They made quite a splash with their children’s book, The Red Beast.

Now, special educational needs teacher Kay Al-Ghani  has published a new book called Learning About Friendship: Stories to Support Social Skills Training in Children with Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism, featuring beautiful illustrations by her son Haitham Al-Ghani. Here, Kay and Haitham answer some questions about the new book.

Tell us about yourself and your experience with children with ASD.

I have been a teacher for over 37 years; many of them spent working with children with Special Needs. Over these years, I have come to believe that most of the difficulties encountered are a result of a teaching deficit rather than a learning deficit. Working with children who find school life a struggle has been inspirational for me and I have made it my quest to find ways to help them to learn and to grow in confidence. Whilst at times it has been challenging, it is always great fun.

Haitham, my son and the illustrator of this book, is the reason I now specialise in teaching children with ASD. He is 25 years old, but back when he was just starting school it was very unusual to see children with Autism in a mainstream classroom. The difficulties he faced were enormous and resulted in him being expelled from his very first school at the tender age of just 3 years. It would be another three years before we got a diagnosis of Autism but even then it was termed ‘Semantic Pragmatic Disorder’, since the idea of it being a spectrum disorder had not been voiced. Once I knew what the problem was I set about trying to find ‘a cure’. I negotiated with his primary school to withdraw him from some lessons in order to work on his language and social skills. It was not too long before I was asked to work with other children and this is the reason that today I am part of an inclusion team that trains parents and professionals in aspects of Autism and which supports children with ASD in mainstream schools.

Why did you decide to write this book and where did the stories come from?

I am an avid reader of anything to do with Autism and I have noticed that there are very few children’s storybooks written from the perspective of a child with ASD.

As a class teacher in a special school, I always had to invent stories to help me to explain social and behaviour rules to the children. I used circle times to teach social skills like taking turns and personal space. I found that the children just loved a good story and they could often relate the main idea in the story to themselves. Before Haitham began to illustrate my stories, I would use puppets and toys to keep the children’s attention. One small boy in my class was having great trouble going on school outings because he would not wear a seat belt. The bus driver came to tell me that he would not be allowed to go on any more trips. I thought this was rather harsh and so the very next day I told my class a story about Tedrick the teddy who would not wear a seat belt. After hearing the story we talked about how important it was to wear a seat belt. We role-played the parts of the driver, the teachers and the other children on the bus. I emphasised how happy the driver was when all the children wore their seat belts and I asked the boy in question if he would mind taking Tedrick on the next trip. Guess what, that boy was the first one on the bus doing up his own and Tedrick’s seat belt!

That story was the first of many I wrote to teach social or behaviour related skills. However, the first illustrated one was The Red Beast which Haitham did for me many years ago in simple pencil crayon. The children I worked with loved this story and it was definitely the illustrations that brought it to life.

Working with children with ASD I noticed that similar problems with social understanding arose time and time again and so I continued to use the story format. When compiling a selection for the book, Haitham persuaded me that children with ASD would probably enjoy black and white drawings better than colour.

What are the most difficult social skills to teach to children with ASD? How do stories help?

The difficulties with social interaction means these children may not understand about body language and so the idea of personal space is often difficult to teach. Since it affects different people in different ways it is an ideal concept to teach to all children. This way the child with ASD learns what is appropriate but, more importantly, other children learn about how this inability to understand body language may affect the child with ASD in their classroom. Other areas of difficulty can be linked to the inability to understand social expectations, so turn taking, interrupting, making inappropriate comments, winning and losing, etc. are also difficult to teach. Quite often if you try to instruct a child with Autism on what is appropriate, they feel threatened or simply fail to understand. Children with Asperger Syndrome hate criticism and so by depersonalising an issue it is easier to talk about an area of difficulty and to teach, through the story format and by role-play, how to remedy a particular problem.

How do you use these stories in the classroom?

These stories can be use during Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, circle time or in small groups to introduce a particular social skill, for example, winning and losing. Children can learn that whilst they may lose a game of chance, they can always win at the friendship game by being kind and generous in defeat. The teacher may then have an afternoon of board games when all the children are encouraged to play magnanimously and prizes are given for being a good sport. Before reading the story “Golden Hour”, the teacher could begin the session by using role-play to demonstrate an inappropriate response when losing a game. I have had children in fits of laughter by pretending to throw a wobbly after losing a game of ‘Heads or Tails’.

Ultimately the stories are fun and children always learn best when they are having fun!

Anti-Bullying Week takes place this month. How might teachers use these stories in class to address bullying?

Pupils with ASDs are among those at greatest risk of being bullied. The National Autistic Society has calculated that 40% of children with Autism and 60% of children with Asperger Syndrome are bullied at school. It is easy to see how having an ASD may make you a target for bullies. Children with ASD are often solitary at playtimes and have few friends willing to come to their defence. They are seen as gullible, naïve, and easily provoked. They don’t have the ‘cool gene’ and so are unpopular. They often lack tact and diplomacy and they may unquestioningly carry out something a bully has asked them to do because they are unable to figure out motives or predict what might happen next.

Three of the stories in the book hit on the problem of bullying – ‘Timothy Tattletale’, ‘The Barbie Club’ and (more subtly) ‘Ablutions’. If teachers use curriculum time to actively teach about ASD, then they can help to prevent these children from becoming the victims of bullying; be it physical, non-physical (like name calling, taunting, ignoring, etc.), emotional (like spreading rumours, shunning) or the now insidious, cyber bullying.

When children begin to understand about the very much hidden disability that is Autism, the less likely they will be to target children with ASD as victims.

For children with ASD the stories may help them to recognise a bully is not just someone who hits you physically; it may be someone who makes fun of you, spreads rumours about you or uses you.

Schools could use the book as a starting point to train children with high social status to be playground ‘angels’ who could take vulnerable children under their wings to explain things like: rules of playground games, jokes, why they should take turns, etc. Teachers should ensure that they regularly praise children who demonstrate caring behaviour. The stories could be used as a starting point for discussion and for brain storming ideas that will foster a strong sense of justice, provide emotional support for children with ASD and encourage a natural assertiveness in all children, so that they do not feel the need to collude with the bully to protect themselves.

You and Haitham make a great team! What is it like working together?

[Kay:] Haitham makes my work as a writer easy. I am sure every writer of children’s books would love to have an illustrator in the family! If I were honest, my writing without Haitham’s illustrations would probably never get published. He has an excellent eye for detail and needs very little instruction – I simply tell him how many illustrations I would like and he is off. He can work tirelessly on a project until it is finished – and he is a perfectionist. In this book he has produced over one hundred black and white illustrations.

Haitham has become extremely skilful in using Photoshop and as well as our books on Autism with JKP we shall have two children’s picture books coming out next year in the USA.

Writing is a labour of love for me and it is always exciting to see how Haitham will interpret my words in his own inimitable style.

[Haitham:] I really love my mother’s stories, I find them very funny and I can see lots of my old behaviours in the Learning about Friendship book. My mother always lets me choose the names of the characters in the story, so I get a good picture in my head of how I want them to look. I think I am lucky to be able to work at home doing the thing I love most – illustrating. Seeing my work in an actual book is just amazing and I feel quite proud. I hope the stories will help children with Autism, but I think all children will enjoy them.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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