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Can comic books help people with autism make sense of their world?

Posted by Peter Barnes on January 6, 2015 at 10:52 AM

Autism Face Value ComicsCan comic books help people with autism make sense of their world, and interact better with the people around them?

Dave Kot believes they can, if they are written specifically for children on the autism spectrum. Kot, who has autism himself, has written the first comic book in the world with a hero who has autism.

Face Value Comics volumes 1 & 2 (more to come) were written by him, his wife, Angela, and a team of illustrators who live in a small town in Pennsylvania, USA. They aim to explain to a young person with autism, what autism is.

Dave Kot says, “At worst, the comics are just family fun and entertainment. At best, autistic kids have a hero like themselves. They can understand what autism is or what it isn't, relate to situations and be open to positive communications about autism”.

The comic stories are set in the future, in the year 2072, and include an interesting cast of characters. Amongst them are:

  • Michael, the hero, who has autism
  • Tess, the commentator – provides behavioural and emotional support
  • Edge, a physically intimidating bully
  • Claudia, a sarcastic bully
  • Zephyr, the crime fighter
  • Cass, student with Asbergers who is obsessed with weather and time
  • Dr Mobius, the evil scientist (Mobius syndrome is a facial paralysis where an individual has great difficulty expressing their emotions across their face)
  • Duchenne, the happy green alien, named for the French anatomist who identified a genuine smile as opposed to the smile in a routine greeting. 

Kot uses a number of clever literary devices to tell the stories and communicate with autistic kids. These include one he calls a “social throat punch commentary” in which the text in thought bubbles and even complete pages is upside down. That is his attempt to have readers look at an individual with autism differently than they may have expected. (I think it works!)

The faces of some characters have been deliberately drawn to emphasise the facial features of people with various emotions like anger, fear, surprise and sadness. This is designed to help kids with autism better recognise emotions in others to help their understanding and communication.

I interviewed Dave Kot to learn about what inspired him to make the comics and some more about how they have been written and illustrated to appeal to autistic kids. 

Here is how he explained it:

“I guess I've always been a lifelong comic book fan. I still have my copy of Spiderman and his Amazing Friends issue number one. I got that from my grandmother.

When I was in kindergarten, my grandfather had passed away and for me it was not the easiest transition. I was one of the youngest in my family.

I was trying to understand the death that really was the first significant loss in my life. And trying to understand that just wasn't going so well for me.

So my grandmother took some time with me. She would take me out to the store, just her and I. So that I could ask questions and talk. And she said, "You can pick up anything that you want. Anything that can make you happy." 

I picked up a comic book. She and I read that comic book, it felt like a 100 times, during the weekends that I was with my grandmother.

And for me that was an opportunity, and still is. When I look at the comic book, I remember the good times I had with my grandmother who has since passed away. And I remember my grandfather, and my family kind of looking out for me that time. It was then I started to realise that comic books have more value than maybe just the printed page itself.

Therapist and Doctoral Student on Facial Feature Recognition

As an adult, I worked my way into the human services as a professional helper, a therapist. And I was working a lot with kids on the autism spectrum.

At that time too as a doctoral student, a lot of my research had been built on facial feature recognition. There hasn't been a lot of science put into the research on how it applies to kids or young persons on the autism spectrum. But I thought it would make an interesting doctoral thesis.

Teaching Kids Self-Regulation

With my clients, I would look over what their general presenting problems would be - bullying, anxiety, depression and so on. What we did during sessions, on sheets of scrap paper, notebook paper, or whatever was available, was to describe the facial features of individuals or even the clients themselves using mirrors, and role playing between us.

And we started to identify what a bully might look like before they would make an insulting comment or before they might approach an individual.

I started to teach the kids self-regulation, recognising those body triggers for when they were feeling sad or angry themselves. And building that through social learning theory, found it to be a very effective technique. I was able to typically discharge clients a little sooner than most.

Building predictive empathy

Autism Face Value ComicsI kind of built a reputation of being able to develop a very succinct, almost common sense approach to understanding others' expressions and build empathy. What I was really happy with was something I hadn't predicted would happen. I saw kids begin to build predictive empathy.

Not only could they begin to identify that an individual might be showing fear, surprise, sadness, anger. But they would also be able to start placing those in context. They would understand, "I see my sister is sad. I think that is because this happened before this happened."


Universal facial features for emotions

They started making those connections. I was really impressed that this simple intuitive idea is multicultural, does not discriminate against age or gender. A person in Australia who is angry looks like a person in Alaska who is angry.

Social context may make those situations different. The person in Alaska may laugh, while the person in Australia may cry with the same situation. However, when they do display those facial features, they're universal.

There's less than a dozen basic core ideas, basic emotions that we really cover specially in the scientific literature, the peer-reviewed literature, especially building on Dr. Paul Eckman's work on the facial action coding system.

Taking these ideas and these theories, I soon had a lot of scrapbook and notepaper of lots of faces, many of which were not the best quality.

So I started looking for some help in our local community of talented artists who could contribute to make what we were doing in a session a little bit more packaged. That we would have a comic book of sorts talking about things like bullying, and how to handle grief and loss.

The Steam Punk genre

Then my comic book roots started to show. And I thought, it's fun to talk about something that might be happening in school with modern day situations and technologies. That's fun, but why not make it a little bit more fanciful?

So we started to take those ideas and made them into a comic book using the “steam punk genre”. It's an interesting blend of history. It takes the Victorian era, 1837 to 1901, in England when there were pretty well established social rules and etiquette. Something that we may not find as easy today.

And there were lots of opportunities for inventions. New schools of thought emerged during that same time. So it just gave us an opportunity to play with history, to play with new science.

I needed a hero for the comic book. I was absolutely surprised when we applied for the copyright to make a legal claim on our own original intellectual property, that the other large comic book creators have never featured a hero with autism.

Dave_KotIs the hero, Michael, based on a real person?

Was Michael based on any particular person or is he a composite of all sorts of behaviors and people that I've interacted with? Well, to be honest, Michael is a lot like me. Dogs can't write cat stories. So I went with what I knew.

Characters have robust psychological profiles

I never wrote a comic book before this, but I have written tons of papers on psychological assessments. And that is a strong academic skill set of mine.

So as we made the characters and made the story, I gave each main character a commentary. I gave them each a fictional yet completely robust psychological profile complete with axis, diagnoses to measure with the DSM5. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition)

Building visual patterns to recognise emotions

Take an individual who may have an anxiety disorder. I make a prediction on how that behavior would play out and then use the comic book to show that. So when we talk about this situation, we have alien invaders and we have spaceships. How would you react, Peter, to see a spaceship in your backyard?

We have the surprise of seeing the spaceship. Well that's a pretty easy direction to give to my artists, to say, "This is how a surprise look should be showcased”. Well let's make that uniform throughout.

Anytime anyone is looking surprised, here are some key signatures that we should be looking for so kids can build a pattern to look that and name that.

So that was a good start to doing a lot of things. I wanted Michael to have an experience going to public school, some new experiences there, and an opportunity.

The story is as much about Michael understanding himself as it is him trying to make new friends. He has to know who he is before he can go and seek out others to like him. He has to know what he has to offer.

Autism Face Value Comics TessTess – the robotic “Therapy Support Staff” character provides help & explanations

As a robotic steam punk robot, therapeutic aid, Tess, who is a nod to the therapeutic support staff or TSS commonly found here in the US, providing behavioural and emotional supports to some kids.

Tess is the readers' helper as well as Michael's helper when there is a situation that might be a little confusing. Or there is a transition gap in the story, it's a Tess cog that we include, like a caption box to fill in that gap. So readers who may want to find out something a little more in the story can, just like Michael, look to Tess for some assistance and some help.

“Social throat punch” commentary – upside down pages

Autism Face Value Comics

I also wanted to have a little bit more... I don't know... guts to really feature a hero. If we just said that Michael, the middle school-aged teenage boy is the featured hero with autism, we would get pats on the back and everyone would have a warm, fuzzy feeling at the end of the day.

But to me that wouldn't be a real classic comic book. We would be masquerading as therapy or education in the guise of a comic book. So what I like to refer to is “social throat punch commentary”. You'll see that on one of the pages of the comic book where Michael is on the first day of school, the pages appear upside down.

That was not a printing mistake. That was our planned attempt to have readers look at an individual with autism differently than they may have expected.

Nothing changes about Michael. He still looks the same. There's no secret letters or mystery message in turning of the pages. But again, readers get a chance to look at Michael differently than they may have expected an individual with autism might be.

Upside down thought bubbles when character is stressed or anxious

So when Michael becomes stressed or anxious, his thought bubbles appear upside down. For many individuals with autism, verbal skills may not be the sharpest compared to their peers. And some may be nonverbal entirely.

I wanted to convey that just because Michael may say something brief or small in a caption space, that his thoughts, his intelligence, his compassion and understanding of his own world, goes far deeper than what he may verbally express.

There's a mind with gears - apologies to steam punk genre - cogs and gears are turning in his mind. And we allow the readers, with thought bubbles, to see that process unlike anything else you would normally find. And the comic book allows us to do that.

I went a little step further to - you'll find a blue-clad costume, crime-fighting hero in the book, too. That's Zephyr. And he is in 2072. We went futuristic and re-inventef the world as we wanted to. If you're going to build a utopia, why not do it on page one, right?

A better world in 2072 but still prejudice & misunderstanding

Autism Face Value Comics Zephyr

So by 2072 we'd cured lots of diseases. We'd cured poverty and hunger, and a lot of the social ills of the world. Mankind had learned from it's mistakes and decided to put all efforts together to make a better society.

But the one problem we still have is prejudice and misunderstandings. So that is where the Zephyr comes into play. We talk a little about the steam punk genre, looking at it as an historical, literary device. One of the hallmarks of steam punk is time travel.

And here is what his fans will come to learn, especially by issue four. Zephyr is actually Michael from the future.

During this inter-galactic invasion, he goes back in time to save himself. So when we talk about having the first featured comic book hero with autism, yes, it is a little school-aged boy, but it is also the grown crime-fighting, costumed hero, the Zephyr.

Explaining autism to a young person with autism

I wanted kids to be able to talk about autism. We understood that, looking at a lot of resources, there is very little to provide a young person with autism to explain how autism might be.

There tend to be large, cumbersome tomes of knowledge kept in ivory towers. I wanted something that kids could look at and say, "That's me. That's how I understand it. It may not be like me, but I can understand how he feels in that situation."

Family friendly code of ethics

So knowing that families and parents are going to be looking at the comics, I wanted to make it family-friendly. We came up with a list of code of ethics. For our characters, we don't skimp on plot or our character's clothing.

We want families to be able to have the comics on the coffee table and have grandparents or perhaps a very conservative aunt to visit, and not find problems with the content or the quality of the work.

We don't want kids to chuck this under their bed like an adult magazine. We want them to celebrate it and find something in it themselves, that they can share with their families.

Activity pages

And in our comic books, we include activity pages, everything from finding the number of spy bots planted by Dr. Mobius throughout the issue. Go and find them and count them up, to understanding really poignant questions.

One of my favorites was when Michael asks the question, "Who's the worse bully, Edge or Claudia?  What would you say to that?"

Edge is more of a physical bully. He's going to punch you in the hallway. Where Claudia is more sarcastic and will tear you down with words. Both are villainous in their actions. But how would kids tend to understand that? What do kids really know of bullying?

What we really hope to do is use the comic books for kids to go back, look over, and understand the fun story. At worst, it is just family fun and entertainment. At best, kids have a hero like themselves.

They can understand what autism is or what it isn't, relate to situations and open positive communications about autism.

The Readers – kids, families, therapists, doctors around the world

You asked who is reading the comics. Well, we have had an opportunity to talk with lots of our fans. And the great thing I really appreciate... we have the best fans in the world. They tell and share their personal stories with me.

I think one of the best examples of that was a video that I got from the United Kingdom. A mother had showed the Facebook page that we have about some of our characters. And her son, who is a teenager, and nonverbal, pointed to the screen, pointed to the Facebook page, pointed to the characters in our comics, and then pointed to himself.

So, he gets it!

I am sorry, I am emotional right now. Just re-living this.

From notebook scraps to world-wide comics

We started off on just going to be taking a bunch of scrap notebook papers, photocopied and going to the local print shop and stapling these myself to hand out to my clients.

I didn't think I would ever grow beyond Pennsylvania and the United States, let alone, be sitting here at 9 o'clock in the evening talking with you in Australia. Families and therapists and doctors and kids, are telling me, telling us, "Thank you. This is what I'm getting from the comics."

At the start of the school year, I had one young lady who was very, very anxious and very shy. She's a young lady entering her teen years, so some of that might be typical. However, she is also on the spectrum and did not communicate very often with the staff, other adults or even her peers.

Her support staff and her mother said, "How in the world did your comic book get her to talk about everything she'd done in the summer”?

She had produced several notebook journals herself, where she has made herself as a character, as a hero, where she has her own challenges that we don't address in the comic book.

And she's sharing this and she's talking to the staff, saying, “Hey, you think you know about autism. Do you know about this autistic comic book?" And now, people are saying, "Yes, yes we do."

Using the comics to teach at University

I was actually at the comic shop just as a customer - I still have my guilty pleasure so I would be lying to you to say that I don't read comic books that aren't my own too. I have always enjoyed them.

A fan came up and recognised me from another interview and being local, they knew who I was.

And from that I learnt that they're actually using the comic books at graduate schools, teaching the teachers about how to effectively communicate and develop curriculum about comic book heroes.

I have to wonder if the other reason why there were no previous autistic featured comic book heroes was because the industry did not presume competence? That there was just a vacuum of knowledge and understanding which we're helping to shatter and break to bring into light that an individual with autism can do great things. Sure they may struggle, but don't we all?

People are asking me if I'm interested in writing, helping write public school and graduate school curriculum, to teach facial feature recognition and predictive empathy.

I'm floored. Again, I'm just a guy. I think I'm smart. I know I'm arrogant. But this has been a very humbling experience for me, to be laid bare before the world. Like I said, a lot of Michael's stories and experiences are my own, too.

Autism, Spiderman, Superman

The definitive story on autism is just one individual's challenge, but isn't that the same with any story? Superman or Spiderman?

It's not necessarily your story but you can find things in it that you might be able to identify and find that common ground. And that's the real basis of what we're all doing, whether we're auto-mechanics or white-collar millionaire workers.Autism Face Value Comics Cass

At the end of the day, my hopes are that we're trying to make whatever profession, whatever occupation we do, even hobbies, or our corner of the world just a little bit better.

Peter, you commented on how the character, Cass, replies to the teacher when she calls the roll in class. Cass says, "Present. This morning's Telegraph says rain showers won't last past 10 o'clock."

Yes, Cass is on the spectrum. When we've had book signings everyone knows from the publicly that Michael is autistic and yes, he's a hero.

But it's really interesting that kids, young people, young adults, teenagers are coming to my wife Angela, who helps write or to our artist, Sky, or come up to me directly and boldly ask, "So Frank, he has Asperger’s, right?" Yes. "Cass. She's autistic, too, isn't she?" Yes.

And they get it. They are using a comic book to understand DSM5 criteria that some adults don't.

More comics to come – including for adults

I'm not going to stop here. The main story of Michael and this inter-galactic invasion during his young ages is going to be about a four-issue story line. And starting in 2015, we will be doing a Zephyr monthly comic book. That would be the stories of Michael as an adult with autism and the fun, and crime fighting, and villains that he'll encounter.

Focus on sensory overload challenges

We're taking that as an opportunity to really focus on sensory perceptions and challenges. The character will overcome some of the sensory overload challenges inherent in his autism to still be a hero and still save the day.

And there's lots of those little ideas that we have. One of the other characters is Division Man, who uses cellular mitosis to make a replica of himself. So we're going to be explaining middle school science to kids in the comic book.

Multi-sensory action figures

And one of the biggest hallmarks, if you're a comic fan, before the deluge of comic books into movies, you had a toy. You had an action figure. So we're working on toys that are not just the plastic or metal pieces.

We could do that and that would probably be actually cheaper in the cost of production. But we wanted something a little different. I truly believe that kids need and want a hero like themselves.

So why not have an action figure that addresses the same multi-sensory stimulation challenges that perhaps young people with autism have? Imagine having a Zephyr action figure that smelled like blueberries. His cape would be a crinkled cape in place of the child's security blanket, the safe blanket that has a little crinkle sound to it.

Imagine his clothing had different textures that you could rub on and that might feel like sandpaper, or little plastic knobs that you can self-soothe while playing with the toy. It's manufactured by the same people who are making the other main superhero characters on the toy shelves.

Dave Kot’s autism

Peter, you asked me what it feels like to be me, a person with autism who is writing these comic books.

Like I said, I've been fighting insomnia for a while now. And there's good reason. I can't seem to turn off my brain sometimes. That's some of the challenges inherent in my own autism. I was diagnosed as an adult later in life.

For me that's more of an "Aha!" moment when I began to understand why some social relationships and experiences seem like failures. It wasn't a failure. It was just the wrong way of doing it at that time.

I could have been more successful by applying other strategies but I just kept putting my head against the wall and thinking that was the only way to get a girlfriend, or to get a job, or things of that nature.

And the social challenges that I experienced, I'm now learning that there's never just one solution to a problem.

You can look at it from multiple angles and being a professional helper helping others, I also helped myself to see some of these opportunities that are available.

Comic Books or 400 page research volume

The comic books have grasped a lot of attention. If I had written a 400 page volume on the same research that I am presenting in the comic books, two people would read it. I’ve written 32 comic book pages and the world has devoured it!


 How to Improve Your Autistic Child’s Language Skills  


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Topics: Learning Difficulties, Autism

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