In this interview, Gail Watts talks to us about her inspiration behind her new children’s book, Kevin Thinks…about Outer Space, Confusing Expressions and the Perfectly Logical World of Asperger Syndrome, and the acceptance and understanding she hopes it will bring to those working with children on the Autism Spectrum, especially in mainstream classrooms.

An illustration from 'Kevin Thinks' - Kevin Thinks you should always tell the truth.

Can you tell us about yourself and your interest in autism?

I live in Strathmore, which is in the northwest suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. My husband, Brendan, and I are originally from Ballarat, in country Victoria, and we both come from large and loud families. I have three teenage children and I am a police wife, which is not as tough as you might think. We are very typical of your classic middle-class Australian family. We have a comfortable three bedroom weatherboard house, a station wagon and a golden Labrador: annoyingly average, don’t you think? I like to surround myself with eccentric people who have a passion for something. I love to dance and I am mad for all types of chocolate.

Eight years ago my son was diagnosed with some learning difficulties. In order to understand his needs I began reading educational texts and became a regular parent helper in his classroom. I enjoyed my time in the classroom very much and decided to enrol in a teaching course at Melbourne University. When my son was ten years old he received a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. I did not know a lot about Asperger’s at this time. Studying at the university gave me access to the massive libraries there and I spent many hours tucked away in the shelves and carrels reading everything I could find on autism. I have learnt a great deal from university, books, seminars and the internet, but my greatest teacher has been my son, Reilly.

I have been blessed to have wonderful friends, who also have children on the autistic spectrum. Over the years we have been a great support system for each other. We holiday together, swap information and ideas, but best of all we can tease each other, drink, eat and laugh for hours. I credit these parents with much of what I know about autism.

When I graduated from the university, I was lucky enough to find work at a small school that caters exclusively to young children on the autistic spectrum. I have not been there for very long. Although challenging, I find the work extremely rewarding. Each child is a unique puzzle and I cannot help but be drawn in by their quirky natures. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and patience to teach them something, but when they finally have it, you get the highest of highs. I love being around these beautiful children and also the extraordinary staff at the school, who all seem genuinely excited about the work they do and are always happy to share their wisdom with me. Having said all that, I am generally dozing in my chair by 8.30pm every night, completely exhausted.

What led you to write this book? Can you talk about the character ‘Kevin’ and who inspired him? The illustrations are brilliant. How did they come about?

I first drew ‘Kevin’ in a workshop at university. We were lucky enough to have Leigh Hobbs talk to us about the characters he draws in his children’s books. He asked us to draw a simple shape and then add features. I chose a cylinder. I drew on a cap, some glasses and some skinny little arms and legs. His squiggly mouth was drawn in one simple line. I thought he looked confused and lovable. I also thought he just looked like a ‘Kevin’ and I jotted the name underneath my drawing. Leigh Hobbs said that you don’t need to be a strong drawer if you have a good story to tell. This started me thinking about an art assignment I needed to do. I needed to complete an ‘artwork’ and keep a journal of my inspirations and ideas. I asked my lecturer if a picture book could be an acceptable artwork. She said that it was, but it would need to be presented as you would send it to a publisher’s. All I needed to do was to learn how to draw. I bought a book on drawing cartoon faces from the local newsagency and I practised pages and pages of eyes, noses, mouths and all sorts of expressions. I decided to use my ‘Kevin’ and stay with the cylinder shape characters. I thought they were cute, but also keeping the bodies simple allowed me to put more effort into the expressions, which I think are more important in telling the stories.

Because I knew this assignment was going to be a lot of hard work and take up a great deal of my time, I wanted the subject matter to be something I would enjoy working on, and something that would be nice for me to have as a keepsake. It was an easy decision that it would be about one of my children. In my bedside table there is a little notebook which I had kept in my handbag during the years that my children were small. Every time they would say something cute, funny or profound I would quickly grab this book and jot it down. I recommend this to any parent, as that little book has become one of my most treasured possessions. This assignment could have been about any of my children, they were all hilarious, but I just felt at this time that Reilly’s stories were the ones that needed to be told. His stories were already there, I just needed to draw them out.

So, Kevin is my son Reilly, when he was a small boy. This book was never really intended to be seen by anyone other than my lecturer and my family. It stayed in my cupboard for a little over a year, almost forgotten, until I dragged it out to show some friends during drinks on my birthday. We were laughing about funny things our children did and said when they were little. There was no turning back once my friends had seen this book. They were most insistent that I send it to someone. I’m so glad now that I did.

How do you hope teachers, parents and their children will benefit from this book?

Because Asperger children can be very focused on themselves and hyper-sensitive at times, their parents will always receive plenty of well-meaning advice from many of their friends and relatives on how their child “should” be brought up and disciplined. These people often believe that all your child really needs is “a swift kick up the behind”. It is so important that the people around an Asperger’s child have a positive and supportive attitude towards the child and their parents. Kevin Thinks could be a useful tool for parents when explaining the traits and social difficulties of ASD children to family and friends. I hope that parents will see their own stories within mine and simply enjoy the familiarity

I hope that siblings and students will find the book amusing enough to engage their interest. I think this book can teach children about Asperger Syndrome in a non-threatening, gentle way. When a child smiles or laughs, you know you have their attention: there is never any harm in humour as a learning tool. I hope that teachers will not ‘over-dissect’ the pages for children, but let them slowly discover for themselves what is really going on in the illustrations.

Here in Australia, the government has included Asian and Indigenous perspectives in our new national curriculum. This is based on the well-researched idea that if you teach children about the histories, lifestyles and perspectives of people from other cultures, you will promote tolerance and reduce racism. Aspies also have histories, lifestyles and perspectives that need to be understood and respected. It is no secret to anyone working or living with Asperger’s Syndrome that these children are regularly bullied by other children, almost without exception. I hope that politicians will soon realise the prominence of this developmental disorder in our school children and address it in the content of our classroom lessons. I hope that Kevin Thinks, and other children’s books like it, will be used to promote awareness and understanding in the classroom. Every page could be used as a lesson on values and tolerance. If I dare to dream, I hope this book may play a small, useful part in the inclusion of children with autism in mainstream schooling, which is a process I fully support.

See some of Gail’s favourite illustrations from the book »

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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