. I’d like to believe that, when more successful autistic women feel secure in ‘coming out’, that their first-hand awareness will have the power to shift social conventions. I hope Malia finds the time, inspiration and energy to continue advocating for women and autism recognition,

Before diagnosis I thought: Why do I get so upset about the little things? Why am I not able to handle this? But now I know, just like my kids, there will be times that I get really overwhelmed and have an autistic meltdown. Knowing this is a big relief compared to going through life without knowing why these explosive meltdowns happen. But autism is an essential part of my identity. I wouldn’t be who I am if I weren’t autistic, and I wouldn’t want to change anything even if I could.”

You can purchase ‘Too Sticky’ on Amazon Too Sticky ‘Sensory-Issues-Autism’ for £10.55.

You can also visit her webpage: jenmalia.com/book/too-sticky/, follow her FB: Jen Malia @MomWithAutism,  twitter and Instagram: @jenmaliabooks

If you would you like to read more about Jen Malia’s experiences with autism she has written extensively upon the subject:  New York Times (‘My Daughter and I were Diagnosed with Autism on the Same Day’). Glamour Magazine, (‘I’m an Autistic Woman, and this is how I Navigate the Workplace’). The Washington Post (‘My Daughter and I are Autistic. Here’s how we’ve Bonded through Ballet’). Catapult (‘How I Came to Appreciate the Video Memories I Experience as an Autistic Woman’). Woman’s Day Magazine (‘I am a 40 Year Old Woman who has never had a Best Friend.’ And, ‘I was Diagnosed with Autism in my Late 30s.’)