BY JIM HOWE
“Sally and I are kids just like you,” says Carey. “We have autism and learn a little differently, but we want friends just like you.”
Carey and Sally are the main characters of a new children’s book that aims to create a sense of understanding and acceptance of children with autism.
These children can be talkative and highly functioning, like Carey, or mostly nonverbal, like Sally, and “Carey & Sally: Friends With Autism,” explains autism’s spectrum of behaviors and also how each person with the condition is unique.
Or, as Carroll Grant, PhD, the book’s author says, recalling an old saying, “If you’ve seen one autistic kid, you’ve seen one autistic kid.”
Grant, director of Upstate’s Margaret L. Williams Developmental Evaluation Center, has been working with children with autism for decades. The book, with illustrations by Jerry Russell of Chittenango, grew out of KidSpeak (see “How the book came about,” below) that follows), a program Grant developed.
That program uses large puppet versions of Carey and Sally to demonstrate autistic behaviors while entertaining in schools and other locales with children. The book will stay in the classroom after the program ends and includes suggestions for children to help deal with peers who have autism.
Carey, either as a book character or a puppet, helps other children and teachers “to understand that spectrum (autistic) kids have a social ineptness, and because he’s cute and funny, it helps people be more accepting,” Grant says.
To explain his difficulties reading social cues, Carey says, “My friends tell me I talk too much. I am not good at knowing what other kids think or feel, so sometimes I bother my friends.”
Carey also explains that he likes to have his mom or his teacher write him a list each day. “This helps me know what to expect and what to do. Then I feel calm,” he says
To illustrate a more severe form of autism, Sally is shown with her tablet and “choice board,” which has a happy face/yes and a sad face/no that she points to when answering questions. She sometimes likes to rock back and forth and wave her hands, Carey explains.
Carey also shows how to be a “detective” to figure out what is making Sally upset, such as checking to see whether he is standing too close or whether the room is too noisy or too bright.
The puppets help “normalize” autism for other children, says Charissa Taylor, who works in instructional support and is one of the puppeteers in the traveling program. They are teaching that “a difference can mean different, not handicapped. The bottom line is that everyone seeks friends.”
Taylor notes that one or more audience members usually says they know someone with autism and recognizes the puppets’ behaviors.
How the book came about
With help from the Upstate Foundation, Carroll Grant got funding from Kohl’s department stores to start a puppet workshop about autism and later to create a companion book, “Carey & Sally: Friends With Autism.” Help with the puppetry for what became the KidSpeak program came from Open Hand Theater of Syracuse, where Grant, a board member, had seen skits and shows using puppets to shape attitudes about acceptance and making the world a better place.