April is Autism Awareness Month and national award-winning children’s author and parenting and autism expert Julia Cook (www.juliacookonline.com) recently answered my questions about her new book Uniquely Wired: A Book About Autism and Its Gifts from Boys Town Press that focuses on a young character named Zak who has autism. Zak encounters life in unconventional ways and describes his point of view as young readers gain a better understanding of his behaviors and learn valuable lessons about patience, tolerance and understanding.
How did your personal goals and motivations factor into the Uniquely Wired: A Book About Autism and Its Gifts book you wrote?
My personal goal is to find a creative way to give kids tools to become lifelong problem solvers. Children with autism fascinate me because they see and hear the world differently than typical kids. Their behaviors and reactions are often times misunderstood. Hopefully this book can offer parents, teachers and kids much needed information.
Do you write children’s book on autism for a core audience of young people to make the highest impact?
This book is for everyone! It takes a look at the world through the eyes of a uniquely wired boy and explains the behaviors, reactions and special gifts that may not be understood or are overlooked by others.
What support/inspiration did you experience during your work on this book?
While presenting at a special education conference in Malaysia, I had the privilege of hearing Stephen Shores speak. He has autism and has the unique ability of explaining how he sees and interprets his world. It’s as if he has one foot in the autism world and one foot in the typical world. I listened to every word of his talk and incorporated his experiences into the story. I also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Melissa Reinhardt – a pediatrician and mom of three boys (one who is uniquely wired.) Her insight both professionally and personally was key to getting “it” right!
Please describe how your book help young readers understand autism at an early age and your intentions relating to early intervention strategies where everyone can cope and understand situations involving autism better.
This book is told in first person by a boy with autism, so kids are drawn in immediately. When kids understand the “why” it is easier for them to accept the “what.” Young children by nature are very accepting of differences, but information is key to developing this acceptance. Children with autism are often ignored and/or shunned by others who are unsure of non-typical behaviors. Since social interactions are so difficult for uniquely wired kids, it is vital that typical kids feel comfortable enough to integrate and relate to them. This book can be that vehicle for understanding in a concrete, colorful, creative way.
How did you choose which behaviors and actions to use as examples of autism in the book? What research was involved?
I focused on behaviors that Stephen Shores pointed out in his talk as well as those that Dr. Reinhardt wanted emphasized. Dr. Reinhardt has many uniquely wired patients and is often explaining specific behaviors and responses to parents, teachers and siblings. I also used my research from writing Amazing ME! – It’s easy being 3 – The CDC’s Learn the Signs storybook that I coauthored with Dr. Jana (see www.cdc.gov/amazingme).
The behaviors and reactions in this book had to be both specific and general enough to relate to every reader. There is a saying…”If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism,” so deciding which behaviors to emphasize was pretty tricky. Therefore, I relied on the experts in the field to tell me how to navigate this challenge.
The use of bridging understanding through the main character Zak and the character who support him are very effective. How do you approach readers with specific examples and overall knowledge in a way they can learn to approach each person who has autism in a unique way since everyone is different?
I would hope that kids might act out some of the scenarios such as flapping their arms to organize their brains, and spinning with the world. Also, there are specific downloadable activities that teachers and parents can do with children to help solidify an understanding for being uniquely wired.
- Have a class discussion on what it feels like when a flash from a camera goes off right in front of you. The light is so bright that it often makes us flinch. Relate this experience to how a child on the spectrum might be super sensitive to bright lights all of the time.
- Have kids take a piece of paper and fold it and tear it step-by-step using oral instructions only. The kids are not allowed to look at you to see your example and are not allowed to look at other kids’ papers for comparison. They can only rely on their interpretation of instructions. Each paper will end up looking different from the others because we are all uniquely wired when it comes to interpretation.
Children on the spectrum don’t learn by watching others…they mostly learn from things that are taught directly to them.
We really need to emphasize with all children that everyone is uniquely wired. “If we meet one child with autism… we have met ONE child with autism.” By celebrating individual differences in everyone, kids can better understand it is uniqueness that makes life interesting.
“You may be unsure when you meet a flower that’s not blue, but the world would be very boring if all flowers looked just like you. There’s differences in all of us, on the inside and the out. Being flower respectful is what the world should be about.” – Judgmental Flower © 2016 Julia Cook
Describe your passion for using your expertise to help others and make difference in their lives.
I am a former school counselor and middle school teacher and it is my passion to make a positive difference in the lives of children. My gift is to translate research and important information into kid-friendly, purposeful stories. Children often want us to waive our magic wands and solve their problems for them. But what we need to do instead, is offer them tools to use to become their own problem solvers. Creatively written children’s books are a great vehicle to use to carry that information into their heads because when you read to a child…they let you in!
How did your professional and personal passions begin?
I was a ski instructor in my younger years and it was on the mountain that I developed a love for teaching children. I became a middle school math teacher specializing in at –risk youth populations and decided to get a degree in counseling to become a more effective teacher. When the town that I lived in needed an elementary school counselor, I decided to get my feet wet. While in elementary, my kids were really having a difficult time with tattling. I set out to find a good book about that and when I couldn’t, I decided to write a story for them. That story worked and on a whim, I called an educational publisher and my story was accepted (A Bad Case of Tattle Tongue © 2006.) Fast forward 12 years and now there are 86 titles produced by two outstanding non-profit publishers (profits from ALL books go back into helping at-risk kids, teachers, school counselors and parents.) I never in a million years expected the books to take off, but it is such an honor and a privilege to see that I am making a positive difference with kids, parents, parents and educators worldwide.
What are some of your future plans/projects?
I have new titles coming out this year on rumors, deployment, foster care, mindfulness, and entitlement. I am currently writing a story about suicide prevention. – Wishing that one was not needed 😦
Thanks so much.