Something Different about Dad

Written by Kirsti Evans and Illustrated by John Swogger, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

This book is aimed at young people between the ages of 7 and 15 who have a parent or other adult in their lives with Asperger Syndrome and is styled and designed to meet that need.  As the writer explains it should act as a springboard to further discussion, a tool to break the ice and provide a starting point.

Today, before posting, I have read this book through a third time, just to make sure.

To begin with it’s important to recognize the first two characters, Kirsti and John.  They are important because they pop up later in the book, sprinkled here and there to explain what is going on in the stories.  This point wasn’t immediately clear to me, so I just thought I’d mention it.  Their role could be described as narrators, to clarify aspects of the scenarios.

The book is presented in a casual comic book style and has a comfortable air about it due in part to the font of the typeface and more importantly, the illustrations.  To me, the pictures are a stylized combination of cartoon, anime and manga.  This is great because it makes them familiar and accessible to most young people and it is their very neutrality that makes them universally applicable–the reader can superimpose or imagine their own relative in the place of the characters presented.

One particularly helpful element which could prove useful to many people is the illustration on page 29 [in my copy].  This highlights four aspects of  Asperger Syndrome:  imagination, communication, the senses and emotions, and relationships.  Each one is associated with an icon, a bit like a PEC but the visual works like a shorthand or  short-cut to help someone recall areas which can cause difficulties.

The book provides a number of scenes of everyday family life where everything does not go according to plan.  They focus on different family members in turn.  They are lengthy and detailed but should strike a chord of familiarity.  On completion of each ‘story,’ the narrators untangle the scene to discover what went wrong and why, and more importantly, how the situation could be handled differently in the future.

From this you can tell this book could be a very useful tool, especially because of the positive aspect of ‘how could we do this better.’

If it sounds as if I have reservations you would be right, but this is because the subject matter is complex.  It is difficult to make a complex subject easier to understand.  Simplification is a challenge but necessary–how else could we explain Asperger Syndrome to a youngster?

On the other hand, for the young reader, this book covers any number of sophisticated issues.  Throughout the book something nagged at me, but I couldn’t pin point what it was until I came to the last ‘story.’  Number 6 is called:- ‘What about me?’ where the son of the family takes center stage.  Here he voices what worried me. The book focuses on helping children understand their parent or adult friend with Asperger Syndrome.  It  helps a child look at the situation differently and learn new approaches to reduce future conflict, all of which is great, but it’s asking a lot of that child, any child.  I know these days we are often accused of being too child focused but there is also the accusation that parents are too ‘me–selfish–my time’ obsessed as well.

But that would be only one small blip in an otherwise very useful and sensitively constructed book.  The first thirty plus pages explain many of the aspects of Asperger Syndrome in an illustrative and interesting manner but younger readers may struggle here.  A great deal depends upon the age of the reader and their level of sophistication.  If I were a parent in that situation, I would read the book in it’s entirety and then select one story that best suited my families circumstances for my child to read, preferably together, especially if ‘attention span,’ is an issue.

I would congratulate the authors for producing a well thought out, wonderfully illustrated book which has broken new ground– an exciting new trend–hope it becomes a series? [hint, hint]

p.s. Spoiler alert / warning:-

Some more eagle eyed readers may be able to spot something which bears a remarkable resemblance to a clown face in a wall poster decorating one of the character’s bedroom.

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Ursaphobia – whatever next!

[translation = Bear Phobia]
I stagger to the help desk lugging two over sized bags of library books, with the two that 'won't scan' tucked under my arm. The librarian peers over the brim of her bifocals at me. I return the favour. I read the question that she has formulated in her mind but is too polite to voice; 'she's never gonna read those in a week! Whose is she tryin to kid?'

Each week I zip into the library and hurl a random selection of books into bags, check them out and zap back to the car with a seven day supply of bribes to remain at the dining room table, or distractions from the horror of what's on the dining room table depending upon your viewpoint.[translation = food]

She's right of course, I won’t read them all. I will attempt to read them all, but there will be a significant percentage of the books that will fail to meet requirements with one or more persons. Obviously I avoid all books that have teddy bears on them as that is guaranteed, even now, after all these years to strain my son's powers of tolerance. Whilst there is always the possibility that a teddy may lurk within the pages, at least it's not there bare faced on the cover, to taunt and torture him.

Now I know what you're thinking – 'what has she been doing all this time? How old is that child now? 7? Seven and a half, and she's still not managed to diminish the bear phobia?' As usual you are absolutely right, but I've been trying to desensitize someone else to other things, not necessarily more important things but more encompassing things, like weather, food and temperatures. In the great scheme of things, the latter are more difficult to avoid, whereas teddy bears aren't quite so all pervasive.

There again, perhaps you fall into the other camp and think – 'oh please! Seven and a half and he's afraid of bears! Get over yourself why don't you!' Yet again, I have rumblings like that myself, but it's a question of degree. I know that his reaction to them is not proportional or rational. It would help if I had some inkling as to what he objects to so strongly, but I don't. I have given due time and attention to the matter, but what with the speech delay, I'm no further forwarder.

As a result, I've just equated it to my own dislike of “clowns.” If I have to admit to “Coulrophobia” a fear or rather an innate dislike of clowns, I’m not really in a position to cast aspersions at others. I can't tell you quite why I don't like them, but there it is. It's not as if he doesn't know a great deal about bears, real ones. Grizzlies, Black, Brown and Polar, as well as more obscure species such as the Spectacled bear, our particular favourite, he has no qualms about. Nope, it's just the Teddy bear variety of bear that he finds so excruciating.

You would think that friendly little chaps like “Winnie the Pooh” would be exempt from this prejudice, but no.

Once home, I turn my attention to a few other trifles; facial expression being top on the list. Social interactions run a close second. Whilst the kiddie winkies are at school I start some serious in depth research on the outstanding matter. The fear of bears shouldn’t really be a social impediment in suburban California, but where autism is concerned, anything goes. For now it whizzes it’s way to the top of the list.

I have always been particularly partial to teddy bears myself. I recall a very special bear, a lemon yellow one with golden velvet ears and paws. It was sent from Hamley’s by my grandmother to my baby brother, all the way to South Africa. My mother would religiously prop the bear up inside his cot. As soon as she left the room, he would fling it out unceremoniously. The bear became mine my default. Perhaps I should consult him? He might have some insight that I lack? There again, I felt so mortified at having acquired the bear by his failure to recognise that jewel of a bear, that when we returned home to England by sea, I spend my paultry savings on a singularly small and unattractive bear, to give to him by way of compensation. Jumbo Jet Tea Bags, as the bear became known, was cared for with great zeal, until he was threadbare and even less attractive than when he left the boutique.

“Watch out for dem bears!”
“See the bear.”
But I’ll start another campaign to address the issue of this “phobia” pretty soon. Afterall, if we’re trying to ‘fix’ food, water and temperatures, what’s one more phobia thrown into the mix?

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