Jude Welton is the author of the bestselling and much loved Can I Tell You About Asperger Syndrome? In this post Jude tells us how her personal and professional interest in autism has developed over time and why she decided to write her latest book, Can I Tell You About Autism?
I stumbled upon autism really. I had studied Art History and English at university, and worked in a children’s home for a couple of years, before applying for a variety of postgraduate courses – not sure whether to choose art therapy or child psychology. I opted for the latter, and spent two years studying with John and Elizabeth Newson at the Child Development Research Unit at Nottingham University. John and Elizabeth were pioneers in the world of autism – and the most inspirational of teachers. We used play-based assessments and parental interviews to diagnose and assess children’s needs, and worked with children at Sutherland House, a school for children with autism. I found autism fascinating, and had a particular interest in autism and art. However, for various reasons, I didn’t pursue a career as a psychologist, and – stumbling into things again – I ended up working in publishing.
Is that when you started writing about autism?
Not really – apart from an article I wrote about extraordinary drawing ability shown by some children with autism. I worked as a sub-editor and eventually editor on a variety of partworks, working on subjects ranging from DIY to science, art history and literature, before taking a year off to travel round the world with my old school friend Jane, who illustrates the books I now write for JKP. Then I became a freelance writer, writing books and articles mainly on the arts. Although I wasn’t writing about autism, I was always involved in writing about subjects in an accessible way, that made sense to the general reader, and I was always interested in making words and illustrations work together.
So what made you write your first book about the autism spectrum?
My son. I have a son with Asperger Syndrome (AS), and I wrote my first JKP book Can I tell you about Asperger Syndrome? when he was at primary school. To be more precise, I wrote it one winter’s day during his first residential school trip, when his small, rural primary paired up for the week with another school. Although his classmates knew about his diagnosis, and were mostly a kind and compassionate group, some of the children from the other school – who knew nothing about autism or Asperger Syndrome – were not so kind.
Distressed by this, I felt compelled to write the book: I just woke up one morning during that week with the title and the idea clearly in my head. I visualised the book with a spread-by-spread format, with illustrations paired with text, and with each spread based upon a particular area of a child’s experience. I decided to create a fictional child called Adam, and let him tell his story. I thought if other people knew what it’s like to have AS, from the point of view of a child with AS, then that knowledge could make them more understanding and compassionate.
Fuelled, I suppose, by a passionate desire to protect my child, and enabled both by my academic background and eight years experience as a mother of a child with AS, I wrote the main body of the book (apart from the end section, which was added later after feedback from teachers) that day.
Can I tell you about Asperger Syndrome? became a JKP bestseller, and inspired the Can I tell you about…? series. Why do you think that is?
Various reasons. Firstly it’s short! It’s informed by years of experience, but can be read in less than half an hour. It’s written in a way that’s conversational and accessible, and can be understood by adults and children.
By giving readers the opportunity to see the world through Adam’s eyes, the book enables them to relate in a more understanding way to a child they know with Asperger Syndrome. I’m pleased to say that it has also helped children with Asperger Syndrome to recognise and understand themselves better. I really hope Can I tell you about Autism? will be similarly useful.
The book’s sensitive illustrations have also played an important role in its success. Appealing as well as informative, Jane’s beautifully observed drawings really help establish the tone of the book. We have continued to collaborate on JKP publications.
If there is one top tip you would single out from your new book, Can I tell you about Autism? what would it be and why?
Can I choose two?
It would be using visual supports and using Social Stories™. Both reduce stress and anxiety by helping the child to make sense of the world.
Children on the autism spectrum are often “visual thinkers”, and visual supports, involving pictures and written words, can help create structure, provide information, aid communication, prepare for change and make the world less scarily unpredictable. Visual timetables are particularly useful – both at school and at home.
I’m also a great fan of Social Stories™, which I’ve used frequently with my own son and professionally with other children on the autism spectrum. This technique, developed by Carol Gray, is perhaps the most flexible, effective tool I know for helping develop social understanding, because it can be used in an almost endless variety of situations, and tailored for the individual child.
Can I Tell You About Autism is published, 21st March 2014 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Jude Welton is the author of several books on autism spectrum disorders including the bestseller Can I Tell You About Asperger Syndrome? For more information on Jude or her books please visit jkp.com