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How a son’s drawings for his mum turned into a valuable autism nursing resource

Drawings by five-year-old to communicate with his autistic mother offer insight into how people understand each other

Drawings by five-year-old to communicate with his autistic mother offer insight into how people understand each other

  • Heath Graces drawings explain why his mother Joanna Graces brain understands words at a different rate than his own and show how they communicate
  • Ms Grace added notes on her own experience of autism and language, and hopes the book helps others to understand that differences can be positive
  • Leading learning disability nurse says the book has lessons for all nurses and calls it a toolkit to work with people who are neurodiverse

It all started during a trip to the supermarket.

Joanna Grace and her son had

...

Drawings by five-year-old to communicate with his autistic mother offer insight into how people understand each other

  • Heath Grace’s drawings explain why his mother Joanna Grace’s brain understands words at a different rate than his own and show how they communicate
  • Ms Grace added notes on her own experience of autism and language, and hopes the book helps others to understand that differences can be positive
  • Leading learning disability nurse says the book has lessons for all nurses and calls it a toolkit to work with people who are neurodiverse
Joanna Grace and her son Heath
Joanna Grace and her son Heath

It all started during a trip to the supermarket.

Joanna Grace and her son had a shopping system that usually worked pretty well. Heath, who had just turned five, would ride on the front of the trolley and if he saw anything he wanted he would say, ‘Stop’ then jump off and get it.

But on this particular day Heath had been chatting so much that his mother, who is autistic, didn’t register the ‘Stop’ as quickly as she usually would – resulting in bumped ankles and hurt feelings for her son.

‘I explained the situation that had happened in the supermarket and the next day I wanted to make sure he had understood,’ says Ms Grace, a sensory engagement and inclusion worker, who founded The Sensory Projects.

‘He did a drawing where lots of words were coming at my head’

‘I wonder if there’s part of him that recognises I understand what he’s communicating to me better when he draws it, whether that’s something that comes out of his experience of having me as a mummy, but when I pushed him to explain back to me what I’d explained to him the day before, he went and got a piece of paper and did a drawing where lots of words were coming at my head.

‘It was the first Monday of the summer holidays and so I produced a big bit of paper and said he could draw that, then write a sentence, and it would help other people understand because you’ve explained that well. We did another page the next day, and it went on from there.’

What began as a project to encourage Heath to do some writing in the school holidays was to become a book in its own right.

Book will help readers recognise and understand difference

In 2020, My Mummy is Autistic was published by Speechmark, part of Routledge Education.

The colourful picture book is partly made up of Heath’s drawings and written explanations, and partly with explanatory notes by ‘Mummy’ – that is, Ms Grace.

‘But I was looking at it and thinking: “This is really good.” I wasn’t sure whether I was thinking that because I was his mum or because it’s good, so I spoke to an editor at Routledge and asked what she thought.’

Cover of My Mummy is Autistic book by Heath Grace and Joanna Grace

The verdict was favourable and the book has now been published, making Heath possibly the youngest published author in the UK. With a foreword by broadcaster, environmentalist and author Chris Packham, who has Asperger's syndrome, Ms Grace hopes it will help readers to recognise and understand difference – and also to understand that differences can be positive.

Seeing autism through a child’s eyes

Speechmark senior editor Clare Ashworth and her predecessor, who brought the book to the publisher, were impressed with the concept and the book itself.

‘From the beginning, we were struck by how original and beautifully compelling the book was – to be able to see autism through a child’s eyes, in a way that’s curious and celebratory, and with an understanding which shows an open-hearted love and acceptance of difference,’ she says.

‘Heath’s exuberant and colourful illustrations bring the book to life and I was drawn in myself by the honest – but humorous and positive – exploration of life with his autistic mum.’

Ms Grace has another book due out in June 2021, called The Subtle Spectrum: An Honest Account of Autistic Discovery, Relationships and Identity, which continues her mission to raise awareness of neurodiversity.

Having been diagnosed as autistic as an adult – although she says she recognised at the age of 11 that she was autistic – she also continues to work to inform people of what it is like to live in a world built for the neurotypical.

Heath noticed that his mother’s ‘listening face’ is side-on

My Mummy is Autistic is part of that work – Heath’s drawings and sentences simply offer insights and tips on how he works with his mother’s autism. For example, he knows that if he says her name she knows he is talking to her, and he also illustrates what can happen if he tries to tell her too many things at once and she gets things in the wrong order.

He also noticed that while he speaks with someone face to face, his mother’s ‘listening face’ is side-on, and that while other parents tend to chat at the school gate, his mother prefers to stay to one side and play with her hula hoop.

While it’s undoubtedly a charming and useful book, the young author himself isn’t too impressed by his achievements. ‘A reporter asked if he’d enjoyed writing the book and Heath looked at him as if he’d grown another head,’ Ms Grace says.

‘He said: “No, it was Mum making me do writing.” It made it sound as if I’d stood over him with torture equipment. For him, hula-hooping is fun, dancing is fun, writing is not fun – although drawing pictures is okay. He was happy enough drawing the pictures – he didn’t suffer as much as he likes to make out.’

My Mummy is Autistic is a succinct and valuable resource

Helen Laverty, academic lead for learning disability and mental health nursing at the University of Nottingham, and facilitator of Positive Choices
Picture: David Gee

Helen Laverty, pictured, is the academic lead for learning disability and mental health nursing at the University of Nottingham, and facilitator of Positive Choices, a social network group for learning disability nurses and students.

She says My Mummy is Autistic has lessons for all nurses, not just learning disability nurses, and hopes it will be a valuable resource.

‘It’s not just the simplicity of what Heath has produced, it’s how succinctly he’s produced it. So you could read any dusty academic tome that will tell you, for example, about the triad of impairments, that will tell you about how autism was first described and diagnosed, and so on and so forth.

‘But actually, in terms of giving you a more effective toolkit to work practically with people who are neurodiverse, what Heath has produced is excellent.’

One of her favourite sections is where Heath has described the differences in the way he and his mother recognise and process what they think and hear. When a word comes into his brain he can understand it right away, but it takes his mother more time to work out what it is saying.

‘He writes: “If I say lots of words, they get stuck in a queue in Mummy’s brain and I have to wait until she hears me. If I say one or two words I only have a little wait until she hears.”

‘And then it’s got two pictures, one that says: “Mummy, Mummy, come here, come here, come here” and then one that says: “Mummy, swim”. It just gives you an insight into the way that he sees the world and that he’s living in a world that is accepting of people.’



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