VANCOUVER, Wash. — Power chords have never been more powerful than when they’re blasting out of Joel Suzuki’s guitar in waves of glowing color.
Joel is a typical teenager in many ways. He feels awkward around girls. He loves rocking out on his electric axe and dreams of making it big, but suspects that might not be realistic. Really, he’s more of a “private virtuoso” who is most comfortable playing alone.
But Joel is also supremely gifted. He’s great at memorizing data and tracking details. He’s “on the spectrum” — living with a mild form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That’s not usually considered a gift — it makes him a magnet for bullies — but through a series of amazing adventures, Joel learns to cast magic spells by combining his unique brain waves with his awesome guitar chops.
All of that is established in “Secret of the Songshell,” book one of the Joel Suzuki saga, a growing series of fantasy adventures for teen readers by devoted Vancouver, Wash., dad Brian Tashima.
Protagonist Suzuki is a mashup of Tashima, who’s a working musician as well as a writer, and his 18-year-old son Torin, who lives with Asperger’s.
The Suzuki books join a growing chorus urging understanding and acceptance of autism and Asperger’s. Tashima pointed out that a new Muppet with autism recently joined the cast of “Sesame Street,” and that Billy the blue ranger in the latest “Power Rangers” film is also on the spectrum.
Tashima donates $1 from each book sale to Autism Empowerment, a grass-roots nonprofit agency. Tashima is on the board of directors.
“My commitment is to give back to the community that supports and enjoys the book,” he said.
Portraying Asperger’s as a talent, not a disability, helps pave the way to better lives for people with autism, he said. “I would love to make Joel the autism community’s own Harry Potter,” he said.
While he may not have climbed onto the best-seller list, Tashima has gotten noticed by the autism community. He gives readings and visits classrooms, either in person or via Skype, to talk about his writing and his parenting, he said.
He finds nothing more satisfying than connecting with young readers who tell him that Joel Suzuki’s adventures and abilities “make me feel so much better about myself,” he said.
The only thing that’s comparable is when readers who aren’t on the spectrum also enjoy the books, and tell Tashima: “Now I understand so much better.”