Cary, N.C. — In five years, Samantha McLeod's version of "normal" has expanded beyond imagination – from frustrated fourth grader to published author to visiting expert in elementary school classrooms.
McLeod was 9 years old when she turned to her journal to deal with the sometimes embarrassing behaviors of her young brother, who has autism.
She wrote about the kids who stared or shook their heads at her brother Tyler. She recorded their silly actions and wondered why some behaviors are considered OK and others are not. "No one is normal. Everyone is a freak,” she determined.
Her honest and humorous account of autism from a sibling's point of view caught the eye of Turner Creek Elementary School Principal Jan Hargrove, who encouraged McLeod to turn her writing into a book.
At 13, she was a published author, whose "Normal" was adopted by elementary schools to help teach about disabilities and differences.
She followed it up with a second book, "My Brother is Not Special," and a third, "Good Day, Bad Day."
Now 16, McLeod has grown into an advocate for understanding others, and she regularly shares her message in elementary classrooms across Wake County.
"I just hope they'll keep that idea for the rest of their life, and as they're older, they'll be more compassionate toward people like my brother," she said.
In a recent return visit to Turner Creek, she encouraged fourth graders to express themselves in writing like she did.
"You should always write, even if you don't intend them to become a book. You should never be discouraged just because one person, or even 50 people, don't like it," she said.
It would seem that the message is sinking in.
"I learned no matter what, you should be caring and respectful to everybody," said student Katelyn Boyd.
McLeod, a junior at Panther Creek High School, said she hopes to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and study medicine.