Back in February of this year (2016) I had the pleasure of visiting a class via Skype. I didn’t know this going in, but the class was mostly composed of children on the Autism spectrum. They had a profound love of my books and that drove me to understand more about their needs and how to better serve their families.
I went on Instagram and started interacting with the parents of ASD children. This led to a lot of fantastic conversations and a heaping helping of empathy on my part. I realized that I had an unusually large number of autistic friends (and former partners) and that the connection between myself and ASD was that I tended to be both over-sensitive and over emotive. My illustrations and writing also have the same tendency.
So the question became, what kind of books could I make specifically for this audience? One mother in particular, Mrs. Contreras (who also wrote the dedication for the new book), had a striking story to tell. Her three children are all on the spectrum, albeit at varying ends of the chart, and her household peace exists in a precarious balance. I asked her directly “What could a book do to improve your life?”
“Honestly,” she replied, “I just want to tell my son that it’s okay to hug me.”
I can’t imagine much that’s more painful than your own child refusing physical contact with you.
From there we discussed pattern breaking (as I brutally phrase it) where a parent is able to convince or coax an ASD child off of an ingrained habit. Usually the pattern is disruptive in some way to either the child’s life or the parent’s well being. Notable examples include needing the parents nearby to sleep, keeping the house pin-drop quiet, or having one specific toy at bath time.
I couldn’t address all of these issues, but I wanted to create a frame for discussion and specifically talk about Mrs. Contreras chief concern: intimacy. This subject became the central point of the book. The rest of the story, and I’m using that term loosely here, is focused on statement pairs. The first statement normalizes the pattern behavior while the second statement suggests something new that is outside of the pattern. I didn’t want to chide children for doing something that comes natural to them, neither did I want to fall into the trope of “you are a special snowflake that needs separate treatment because you’re not normal.” (I hate any attempt at division, even well-intended division.) The final pattern can be replicated endlessly and my hope is that parents will create their own pairs for their children.
Once we had the story and the sketches down, I started showing the book to other parents on Instagram. The feedback was fabulous and contributed a lot to the look and feel of the book (even my own father got in the act by demanding better backgrounds.) I also met a therapist that specialized in working with ASD children, Saundra S. Harris M.Ed., CCC-SLP, who was kind enough to create a letter to the parents for the book- to which I am supremely grateful. Other parents noted that the simple language and direct illustrations were well suited to the audience. They were glad that I didn’t go into metaphor land.
All in all, let his was the most collaborative project I have ever done. It’s my sincerest hope that this work is truly helpful to families out there coping with ASD issues. Doing work like this restricts the audience, as “It’s Ok to Hug” is by no means a bedtime story, but that’ skins of the point. Books are like shoes, there’s no one size fits all, and I much prefer to make books that people need rather than guess what people will want.