Kay Al-Ghani is a special educational needs teacher and mother of Haitham, an up-and-coming illustrator and animator. Together they have compiled a fantastic storybook to help teach children with Autism manage their anger called The Red Beast, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. We caught up with them to ask a few questions.
What inspired you to write and illustrate The Red Beast?
Kay: In my work with children with ASD, especially those in mainstream schools, it is always the issues surrounding anger that elicits the most concern by teachers, parents and, sometimes, even the children themselves. I have seen children lose control on many occasions. Classrooms have been trashed and occasionally staff and children have been injured.
Sometimes staff have felt it necessary to remove a whole class of children in order to cope with the rage of one child. The aftermath of such incidents inevitably leads to parents/carers being called into school and the child being placed on temporary exclusion. The consequences were never positive and almost invariably damaging to the child.
I began to explore ways of getting the children to visualise their anger as a sort of beast that was very difficult to control. In this way the anger was depersonalised. After all, we are all capable of becoming angry, it is how we deal with those feelings that matters. Children with ASD already have a great deal of anxiety to cope with in a normal school day, and so the chances of awakening the ‘beast’ are increased.
I thought about the methods I used to calm children and incorporated these into a story. However, this story really came to life when I asked my son, Haitham, to illustrate it for me.
Haitham: I have always thought in pictures and so it was easy and quite fun to imagine a beast inside everyone. My mum read the story for me and spilt it into parts and then I drew a picture for each part. I really liked the idea of it changing from a cuddly little creature with big eyes and ears into a massive beast with pin eyes and tiny ears.
What do you think the main challenges are for people with ASD?
Kay: The real challenge comes in functioning in a world, which is often Autism unfriendly. The hustle bustle of everyday life, the sounds, and smells, the feel of things, can all combine to give an agony of sensory overload and then, on top of all this, there are the demands of people!
I am sure my son would have been exceedingly happy to be left to his own devices. However, as parents and teachers we ache for them to be involved, to respond and to relate. So we try everything we can. Parents of children with ASD are probably the best informed of all parents. They are always on a quest to find the magic that will ‘cure’ their children. Once we accept the ASD diagnosis we must then come to a compromise between the child’s needs and our own and getting the balance right isn’t always easy. I wish I had known as much about ASD when Haitham was small as I do today. I think life for Haitham as he grew up could have been a lot less stressful! However, he has matured into a fine young man and we are so proud of him.
Haitham: My biggest challenge is understanding people. I can’t seem to know why they don’t see things the way I do. I used to ask people the same questions and it would really bother them. My Mum and my sister stopped answering me, which was really frustrating; you see I really enjoyed being able to understand what they said. When I knew the answer it was great, but it seems not so great for them. My Mum often makes a joke that if I could have a script for my life and everyone knew his or her part, it would be fantastic. I wish people would not talk so much; it is sometimes hard to know what they are saying. That’s why I love cartoon animations. It means I can rewind anything I don’t understand and replay bits I really enjoy and the pictures keep me focused.
What would you consider your greatest achievements?
Kay: I know it is a cliché, but my children are my greatest achievement. My daughter has two master degrees and she has always been a source of joy. Beautiful, intelligent, hard working and caring; it can’t have been easy growing up with Haitham!
Haitham has worked so hard to get on in life. He is gentle, helpful, kind and non judgemental. He struggles good naturedly to make sense of our ever-changing moods and his view of the world is innocent. His teachers and classmates always treated him with great fondness, affection and respect.
Today I think he is happy with his life and he has a strong sense of what is right and wrong. This gives him a code to follow and makes him an exemplary human being.
Haitham: I have had a few great achievements:
1. Passing 8 GCSEs
2. Getting a Triple Distinction in my Multi Media course
3. Winning the Vincent Lines award for creative excellence. (You can see Haitham’s award winning cartoon here).
4. Being a published author, cartoonist and now illustrator.
5. Later this year 2 of my animations will be shown at the Hull Film Festival.
And…soon I’ll be signing the new book at Waterstone’s bookshop! (Hastings, 4th October).
What are your hopes for the future?
Kay: To continue working as an advocate for children with Special Needs and to develop my creative partnership with Haitham. He has illustrated a number of children’s stories for me, which we hope to see published.
Haitham: I want to keep illustrating books and maybe work on some more animations. At the moment I am working on my cartoon strip, “Semantic Sam – The Most Confused Boy in Class” (volume 2). It is based on the mistakes I make when trying to understand idioms and metaphors. I really love drawing cartoons.
What is your favorite book or film?
Kay: Oh, hard to chose just one…but I would go for the book and the old film version of Wuthering Heights (Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon). I love everything by the Bronte sisters.
Haitham: My favourite book is by Lynne Reid Banks: The Indian in the Cupboard. The author came to my school and signed the book for me. I still read it today even though I am 23! I love all old 1930/40s cartoons, but if I just had to pick one film it would be Disney’s The Jungle Book.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2008