firetruck book cover

I'm an Autistic Author. This Is the Story Behind My First Children's Book.

A few years ago, I was in my ramshack of a studio apartment in downtown San Jose, California, when I got a call around 7:00 p.m. It was my mom, babysitting my 2-year-old nephew Atticus, who apparently wanted me to tell him a story. Now, being that I have no children of my own and only had a girlfriend, meaning no kids were in the immediate future, I didn’t have any children’s books in my place. But I didn’t want to be a disappointing uncle, so I whipped up a story off the top of my head and told it over the phone, surprisingly managing to make it coherent and with a progression that made sense. A few days later, I found myself mulling over the story and the suggestions from friends and family I got and decided to try and make something of it.

It would later be known to the published world as “The Fire Truck Who Got Lost.”

First off, I’d like to make something clear right off the bat. From its initial improvised telling to the published page, very little changed. Sure, some sentences were changed and I came up with new names for the trucks, but everything else was pretty much the same. Barnabus got lost and found the same way, there were always four bigger trucks with a big dalmatian, and the final words were always the same. Not sure what this says in the long run, but it’s something I wanted to mention.

I knew it had potential, so I had to think about the art that would make this a classic, and I could only think of one person I wanted to do this: my college friend Amber De Joya. Amber and I had known each other for six years and were roommates for a few of them, throughout which I became acquainted with her amazing skills as an artist. I showed her the story, and she fell in love with the cuteness. One contract and business plan later and we were ready for the sketches that would become her adorable works of art.

There’s a common misconception that goes around about how “art and making pictures are easy.” Let me tell you, that’s not remotely true. Amber and I went back and forth for at least a year, tweaking the art to get it right and compromising between the creator’s vision and the artist’s interpretation. I also had quite the tightrope to walk since I was now my friend’s boss and I didn’t want to do anything that would damage our relationship. I’ve been abrasive and sometimes insensitive in the past (a part of my Asperger’s syndrome), and I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake on my first big project.

On top of that, there was a lot of external hurdles to jump over. Amber had to move to a different house, we had to make the switch from hand-drawn to digital because of space and supplies, and the format we drew for didn’t work for self-publishing. Yeah, most of those two-page spreads in the book were supposed to each be its own page. Actually, I think this way turned out better.

firetruck book cover Eventually, more than a year of this labor of love later, we finally had all the artwork done. We just needed to turn it into a book, and for that, we needed money. As I mentioned before, we were going the self-publishing route, so to get the money for that, we turned to the world of crowdfunding. With a budget plan my father Donald Cohen and I made and a video shot by my step brother Armando Aparicio, we made a campaign on Indiegogo to try and get $2,000. By the end of the campaign, we had over $6,000. I was so floored. I was simultaneously excited, proud, and scared from all the attention. No turning back now. It was time to make this happen.

Finally, to help construct the book, we turned to a man we found on Craigslist named Gordy Grundy (no relation to the DC Comics villain Solomon Grundy). He helped us construct the book and put it together, guiding us through the world of self-publishing. While that was going on, the marketing began, and by marketing, I mean myself and everyone who worked on this telling everyone they knew on social media to buy the book and tell their friends and family.

Sure enough, it felt like no time at all before my first official book (and Amber’s first official paid gig) was released to the world. What started as a dream became something that people could actually buy and share with their loved ones. Even more surprising, they liked it! I heard from friends, family, and Amazon reviews about how much parents and children enjoyed and connected with the book. This wasn’t just my parents telling me I was talented because they were my parents; it was actual confirmation from the world that I had done something good.

Even today, the reality of it all is still barely catching up to me. It’s still hard to believe the same kid who spent summer after summer unable to get a job is now a published author whose works actually touched people. I can’t thank everyone enough for helping make this dream a reality, and I hope I never stop writing. I’m not “just an autistic kid,” like I thought I was, anymore; I have climbed a freaking mountain. To all the creatives out there, on the spectrum or not, keep pushing forward. The climb to make the most of your talent is a hard one, but it’s worth it, especially when you don’t get there alone.

If you want to buy “The Fire Truck Who Got Lost,” you can find it on Amazon or The Art of Autism. To find more works from my amazing artist Amber, visit here.

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Experiencing an Autistic Shutdown in Front of My Partner

I had my first shutdown in front of my partner.

The last 10 days have been full. I started a new job, we’re moving to a new house and things have generally been very random. That, combined with my partner (thankfully) getting some more work lined up, has meant things have been a bit all over the place.

Although I’d been finding it tiring, I didn’t feel too out of sorts. I even wondered if I was beginning to cope a little better.

Then we got to Friday night.

My partner had been at work all day, I’d worked longer hours than normal and was feeling a bit overtired and overwhelmed. The day before we’d signed our new lease on a house in Wales and I was tired from all the travelling and having to interact with more people than usual.

I cooked us dinner, we opened a bottle of wine and I still felt OK. Wired and tired, but OK. Afterward, we decided he would clean up while I had a bath. Before I got up to move, he put his arm around me and within seconds I was sobbing. I had no idea where it was coming from. For a few moments I felt as if I was on the outside looking in. Then I realized it was me I could hear crying and I’d no idea how to stop. He didn’t know what to do other than holding me. After a while, it was apparent I couldn’t stop, and he gently sent me upstairs to run a bath and lie down. The trouble was, by this stage I realized (too late) I was in shutdown mode and didn’t have the language to explain I’d struggle turning the taps on and getting undressed.

Somehow I managed it, but I don’t remember anything until I found myself sitting on the edge of our bed with my boyfriend’s arms around me. I had no idea when he came up or how long I’d been sitting there.

All I remember was saying, “I’m sorry” over and over again.

He asked me if I wanted a drink. I didn’t know. Did I want water? Tea? I had no idea. I couldn’t even form sentences in my head, let alone speak.

He asked me if I wanted to sleep. I didn’t know. I thought I could remember how to shut my eyes but I wasn’t sure if I could remember how to swing my legs around and get into bed.

None of my limbs were working. My head was thumping. I felt shaky and worn out from crying. I could still hear myself saying “I’m sorry” over and over, but that was all I could manage.

In the end, I remember the light going off in the bedroom and him leaving, but nothing else.

I slept in a sort of fitful way. Comatose for a few hours then plagued by nightmares. When I woke up in the morning, he was lying next to me. His arm reached over and touched mine.,”How are you feeling?” He asked. “Tired,” I said.

It took a lot to raise myself up, get dressed and make tea, but I did it. For the rest of the day I felt out of sorts. I felt I was functioning one minute and the next I’d forget a word, or realize I was too tired to make a decision as to whether I wanted a cup of tea or not.

It was important for me to talk to my boyfriend about it. He asked, “Was that a shutdown?” And I said, “Yes, but I hadn’t realized until it was too late, and then I couldn’t articulate it.”

“Is that as bad as it gets?” he asked.

“No. I’ve been much worse than that.”

I couldn’t lie, as shutdowns go it wasn’t nice, but it wasn’t the worst. It felt bad because it had happened in front of him and even though we’re solid as a couple, there’s still always that bit of me that bristles at showing any vulnerability or emotion.

Again, I felt I had to say, “If you feel you can’t handle it, you can walk out and there will never be any hard feelings on my part.” I always feel I have to add this as a disclaimer.

The next few weeks will be tricky and he knows as we progress with the move things might get worse. If he’s handled the first meltdown OK, I hope it means we’ll get through the next ones, too.

I’m used to coping with shutdowns on my own, so to have one in front of someone — and someone who is as important as my partner  feels like the ultimate challenge in laying myself bare and exposing my frailties.

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Thinkstock image by Archv

For Years, He Was Underestimated. Now, This Teen With Autism Has His Own Film.

Julia, a new character on Sesame Street, talking with another character

How the New Girl on the Street Can Help Children Understand Autism

In case you missed it, one of the nation’s oldest and most beloved children’s television programs has taken a huge step towards inclusion of children with disabilities.

In the next couple of weeks, Sesame Street is introducing its newest character, Julia, a young girl on the autism spectrum. Writers for the show expressed Julia “does things a little differently.” This is part of a larger campaign geared towards introducing children to autism and reducing the stigma still associated with autism.

The show is striving to portray some behaviors associated with autism in an environment where children will see Julia accepted by their favorite characters. This way, they will hopefully better understand if they see some of the same behaviors exhibited by their classroom peers. This is an ambitious endeavor since, of course, autism can be different for each individual. As the saying goes, “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Learning about Julia and her upcoming debut on “Sesame Street” immediately evoked tears for me. Having grown up with a younger sibling with autism, I know firsthand the very real impact this character can have in teaching children at a young age about autism and the need for empathy and understanding. My brother was bullied for many of the behaviors Julia exhibits, including the hand flapping, sharp reaction to loud noises, inability to read social cues and ultimately for appearing “different.” Unfortunately, children were not the only problem, as many adults were not compassionate or understanding when my brother would exhibit these behaviors in public. My family became accustomed to the stares and rude comments when we were out to dinner, at the movies or even the grocery store. Oftentimes, people seemed to believe he was simply misbehaving as a result of bad parenting, rather than accepting his actions were the direct result of his disability.

“Sesame Street” has created another big crack in the proverbial glass ceiling that still suppresses open discussion and inclusion of individuals with autism and other disabilities in our society. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Bullying is an age-old problem that has become an issue of national concern in the last several years with the rise in self-harming behaviors and suicides. Children with disabilities can be especially vulnerable to bullying for a variety of reasons, but namely because they appear “different.” How easy would it be for us as parents, educators, role models and leaders to follow the lead of “Sesame Street” and start teaching children that different does not equal bad, but it is a beautiful part of humanity that should be fostered and embraced? Kindness and acceptance begins at home, and I do not believe children are “born bullies.” Bullying can be a learned behavior, and it could be replaced with empathy and compassion. Wouldn’t it be nice if a new student with autism at school could be “just another new kid” a child accepts and befriends, rather than that “different kid” eating alone in the cafeteria or playing alone on the playground?

Information is power, and I believe “Sesame Street” is empowering families like mine and yours across the country, and around the world, by helping a large portion of the population — children and adults alike — learn more about autism and how they can be helpful and kind to those on the autism spectrum.

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Photo source: YouTube video screenshot

How a Teen With Autism Went From Picky Eater to Host of His Own Cooking Show

Sesame Street's Newest Resident Is Julia, a Muppet on the Autism Spectrum

*Editors Note: The video version incorrectly spells the puppeteer’s name as ‘Stacy Gordon,’ and is corrected in the transcript as ‘Stacey Gordon.’

For the first time in a decade, Sesame Street is adding a new muppet to the block: Julia, a young muppet on the autism spectrum.

Read the full version of Sesame Street’s Newest Resident Is Julia, a Muppet on the Autism Spectrum.

Read the full transcript:

For the First Time in a Decade, Sesame Street Is Adding a New Muppet to the Block.

Meet Julia, a young muppet on the autism spectrum.

“For years, families of children with autism have asked us to address the issue.” – Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop

“So many partners, advisors, and organizations have contributed to the success of this initiative.”

In 2015, Sesame Workshop launched Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.

This online initiative introduced Julia as a digital character in a storybook called “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3.”

Sesame Workshop has spent five years consulting with 250 organizations and experts within the autism community.

Julia will be played by Stacey Gordon, a puppeteer whose son is on the autism spectrum.

“I really wish that kids in my son’s class had grown up with a ‘Sesame Street’ that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism.” -Stacey Gordon, NPR interview

Julia will make her debut April 10 on PBS Kids and HBO.

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