On Grandma’s Box of Memories – interview with the creators

Jean Demetris was a primary school teacher for 22 years. 8 years ago her husband was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. She dealt with many aspects of the condition, the highs and lows, and engaged with the many agencies involved in her husband’s care.
The experience inspired Jean and her illustrator son Alex to create a storybook for young children; to help them understand and talk about dementia with their families. We caught up with them both for a quick chat about the inspiration behind the book and what they hope it will achieve. 

Demetris-Demetr_Grandmas-Box-of_978-1-84905-993-0_colourjpg-web

 

Q1. Where did the idea for Grandma’s Box of Memories
come from?

Jean: There were two factors that prompted the idea for the book.

Firstly, when my husband was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia I needed information.  I found there were plenty of books on dementia for adults and some for teenagers, but hardly any for young children.

Secondly, in my husband’s nursing home I felt there was a need for more activities and stimulation for the residents.  This made me think about what could be done to encourage residents’ families and friends to participate with the residents and involve them in engaging activities.

Taking these two factors into consideration, I came up with the idea for the book that would become Grandma’s Box of Memories.

 

Q2. How did you Alex (Jean’s son) become involved in making the book?

Alex: A few months after Dad died Mum spoke to me about her idea for the book.  I liked the sound of it, so we started work on the book’s structure and on sketching out illustrations.  Soon we had put together several sample pages and before long we were very pleased to receive a commission for the full version.

I had relatively recently graduated with an MA in Illustration from Camberwell College of the Arts for which my final project had been a comic based on my family’s experiences of Dad’s dementia. Grandma’s Box of Memories represented another opportunity to work on a subject that was close to my heart.

 

Q3. Do you have any suggestions for people on how to adjust to the changes they are likely to encounter when a family member is affected by dementia?

Jean: My experience is of a family member with Lewy Body Dementia.  Different forms of dementia have different characteristics and symptoms, so the adjustments their family and friends may need to make may be different.

Dementia should not be viewed as a stigma.  Find out as much as possible about the condition from professionals and support groups.  They will be able to advise you on available help and support, so use this to your advantage.

You must accept that you have to adjust to dealing with a changed person.  Acknowledge the limitations that dementia can cause in people.  Focus on small activities and do not expect too much of the person.  Everyday tasks such as using the telephone or cooking will become difficult for people with dementia; safety around the home becomes a priority.  Social services should help you to install devices such as gas, water and personal alarms.  You can also be creative in helping the person to remain independent using small measures such as sticky notes reminding them to lock doors, close windows, or turn off taps.

If the person with dementia is alone at home it is also helpful to arrange for friends and neighbours to drop by and check they are safe.

Personal hygiene may become problematic as reluctance to bathe or change clothes can take hold, and you may need to help with these tasks.  Initially this may cause embarrassment but it can be overcome.

Patience and understanding will win out over confrontation in dealing with situations, and a sense of humour is essential.

Should your family member need residential care, try to help make it a home from home.  Enjoy going there and participate in events such as birthday celebrations.  Engage with staff and other residents.  You will encounter people you would not normally meet, which can be rewarding.

Don’t be upset when acquaintances find it difficult to engage with the person with dementia.  Some people will naturally find the situation hard to deal with.

Your lifestyle will change, sometimes quite dramatically.  Caring for a person with dementia can be hard work emotionally and physically, but don’t be hard on yourself.  Seek help – it’s there, and find time for you.  Occasional treats are a must.

 

Q4. What do you hope young readers will gain from this book?Illustration 22

Jean: Grandma’s Box of Memories is meant to be educational and entertaining; I hope readers will enjoy the story, illustrations and characters.

The book provides children with basic but helpful information about dementia, and invites readers to suggest their own ideas for items to go in a memory box.  It might also encourage children to be creative and come up with ideas of their own to support people with dementia.

Hopefully, it will help children understand that they can be part of the caring process and share their feelings and ideas with family members.

 

Q5. What should parents remember when they are explaining dementia to younger children?

Jean: Children will be aware that something is wrong but will normally accept the diagnosis of dementia given the appropriate support.  It is natural for an adult to want to protect the child yet is important to explain what is going on in a calm and clear way.  A child may experience a range of emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, anger and confusion, and will need reassurance that adults are there for them and can offer them time for discussion, both talking and listening and encouragement to ask questions.

It is important that the child understands that dementia cannot be cured but there are ways to help the person feel loved and wanted.

 

Q6. How can children be involved in the care of family members?

Jean: Most obviously, children can pay frequent visits to the person with dementia.  During these visits they can look at books and photos with the person, chat with them, listen to music and sing and dance, draw pictures, or do simple jigsaws.  They can also share small treats such as sweets and biscuits and help to peel and share pieces of fruit.

Outings to places like local parks are another way that children can be involved in caring for someone with dementia.  Sharing simple outdoor activities like playing catch or feeding ducks is fun for everybody.

Please note: if you are in the US or Canada, you can view the book information page and order your copy here.

 

The inspiration behind secret agent mice adventures!

Tozer_MI-Mouseweb-Int_978-1-84905-496-6_colourjpg-webIn this Q&A, MI29: Mouseweb International to the Rescue! author S. J. Tozer discusses how her daughter’s recovery from a chronic illness inspired her to write the story of MI29, a network of secret agent mice ready to lend a paw when we need it most, and how she hopes the tale will encourage children to live their lives more positively.


The idea of a network of secret-agent mice helping out us humans is such a fun concept, but what inspired you to come up with the original idea?

As a child, I used to love reading books about secret worlds operating just around the corner from the real world – Narnia at the back of the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ stories or the ‘Borrowers’ living in the walls and floors of a house in Mary Norton’s tales. I knew when I started to write that I wanted to create a similar sort of situation. As a youngster, I kept a succession of hamsters as pets and was allowed to keep each one in a cage in my room.  They were all very good escape artists – particularly at night (when they would bite the rungs of their cage incessantly) so the idea fomented in my mind that they would spy on me and wait for me to go to sleep and then meet up with other children’s pets as in the fairy tale the ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’.  I imagined mice would be no different to hamsters in their behaviour.  Over the years, I have also enjoyed the exploits of James Bond and watched these films from an early age clandestinely at first with my teenage babysitter!  I particularly liked the gadgets created for 007 by ‘Q’.  Just before I started to write, I read an article about new spying technology, cameras and listening devices as small as an insect and able to fly – a bug, literally.  This fascinated me and gave me the idea of the mice having tiny and clever ‘Questors’, networks and mainframes that would help them to spy on people.  The idea of MI29, an obscure branch of the secret service, followed naturally.


MI29 HQ for blogThe theme of small things behind the scenes being able to make a huge impact on someone’s life seems like an important aspect of the book.  Do you think that’s true?

Yes I do think that is true.  The technology and information revolution we are experiencing at the moment has had a huge impact on people’s lives but it has also increased our vulnerability to be manipulated by those operating the computers and their vast databases.  I was one of the last classes in my school not to receive any formal computer training.  In fact I didn’t touch a computer until I started work aged twenty two – despite doing a Chemistry degree! That would be unheard of now, of course.  I also studied Psychology for a year at University and was really amazed by the interesting humane experiments performed on animals to induce particular logical behaviours. My imagination leapt to thinking that given enough time watching humans, mice could learn how to operate tiny computers.


Why are the rats so unpleasant to the poor mice from MI29? What can children learn from them do you think?

I’ve never liked rats – they just look evil don’t they!  I wanted to have the old battle between good and evil at the heart of the story and children always like happy endings.

 

The girl that MI29 are helping out in the story, Lily, is obviously very unwell.  How important do you think it is to show that she is able to repay the favour and help them by telling their story?

My daughter was very unwell as a young child and MI29 was started as my way of trying to comfort both her and her brother.  For about three years she was severely disabled by a rare condition of the hip joint.  She had been quite a physical child enjoying ballet, sport, country walks and the like and all this had to stop straight away as she was in such pain.  It was a horrible time made worse by some insensitive teachers at her school. Thankfully, she is absolutely fine now.  I wanted to write a story that had some of the elements of her story at its heart as I had been so moved by her predicament – it was my first encounter with the world of disability. When I began writing, I hadn’t come across any children’s literature with a disabled child as the hero or heroine who wins through in the end.  However, I wanted more than that.  I wanted Lily to be empowered by her experience of MI29 and capable to return the favour. So many disabled children feel powerless and always at the receiving end of help and charity.  I wanted my heroine to do something really special and give something back to the organisation that helped her. I wanted to give Lily back her dignity and self-worth.

 

MI29 mice in costumes for blogAt one point Windsor, an Alpha agent of MI29, explains to his children: ‘We’re all spies in our various ways.  It’s the way you use the information that counts’.  Do you think that is an important lesson for children to take away from the book too?

I do think it is very important.  We all live truly unique lives from second to second and can learn important lessons from these experiences, if we have an open mind.  For me, the important thing in life is to do something useful, positive, big or small that contributes to society in some way and that can be your legacy – something you can look back on and smile about. I think it is important to support causes that are meaningful to you and, if you can’t give financially, you can always give the most precious thing of all – your time.  It is important to keep the capacity to be moved by things as it is an expression of our humanity.

 

As well as being a really enjoyable adventure story, what is the overall message that you hope children will take away from MI29?

I hope that children might learn to live their lives helpfully and positively – as if some organisation or someone like God was spying on them with the power to influence either way the twists and turns of their lives.

 

Read an extract from the book here…

 

 

Breaking the final taboo – a talk with Dying Matters.

Final Chapters: Writings About the End of Life is a moving collection of short stories and poetry pieces originally written for a competition run by the Dying Matters Coalition. We caught up their Director of Communications, Joe Levenson, to find out more about the idea behind the competition and why they believe a collection such as this can be not only moving but also significant in getting us all to open up about that final taboo – death and dying. 

Final Chapters: we need to talk about dying

Joe Levenson

Every minute, someone in the UK dies but for many people talking about dying and facing up to their own mortality remains the final taboo, something either to be ignored or postponed indefinitely for a day that many of us like to believe will never come.

While most of us say we’re comfortable talking about dying, the reality is that the majority of people are still shunning important conversations and practical actions to manage their end of life care and final affairs. This reluctance to talk about dying also means that shared experience, which could be a real source of comfort and support, is often hard to come by.

It was against this backdrop that the Dying Matters Coalition was set up by the National Council for Palliative Care in 2009, with the aim of raising awareness about the importance of talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement. With over 30,000 members from across the voluntary, public and commercial sectors Dying Matters is at the forefront of trying to make it easier for everyone to talk about dying.

For many people writing about dying can be less difficult than talking about it and more therapeutic. That’s why Dying Matters initially launched its Final Chapters creative writing competition, and why we are so delighted that a collection of 30 short stories of poems from the competition has just been published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Final Chapters

Final Chapters

This collection provides a great opportunity to think and talk about dying, death and bereavement – too often a taboo subject – and we hope that it will appeal to a wide range of readers. We also want it to become required reading for all those with a professional interest in end of life care.

So taken were we by the response to the Final Chapters competition which saw 1,400 entries including many of an exceptionally high standard, we have also just announced the launch of a new writing competition, While there’s still time: writing about putting things right. We really hope this will provide another great opportunity for people to use the medium of short stories and poems to reflect on end of life issues.

Certainties in life are few but dying is one of them. That’s why we hope that as well as providing a great read, Final Chapters plays a part in breaking the taboo about discussing dying.

By talking more openly about end of life issues and taking actions such as writing a will, recording our funeral wishes, registering as an organ donor, planning our future care and sharing what we would want with our loved ones we can help to ensure that we all get the chance to live well until we die.

You only die once, so don’t leave it too late to make your wishes known or to provide support to those who need it.

Joe Levenson is Director of Communications at the National Council for Palliative Care which leads the Dying Matters Coalition. Find out more about Dying Matters here.

You can also follow them on twitter: @DyingMatters

#YODO

Play the Frog’s Breathtaking Speech Game

Image from Frog's Breathtaking SpeechBring the benefits of yoga and yogic breathing techniques into the classroom and the home with this game from Frog’s Breathtaking Speech author Michael Chissick. Based on the book, the game is a fun way to help children to recognise negative emotions and lean how to turn these into positive ones.

Simply download the game board, card set and instructions from the links provided and with some simple steps you’ll be ready to roar the house down with Lion, shake the walls with the Woodchopper Breath and more.

The game is at its most effective if used with the book, Frog’s Breathtaking Speech – find out more about the book here.

© 2013 JKP blog. All Rights Reserved.

Have a good airport and flying experience with your child with Autism: Planning for Sensory Issues

Laura Vickers‘ fun new picture book, Flying with Janet, prepares children with ASDs for the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the airport experience – from packing and getting ready to leave home, to traveling to the airport, checking in, going through security, boarding the plane, taking off, turbulence, using the on-board bathroom, landing, and baggage reclaim.

Here are just some of the great tips and advice for parents included in the book:


Before you leave for your trip…

Have your child help make the plan for dealing with sensory issues and choose what they’d like to bring in a “Go Bag.” If she feels she has something she can do in a situation, it gives her a sense of control that reduces her anxiety.

Noise

Especially in places with high ceilings and lots of people, for example check-in and security, there can be a lot of echoing background noise. Noise reduction headphones or listening to music from headphones can help. Ear plugs come in many different styles; you may be able to find one your child likes. Bathrooms can be noisy, especially with the loud, unexpected flushes. Carts used by the airline to transport people emit a loud, piercing beeping as a warning.

From the book: "One annoying thing is when the captain makes announcements that are too loud or too quiet. Most of the time, though, the announcements are just right."

Crowds

If your child is feeling overwhelmed and needs more space in a crowd, we have found it useful to use our adult arms and bodies combined with the luggage to create at least a small breathing space around Janet. She doesn’t like to be touched when stressed, so we can’t just pick her up to raise above the crowd.

Smells

Strong smells can happen anywhere, especially in crowded places. As discussed in the book, bringing something with a strong flavor to chew or a favorite perfume or smell to put on a tissue to hold to the child’s nose can help. Places to be especially aware of are drop off/pickup areas (where exhaust builds up) and bathrooms. Also, if it is a warm day, be aware that an aircraft has limited electricity from the time it pushes back from the gate until just before take off; there may be several minutes without air conditioning.

Temperature/Touch

Consider bringing a first aid chemical cold pack and use it to cool down your child if they become too hot. A battery powered mini-fan can also be useful in the heat. If it is cold, don’t count on a blanket or pillow to be provided on the plane. Bring lots of layers, and perhaps chemical warming packs. If your child likes to touch everything, or has allergies like Janet, bring some antibacterial wipes and wipe everything the child might touch.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Teaching Yoga to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders? A Piece of Cake!

By Michael Chissick, primary school teacher and qualified yoga instructor, and specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and author of Frog’s Breathtaking Speech.


Exciting New Training Project

An exciting new initiative which delivers the benefits of yoga to hundreds of children with autism will be the cherry on the cake. The project will be in action at a Special Needs Academy in Lincolnshire, UK, after Easter with more to follow.

Over the past thirteen years I have developed a model of how to teach yoga to children with autism. The model can be used by class teachers and teaching assistants with no previous experience of yoga. The structures, activities and postures are easy to learn and are safe to teach. The model is suitable for children across all key stages.

Special schools that have a high proportion of children on the autistic spectrum will use the model. The advantages are that teaching and training are geared to the specific needs of their pupils, and staff can be trained economically without time away from school; and the icing on the cake is that staff can use the model immediately.

How did we reach this point?

I have been teaching Yoga to KS1, 2 & 3 pupils as part of the integrated day at Special Needs School for thirteen years. Many of the children I teach have autism and sensory processing disorders. During each thirty minute session I work with the whole class, class teacher and teaching assistants. Time restraints make it impossible for me to teach all classes in my schools, so I tend to alternate classes every half term.

I had noticed that when I returned to a class to continue after a 5/6 week break there was a need to start over again, which can be frustrating. For many years I simply regarded it as part of the job of teaching pupils with ASD.

However over the last couple of years I have noticed that some classes had retained what I had taught them and were as enthusiastic as ever for their yoga. So what distinguishes the ‘ready-for-more-class’ from the ‘let’s-start-again-class? The answer is that the class teachers and teaching assistants have been teaching their pupils yoga without me… and doing a brilliant job at it too!

Why does it work?

The answer also lies in the fundamentals of my highly structured approach. For example, the children are seated on chairs in a circle. I use a visual timetable and posture cards to keep my verbal input to the minimum. Within the structure I target several layers or elements simultaneously; it’s like a multi-tiered cake. These layers are easily recognised by colleagues who are already experts at working with children with ASD and are using similar models in other curriculum areas.

 

The Layers

  1. Engagement tactics are, for example, encouraging children to choose from posture cards hanging from an umbrella; or children throwing tiny bean bags into the holes on a colourful board as a means of choosing a posture.
     
  2. Fun is key! Children eagerly get out of their chairs and into the posture because it’s fun; if it continues to be fun then they will want to stay in the posture.
     
  3. Repetition of postures over the weeks is a crucial; as children become more at ease with the posture leading to improved skills and greater confidence.
     
  4. Every child Achieves in the lesson.
     
  5. Social Skills like waiting, listening, speaking, helping each other, taking turns and following rules are targeted.
     
  6. Fitness Flexibility and improved co-ordination are the layers that tend to hit the news.
     
  7. Sensory is the sweetest layer. The vestibular system ‘tells us if we are moving or still, while our proprioceptive system is the unconscious awareness of our body position’ (Yack et al 2002). A combination of both systems gives us vital information about movement and where we are in relation to, for example, the floor. I teach many children whose vestibular and proprioceptive systems are dysfunctional. Using yoga postures I help to regulate those dysfunctions.

Feedback

Feedback from the Academy in Lincolnshire was wonderfully positive describing the day as excellent and staff commented that the model:

‘…does away with many pre-conceptions and prejudices – it helps make different types of movement accessible to all.’

It is early days in Lincolnshire, but soon the children and staff will be enjoying their yoga while I’ll be teaching 175 miles away. Seems like I’ll be having my cake and eating it.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

VIDEO: An insider’s perspective on what you can do to help a person with dementia – with JKP author Christine Bryden

In this video, Christine Bryden – author of Who will I be when I die? and Dancing with Dementia – gives family members, carers and professionals an insider’s perspective on what it feels like to have dementia, and what they can do to help.

Stay tuned for more videos from Christine Bryden and her husband, Paul, on the JKP Blog!

Christine Bryden has worked in the pharmaceutical industry and as a senior executive in the Australian Prime Minister’s Department. Following her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1995, she has been instrumental in setting up local support groups for people with dementia and has addressed national and international conferences. In 2003 she was the first person with dementia to be elected to the Board of Alzheimer’s Disease International. Her first book Who will I be when I die? was published in 1998 and has been translated into several languages. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Yoga breathing techniques to help children deal with anger and stress – An Interview with Michael Chissick

Michael Chissick has been teaching yoga to children in primary mainstream and special needs schools as part of the integrated school day since 1999. He is a primary school teacher as well as a qualified yoga instructor. He is also a specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Michael trains and mentors students who want to teach yoga to children.

Michael is the author of the forthcoming children’s book, Frog’s Breathtaking Speech, which is published by JKP imprint Singing Dragon and teaches four yoga breathing techniques in a fun and interactive way and shows how they can be used to deal with anger, anxiety and tension.

In this interview, he shares the story of how this beautiful book came to be and the rewarding experiences he’s had teaching yoga to children; why he believes children nowadays need tools to cope with life’s stresses more than ever before; and how the breathing techniques in the book can be used with all children, including those with special needs.


Tell us a bit about you – how did you get into yoga, teaching yoga and teaching yoga to children?

I first came to yoga in 1974, and although I practised regularly it was not till 1990 that I consciously stepped up my practice and interest.

In 1990, following the death of my wife Jill, I decided to give up my business and look after my children. I made up my mind that Jill’s death would not be wasted and that I would do something meaningful with my life. I signed up to an Access Course, which got me back into studying and prepared me for University. As a mature student I simply thrived on the course and it unleashed a creative side of me that I had never known before. I went on to take a four year degree course in Education, (BEd Hons) and eventually took up my first post as a primary school teacher in Old Harlow, Essex, UK at the age of forty-six.

It was during my four year degree course that I established my deep interest in children’s self-esteem – specifically how it can be damaged and how it can be improved. Of all the areas that I studied this was for me the most important and I determined to make enhancing children’s self-esteem the core of my approach to teaching.

In the nineties yoga was such an essential part of my life that soon I had completed my yoga teacher training with the British Wheel of Yoga, and was able to begin my new career teaching yoga to adults. It was an obvious next step to merge my skills and experience as a primary teacher and qualified yoga teacher, and thus I become a children’s yoga teacher. I set up an after school club but found the work frustrating primarily because of my realisation that yoga needed to be taught as part of the school day for children to benefit most.

Nevertheless word of my work had spread and one day I was asked to teach yoga to children in a Special Needs School in East London. That day was a turning point in my life. Despite all my experience I stood there not knowing what to do while this group of children were going absolutely crazy, at one time cussing at me and throwing shoes around – it was chaos. I tried various activities, all to no avail. Then, amazingly, with one specific activity (it was Sun Sequence), they were suddenly hooked… and I even got them to do a relaxation. The transformation was astounding. I came out of there that day, sat in the car and cried tears of joy that I could make such a difference. That was a Tuesday Morning in 1999 and I have taught there every Tuesday ever since. Over time the school has become a beacon school for teaching children with autism. This means that for more than a decade I have been developing teaching approaches for teaching yoga to children with autism. I am now regarded as a specialist in teaching yoga to autistic children. I am very proud of that.

In the last few years I have been fortunate to have taught continuously in the same nucleus of schools. This means that I am there on a specific day every week, every term, every year. It also means that I have had to be creative and develop fun and interesting activities or risk the children’s boredom. I have taught yoga in schools as part of the integrated school day for more than a decade now and have developed many approaches and activities that the children love.

One of those activities has now been turned into a book called Frog’s Breathtaking Speech. Now my enthusiasm for writing knows no bounds and I am busy with three new books that will enable me pass on my considerable expertise to others. Frog’s Breathtaking Speech – and incidentally The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo, and Going on a Bear Hunt – all make terrific stories to embed yoga postures in.

What inspired you to write this wonderful book?

I have been using Frog’s Breathtaking Speech in children’s yoga lessons for many years. The story grew out of the need to increase children’s awareness of their breath and, more importantly, how to apply it in stressful situations. Situations such as dealing with exams, spelling and table tests, being bullied, tension, headaches and anger, and of course performing or presenting to their peers and parents in assembly.

Although, as an adult, I had experienced the benefits of yoga breathing techniques I had honestly found them dry and unexciting. If I was to grab the children’s attention I needed to teach breathing techniques in a way that was fun and relevant. My strategy was to use the story in a yoga/drama format and it was an immediate success.

I would set out the yoga mats in a circle in the hall. As many children as possible would be given the opportunity to be Frog. I would ask for sad faces and then ask for less sad faces as the story unfolds. The other characters, Crocodile, Lion, Humming Bee and Mr Gumble the Woodchopper, would be played by the whole class. To keep the “chorus” in unison I would hold up placards in pantomime style saying, “Why so sad Frog?” and “I know an interesting way to breathe”. We have also performed Frog on stage to great applause.

I think there are several reasons why this approach worked well, including:

  • there was sufficient repetition for everyone to be able to join in;
  • it was obviously great fun;
  • the children were learning the techniques in a fun and relevant context;
  • children found the characters interesting.

Looking back I think that one of the main factors that inspired me to turn the yoga play into a book was the feedback from the children. I have lost count of the amount of times that children would tell me how they had used the techniques to deal with incidents in their lives. Problems ranging from being angry at siblings who stole their sweets or broke their toys, to being the calming influence in big family arguments. My two favourites will always be: the nine-year old boy who was terrified of the dentist and who quietly sat in the waiting room, and ultimately the dentist’s chair, practising his Crocodile Breath to calm himself; and the ten year old girl, who was angry with her parents, who would go to her room and practice Woodchopper Breath every day for three weeks, who eventually came and told the class teacher and me that that she had Haaaa’d out her anger.

The other main factor that inspired me to turn the play into a book was, simply, to get it out there. If this story helped the children that I taught it would help all children.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with the illustrator,
Sarah Peacock?

I have worked with Sarah Peacock in her Hertfordshire Primary School for five years. Sarah would come into in the yoga lesson with her class and over the years had been involved with Frog’s Breathtaking Speech on many occasions. She knew the story very well and how much the children liked it.

Examples of Sarah’s amazing illustrations were displayed around school. Often over lunch she had talked about her dream of being an illustrator. When I finally wrote the story as a book, I asked her to illustrate and she came up with the wonderfully timeless and charming illustrations that make the book so readable.

Where did the character of Frog come from?

Frog came about for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, children can stay in Frog Posture easily for longish periods without too much discomfort (and it’s great for their knees and hips). Secondly, I like Frog characters – they make me laugh; and thirdly, there is a long history of Frogs (and Toads) in children’s literature – for example, The Frog Prince and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher.

I saw Frog as a character that boys and girls could relate to because he was honest about his fears. I think they could also relate to his courage in taking action, facing his fears and achieving a victory.

I suppose he is based on many of the children that I have taught and if I am being honest there’s a lot of me in Frog. (Well, even grownups need to calm themselves and get angry sometimes.)

Can you describe scenarios in which the different breathing techniques would be especially useful?

I think that being a child nowadays is stressful. I have already mentioned my two favourite examples of how techniques from the story have helped. However as educationalists we are constantly aware that the children in our care are travelling through a minefield of emotional problems in different areas of their lives.

For example children are dealing with major blows within the Family like divorce; separation from parents; death of a family member or friend or pet; worries about family’s financial situation; worries about a family member’s health; or perhaps a new baby brother or sister has arrived.

At school children are often anxious about their lack of specific skills, being bullied, tests, SATs, how to deal with an overload of activities, a belief that they do not have enough friends, lack of self-esteem, fear of failure, and even fear of success.

On the social side, children can be anxious because they may see themselves not “in” with the right crowd, too fat, too thin, too tall, too small, too ugly and so on.

I believe the social pressures on children – in or out of school – are immense today and we need to teach them all manner of strategies to help them deal with the pressure. Yoga and breathing techniques being at the top of the list.

The four strategies that are taught in Frog are:

  • Crocodile Breath. Situations where children could apply the technique are: tests, exams, sports day, making speeches to peers and parents, going to the dentist, finding courage.
  • Humming Bee Breath. Situations could include: headaches, feeling tense, panicky in the middle of a busy shopping centre at Christmas.
  • Woodchopper Breath. Situations could include: venting anger or frustration.
  • Lion Breath. Situations could include: strengthening voice or loosing tension.

How can this book be used with children with special needs?

Frog can be used with all children and that includes many children with special needs.

Used purely as a story, Frog is highly engaging, the illustrations compelling, and there is sufficient repetition to help reinforce readers and invite anticipation. There are also ample opportunities to compare the Frog’s experiences to the children’s if the children are at a suitable level.

On a higher level, if you are reading the book to children and encouraging them to practice the postures there is a lot to be gained. Firstly, the children will benefit from increased flexibility and better muscle tone. The big reward, however, is that yoga postures can help children with Sensory Processing Disorders.

Many children with autism, for example, have Sensory Processing Disorders which affects their Vestibular, Proprioceptive and Tactile systems. This is a vast subject that I will deal with elsewhere. Suffice to say that yoga can go a long way to identify any extremes in a child’s sensory behaviour and provide strategies to help regulate their nervous systems away from those extremes.

Using the story in a yoga/drama format also creates opportunities to work on speaking and listening skills and other communication skills like, for example, projecting the voice. Also social skills such as taking turns, waiting or applauding another child will come up when you use this story.

One massive benefit of using the story with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for example, is the opportunity to be acting out different emotions. Frog becomes less sad as the story progresses. In fact, emotions range from sad to happy, scared to brave, beaten to successful. A great excuse to give those face muscles a good workout.

Finally, if you are using the story in a yoga/drama format and including the breathing techniques then you are encouraging the children to be “in the moment” – a well hackneyed yoga term, I know, but totally appropriate for children on both extremes of the hyperactivity scale who need to find “that middle ground of alert interest where they are not overwhelmed or underwhelmed” (Sher, B. 2009 p. 22).

Copyright © Singing Dragon 2011.

The incredible potential of the AS mind – An Interview with Alexei Maxim Russell, the creator of ‘Trueman Bradley: Aspie Detective’

In addition to writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, Alexei Maxim Russell is an advocate for building awareness concerning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). It is his interest in AS that inspired him to create Trueman Bradley, a positive role model and literary hero for those with AS.

Here, he talks about the important lessons underlying his new novel, Trueman Bradley – Aspie Detective – published this month by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


What motivated you to write this novel?

Having watched my AS-diagnosed younger brother grow up, I had an intimate view into the AS mind that few others possess. I came to realize, the reason so few people seemed to understand AS is because they had not benefited from the kind of first-hand acquaintance with AS, which I had with my brother. Only the parents of AS children, and people like me who are close family members, can truly understand what this teaches you. Unfortunately, when you do gain this understanding, it becomes all the more evident how little the rest of the world understands AS. The lack of understanding I would see my brother encounter and even the occasional prejudice, would often dismay me, sometimes anger me, and made me worry for my brother. I channeled all these feelings into writing this novel.

I saw the challenges the AS mind has in assimilating with a society that still does not understand how it thinks. But I also discovered, often with wonder, what incredible potentials the AS mind contains. In many ways, the AS mind is more competent at certain things than the rest of us are. The irony of hearing AS referred to as a “disability” began to form in my mind. As my brother grew up, I began to glean a secret that society, it seemed, had not yet discovered. AS, when understood by the rest of us, is not a disability. Far from it, it becomes a gift. We are, in fact, the problem. Because it is only our lack of understanding of the AS mind that holds back its potential.

This was a kind of cathartic realization for me. And I wanted to relay these things I’d seen and learned.

Being a novelist, I naturally chose fiction as my tool for accomplishing this. I knew if the story line was entertaining enough, if the characters were believable enough and my message subtle enough, that people would read what I had to teach them right to the end, maybe even unaware of the fact they were learning a lesson.

I also wanted to provide an AS protagonist, as it seems to me there are few of them out there in the world of literature. I thought, “If the rest of us can have our literary heroes, our Sherlock Holmes and our Philip Marlowes, then why can’t AS people also have a literary detective hero?” I believe Trueman Bradley has evolved into a large enough personality to effectively fill that void. I look forward to seeing more AS heroes popping up, in literature.

Who have you written this novel for, who do you hope will read it?

It was not my conscious intention to write it for children, specifically. But it is very suitable for children. I think people have had the impression it is destined for the young adult shelves because I took care to avoid using idioms and expressions and implied social language which some people with AS are not comfortable with and sometimes can’t understand. I have a friend, who is self-diagnosed AS, and who edited the book, chapter-for-chapter, as I wrote it. She did a very good job of assuring that I didn’t use any thick, colloquial language which may have made the novel hard for some people with AS to read. I wanted all types of people to benefit from the book and, due in part to the excellent work of this editor, I think we succeeded in accomplishing this.

The language of the novel is very clear and simple. This is a style which is also commonly used in young adult fiction. This, in my opinion, is why the book is regarded as being for a younger crowd. That and the fact that it has no particularly offensive content and therefore could be called “family friendly.” But at the same time, adult readers are fascinated by the integration of mathematics, art and the stylistic insertion of a very “comic book” feel in a format which is complex enough to stimulate the intellect and imagination of the adult mind. In this way, I think I accomplished my goal of writing a novel that can appeal to almost anyone, regardless of age or reading level.

First and foremost, I wrote the novel for my brother. I wanted to accomplish two things that would make the world a safer place for him and everyone with AS. Firstly, to educate those without AS; I consider the novel to be the most basic of possible education on the subject. Secondly, I wanted to give people with AS something. I wanted to provide a verification of what many of them already know. I wanted to give them a voice and a hero which would contradict those who are always telling them they are “disabled”. I wanted to tell them that AS is not a disability, it is a different way of thinking. And in spite of what others may be telling them, it is not a “wrong” way of thinking.

What kind of response have you gotten, so far?

I have gotten mostly positive reviews, thus far. This is, I understand, uncommon in literature so I am very pleased it seems to be resonating with readers. My most positive reviews have been from educators and consultants. This brought me unspeakable levels of satisfaction, to know my depiction of Trueman was accurate enough to get a passing grade from the educational and consulting establishments. This is especially gratifying, because I was, first and foremost, seeking to educate. And so, validation from educators is very valuable to me.

What do you plan to do now that the book is published?

I have many other writing projects I am keen to finish, but I would like to make it a priority to continue writing Trueman Bradley books. As, there are a great many more subtle issues concerning AS and Autism which sorely need addressing and recognition by the public at large. In some ways, the first book scratches the surface. I, for one, am usually not satisfied with only a basic education. I’m sure my readers would not be either. Trueman is still young and is only beginning his detective career. The world is just beginning to understand AS and is only starting to educate itself on the issues surrounding it. I have no doubt both Trueman and the world have a lot of future life lessons to look forward to.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

‘The One and Only Sam’ wins a 2010 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award!

JKP’s The One and Only Sam by Aileen Stalker has won a Silver Medal in the Health Issues category at the 2010 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards!

Illustrated by Bob Spencer, The One and Only Sam provides a fresh and fun approach to exploring common idioms for all children aged 5 to 8, as well as those with Asperger Syndrome and communication difficulties.

Learn more about the book.

Aileen is thrilled and honoured that the book has been recognised, saying:

“Congratulations to all the authors who wrote the award-winning books, the artists who illustrated the books and the publishers who believed in them – it is a long journey that we all travel together to get a book published. The rewards are many – the best perhaps being that our books have encouraged children and youth to slow down, focus and develop their own personal responses to the written word – skills that will translate well into coping with a super sized, super fast world.

With 37 award categories, the Moonbeam Awards recognize the diversity found in literature for children and youth and reinforce that literacy begins at birth and provides enjoyment throughout each person’s lifetime.”

Aileeen StalkerAileen Stalker is an experienced Occupational Therapist with a Masters degree in Special Education. She has over 30 years’ experience of assessing and treating children with a wide variety of diagnoses and has presented papers at numerous conferences, developed handbooks and manuals for clinical therapeutic use and worked at a senior level in several Occupational Therapy departments.

Read an interview with Aileen about The One and Only Sam.