Storytelling teaches life skills to a child on the autism spectrum
Something would happen, and I would be devastated, and he would be devastated. He’d go for a nap and I’d go to the couch and cry. Then I’d pick up a piece of paper and say, ‘How can I draw this so that he is going to get it?’
In the Lovable Liam series by Jane Whelen Banks, a resilient stick figure hero masters potty training and learns to lose a game with grace and to respond appropriately when other kids “act snitty.” “Good job, Liam!” the narrator cheers.
The reassuring message is that persistence and a positive attitude pay off.
Such reassurance was desperately needed – and in short supply — at the time Banks began writing stories for her lovable, challenging son.
Real-life Liam is the youngest of the three children Banks and her husband reared, initially, in Montreal, Canada and later, when Liam turned four, in Boston, Massachusetts. As Liam morphed from gorgeous baby into an increasingly reticent toddler, Banks agonised about his delayed communication skills.
“We have autism in our family, so I was frantic,” Banks said. “He just didn’t seem to be learning the invisible lessons in life — things like friendship, or how to say, ‘Sorry.’ The kind of skills where it’s hard to draw a picture of what you are talking about.”
Or could you?
Banks had learned through the Hanen program on speech and language development that children on the autism spectrum respond better to visual cues than to discussion.
Maternal necessity prompted her to put this idea into practice — Specifically, Liam’s resistance to potty training, and his sudden anxiety about this all-important bodily function.
When all else failed, Banks opened a pack of Sharpies and sketched out a series of naive illustrations of Liam eating good food, and feeling his tummy fill and stretch. When his tummy starts to ache, he needs to sit on the toilet and to poo.
“He actually responded and started doing it,” said Banks. “It was a huge success.”
Liam Goes Poo in the Toilet has proved to be equally successful at helping many other children — both on and off the autism spectrum — to “relax and push” past this complicated milestone.
For her part, Banks gradually learned to relax (a bit) and sketch her way through Liam’s early years.
“The pattern we got into was that something would happen, and I would be devastated, and he would be devastated. He’d go for a nap and I’d go to the couch and cry. Then I’d pick up a piece of paper and say, ‘How can I draw this so that he is going to get it?’ I would come up with these stories and he would get up from his nap. Then we’d look at the stories together. In his preschool years, I was firing out these little sketches as fast as I could. I have about thirty of them.”
Banks, who is a nurse practitioner, has no formal training as an illustrator or author. “But I knew what I was going for,” she said. In particular, she emphasised expressive eyebrows and mouths to help her child interpret the emotions of others.
“And always, the books end with an affirmation,” Banks said. “It’s not just, ‘Liam could do this.’ It’s ‘Liam, is doing this. A representation of him being successful, even if in real life, he wasn’t always.”
These days, for the most part, off-the-page Liam is a typical American highschooler. He earns reasonable grades at a mainstream secondary school, entertains family and friends with his dry wit, composes striking digital music and is working towards his driver’s license. Although he remains “a man of few words,” Banks says, “he is not the catastrophe I thought I was going to end up with.”
His progress may be thanks in part, to the stories that taught him skills from saying, “Hi” to petting the cat nicely (instead of driving toy trucks over it).
“I think that my stories helped him to fit in better. For example, to learn to wait your turn and cooperate. At an early age, they helped him to get into the club of ‘normal kids’,” Banks said.
Liam eventually outgrew the Liam stories — right around the time when Banks discovered that her manuscripts might have broader appeal.
She shared them with fellow travellers at the Asperger’s Association of New England, who urged her to seek publication.
After a number of rejections, and a false start with a publisher who accepted the series only to then renege, Banks forged a winning partnership with Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an independent publishing house with a special interest in autism
The series was finally published in 2008, to Banks’ delight.
“When your book is finally published and you see the beautiful cover, that feels great. It’s so uplifting to think — ‘Oh my God! Someone liked what I did well enough to publish it!’”
The Liam stories are relevant to all young children and their parents. Who doesn’t need a little coaching on how to say, ‘Sorry,” or what to do when peers give a snitty respond to a well meant overture? (I know I do.)
But Banks particularly hopes that she’s helping families who are grappling with autism spectrum disorders, as she did.
“If somebody out there has read my book and a light has gone on, that means everything to me,” she said. “I can only think that it’s helping some family out there to grow.”
These days, Banks writes only occasionally, as circumstances do not force her to the page the way they did during Liam’s early years.
But she urges other parents who are going through difficult times to try and communicate with their children across the page when other methods fail.
“When you are really moved by something, your hand has a mind of its own,” she said. “If you have a story in your heart, write it. It will resonate.”
Books by Jane Whelen Banks:
Books for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families:
All Cats have Asperger Syndrome, by Kathy Hoopmann
Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In, by Perri Klass and Eileen Costello
Books by Tony Attwood, including The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome