Category Archives: Empathy

Diarrhea and Low-Functioning Autism

After Thanksgiving dinner, I had diarrhea.

This example may give some readers pause as they flash signs of contempt or disgust. However, most people share a personal understanding of brief diarrhea. Exact causes may be difficult to pinpoint, but usually involve complex chemistry of fluid imbalance. Other factors, like stress, may warrant consideration, too. Still, most people can empathize and sympathize with this gastrointestinal challenge. In polite company, we refrain from sharing our toileting experiences. This is an unwritten social rule. I contend how diarrhea may only momentarily detract from our daily routines or work performances, though. As filthy as diarrhea might be, we understand it well enough from our own experiences, and still dislike addressing it. I wonder how proud actors feel whilst filming commercials for an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medication.

Unconsciously, we might assign those negative images of watery feces to the person having diarrhea. We give the ill person distance, to avoid contracting diarrhea ourselves. We encourage bed rest, medication, and other things which completely remove them from future conversations until WE think they act or feel …

…wait for it…

“normal.” Despite our intimate knowledge of diarrhea, we automatically shun anyone who currently experiences it. We devalue their contributions because we assume their illness also affects mental alertness or other skills we otherwise expect. We seek to avoid contamination ourselves, and scrub our hands with anti-bacterial soap. Flush our relationship until the illness passes. We may want our friends to rest, or we may want nothing to do with a stranger who ate gas-station sushi.

Why are we so dismissive and lack compassion for an experience we likely have all shared and at least conceptually understand? Couldn’t a person with diarrhea still draw, still code, still do a lot of non-physically challenging things of value? I believe this person can add value. However, society caps their presumed potential until their diarrhea passes and they “act” less of an uncomfortable threat to our societal expectations.

1 in 68 persons has autism, and I believe more than this ratio have had diarrhea. Not as many people understand autism as well as diarrhea. Making understanding more difficult, we ascribe words like “low functioning” as a description. No, we may not come out and say “low functioning.” Instead, we use words like “high functioning autism,” which immediately supposes its counter-point: low-functioning autism. Likewise, we avoid invoking the word, “diarrhea” because we know peer judgement follows. Instead, words like “upset stomach” or “wiped out” seem more polite. What is a nicer way of saying “low functioning autism?” Yeah, there aren’t any, and you’re foolish to think aggressors won’t prey upon this distinction. Even worse, I contend some people with “higher functioning autism” also know how to throw bully-wolves off their scent by making such comparisons.

“I don’t have diarrhea; I’ve a tummy ache.” “I might have autism, but it’s ‘HIGH functioning autism.'”  Both sentences desperately seek acceptance, and use language to seem more approachable. I believe most people know what diarrhea looks like, but doubt many of these same people could identify two clinical needs which warrant a lower functional categorization. Instead, society fumbles with perceptions over what “low” functioning might be, even if their examples seem disconnected to autism. This becomes a dangerous enterprise, adding more doubt, myths, and missed opportunities for our community as a whole.

Instead, leave the adjectives “high functioning” and “low functioning” autism to the clinicians who crafted the words for their own medical processes. Stop manufacturing more reasons for polite society to fear or further distance themselves from an impolite conversation. As a collection of human beings, we cannot have easy discussions about loose stool, so why do we think invoking high/low functionalities will improve understandings of autism without similar contempt, disgust, or fear of known diarrhea?

Please add to this conversation if you have a counter-point. I boldly contend that we should erase the use of autism functionalities outside of our clinicians’ offices. Someone saying they’ve “high functioning” autism is really saying, “Yes, I’m autistic, BUT please don’t confuse me for someone with low-functioning autism, because I know you won’t give me any chances otherwise.” I dare anyone who identifies as having “high-functioning” autism to say it WITH a person who has “low functioning” autism also present, and then point to that person and call ’em “low functioning” to their face. OWN that glorified trap, if you must insist on its non-clinical use. Outside of educational/medical care, can you name any situation where identifying an autism functionality is helpful to the individual, the recipient of that information, or “polite” society (the same group who cannot stomach talks of diarrhea) as we seek greater acceptance?  Nah, we won’t have acceptance from neurotypical folk until we can accept ourselves.

Comic Books with a Sensory Experience? Opening Comic Books to the Autism and Blind Communities

We recently entered a contest sponsored by Wells Fargo. With great thanks to a team of dedicated writing volunteers, we entered this submission for professional business mentorship and a $25,000 award. How will we use these resources?


Image a fantastic story – a radioactive spider bites a likeable student. This student discovers new superhuman powers, like a spider. He fights criminals after dating and studying. Marvel Comics’ “Spider-man” already matches this basic description. Now, what if the same radioactive spider bite also gives the hero cancer? Why couldn’t writers use clinical and compassionate experiences to describe a young person’s journey with cancer treatment? How valuable could this resource be for a young generation – with or without cancer – to understand cancer?

Our small business believes kids need heroes like themselves. Our founder (and comic book script writer) saw a gap in the marketplace. He took his experiences as a doctoral student researching autism and empathy connections, his work as a clinical therapist, and his own personal experiences as an adult diagnosed with autism to create a comic book. Face Value Comics is the world’s first comic book to feature a hero with autism!

Well Fargo Contest LinkOur comic books use a lot of scientific theories vetted by peer-reviewed literature. Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), we freeze multicultural and non-verbal emotional expressions on a static page. Readers build predictive empathy, and begin to see how or why a character may feel some emotions. This strategy helps erase a damaging myth about persons with autism: we DO have empathy, but may need more clarifications on how to respond. In the comic book, we have a lot of aliens and robots, but we also offer family-friendly role models. Each character has a fictional, yet robust,  psychological profile, including descriptions of autism, anxiety, depression, etc. When confronted by a challenge, characters respond predictably because we compassionately use their clinical diagnoses for added legitimacy. Kids need heroes like themselves. These successes, as well as great international press coverage of our comic books, helps meet a part of our mission statement: helping persons with autism feel safe, feel valued and wanted, and feel and successful.

Autism advocacy requires awareness and acceptance. Our comic books earned several international awards and nominations within the past year. We’ve been on the nation’s largest television news network, with over 10 million viewers. Without paid search-engine optimization, we still rank highly in social media because we held over fifty interviews last year. This fall, we present to the United States Congressional Autism Caucus about replicating our educational reform initiatives with the Dover Area School District. People are becoming aware of autism…without fear or prejudice.

Autism advocacy include social acceptance.
Autism advocacy include social acceptance.

Acceptance is a larger hurdle for advocacy. However, our comic book sit on the same shelves as Batman and Spider-man. Last year, we became a best-selling, independently-published comic book through Diamond Comic Distributors. Making our comics available to more people remains our largest business challenge, and this is because of purchase power. Our small business cannot easily afford to buy in bulk, thereby reducing paper and printing costs.

Wells Fargo’s award would reduce print costs. Additionally, we welcome professional mentorship about business practices; our team consists on less than ten individuals. Regardless of the financial award, we ask Wells Fargo to consider helping us with a new marketing strategy: imagine how having a three-dimensional printer could help us. By raising the same facial expressions our artists typically create, and adding Braille, we could open comic books to the low-or-no vision community and for persons with autism with an added sensory experience.

Will you help us do more with what we have, and add your investments of time and talent and even a portion of the announced $25,000 award? Kids need heroes like themselves. Thank you for your consideration!

Don’t Feed the the “Animals”

Over the Easter vacation, my family attended an aquarium in New Jersey. I wanted to do some hands-on research about seahorses and poison dart frogs (remember- I also write comic book scripts). This experience became a moment for autism (self) advocacy.

We spent about two hours going through exhibits. However, near the end, I felt overwhelmed. As more guests trafficked, I became a pinball and bounced off of people. Then, I found myself under a speaker, which further disoriented me. I asked for a break, and my family agreed to meet me in a few minutes while they completed the tour.

Again, I became disoriented as I made my way through a sea of people to where I thought I was supposed to be. I rested for a while (10 minutes?). Sadly, I did not become aware of some facial tics or finger/hand stimming until people began giving me odd looks. To curb this expression and embarrassment, I walked around the lobby near where my family would reconvene.

However, I made a poor choice in hindsight. My anxiety swelled and I felt like vomiting. I began breathing heavier, and tears trickled down my cheeks. I asked for help to find my bench I left just a few minutes prior. I know that some people can be cruel by making fun of kids. People made fun of me- a 40 year old, 6’5″ man with a cane.

Not one single guest offered any compassion but worse- not one employee or designee offered help. Perhaps my stuttering, exaggerated by anxiety, made me seem less approachable. Maybe professionals are unfamiliar with some common symptoms of anxiety and/or autism. I plan to write the aquarium and ask about staff training about these two and more challenges for future guests. I do not want anyone else to have any experiences at this aquarium like I did. After what seems like hours to me, my wife and family reconnected and we decided to simply leave immediately.

When fans read our comics, my hope is we can lend legitimacy to the autism experience. In my mind, this is why none of the largest comic book creators have an autistic superhero. How could a non-autistic writer capture subtle nuances of sensory overload if they’ve never experienced it, or only experienced it second-hand? How closely will the fictional behaviors match real-life diagnostic criteria or experiences common among many person with autism? This is why we made Face Value Comics. This isn’t “just” a comic book. This is the world’s FIRST autistic comic book hero – reaching the first generation of autistic students who graduate schools largely unprepared to help them face a world that stares back with equal confusion about what to do. This post is likely an unprofessional mix of emotions and advocacy. However, one cannot remove human experiences from a…well…human experience. This post took me about an hour to write. Near its end, I finally regained powers of speech without stuttering, and I wear a band-aid where I repeatedly, absent-mindedly rubbed my skin raw from during my experience at the aquarium.

In conclusion, my heart is still pointed towards kids- kids who need heroes like themselves – like OURselves – because the real world has enough villainry and too few champions. If you’ve read this far- thank you. You are unlike the many people who walked away from an autistic adult having a sensory overload in a New Jersey aquarium.

Autism Education Reform

PAGE ONE

INTERIOR – GENERIC (HIGH) SCHOOL CLASSROOM – DAY

Zephyr stands.
The Zephyr (Michael) stands to defend children, and give them a voice of inclusion!

1. ACTION: The Zephyr sits behind a teacher’s desk in a generic high school classroom. Place Items commonly associated with teachers (ie: pencil, textbook, shiny apple, etc.) on the desk. Smiling, the Zephyr appeals to the readers as he introduces new thoughts about (autism support) special education, economics, and long-term planning.

ZEPHYR: Good day, citizen! I want to share fantastic news about new initiatives for individuals with autism. Together, we can literally change the FACE of public schools’ special needs education.

CAPTION: Kids need and want heroes like themselves!

2. ACTION: The Zephyr stands in front of a group of professional adults in a classroom. His audience includes teachers, psychologists, and parents. Behind the Zephyr, the chalkboard shows an expression of sadness (similar to what Myra drew in Issue #2), complete with reference lines to the quantification of the emotion. At least one (female) adult-student raises their hand to signify a question.

ZEPHYR: We see how an expression of ‘sadness’ looks. This expression is multicultural. People of any age or gender show sadness in the same way.

CAPTION: Studying facial feature recognition allows people to correctly and universally identify, name, and contextually place their own and others’ emotional expressions.

3. ACTION: The “teacher” who raised their hand (see above) now instructs a small class of young children at their desks. She points to a same/similar expression (sadness? anger?) on the chalkboard. This teacher also looks toward a student with their hand raised, now. An analog clock on the wall reads 9:15am.

TEACHER: That’s correct! Let’s use the word “angry” or “sad” instead of “upset.” If we use the same vocabulary for the short list of emotions, we’ll all clearly understand.

CAPTION: Teachers and direct-care staff can be taught and subsequently re-teach uniform expressions. Using social learning theory, graduate-level staff can bill third-party payers at group therapy rates.

INTERIOR – ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE – DAY

4. ACTION: An administrator sits behind a desktop computer. A stack of papers in an “OUTBOX” piles up (indicating opportunities to have multiple billings).In the “INBOX,” place stacks and wads of cash!

CAPTION: This model is the first non-partisan test of the Affordable Care Act. Even if only using ACCESS, this model offers an additional, insulated funding stream to education from insurances.

CAPTION: National averages for group therapy range $35-$85 per hour. In a month, one special needs classroom could generate about five hours of billable services about emotional identification and appropriate social reactions.

Michael and TESS relax at the Park.
Michael and TESS relax at the Park.

PAGE TWO

EXTERIOR – SCHOOL PLAYGROUND – DAY

1. ACTION: Children play on jungle gyms, shoot basketballs into a hoop, and a couple of kids surround a water fountain (outside) because we imply lots of activity and need for hydration. A teacher (or more) supervise the energetic kids during recess.

CAPTION: With insurance dollars, schools could re-invest into academic textbooks and supplies, or new equipment for the betterment of all students.

2. ACTION: A typical man holds a check for a million dollars, payable to “TAXES.” Standing next to him, the Zephyr holds out a hand to indicate halt/stop. He shakes his head “no,” with multiple heads turning in action of no, with motion lines. A child runs by the pair, holding a balloon and bouncing a colorful playground ball.

CAPTION: …without raising a single dime against the average taxpayer. This plan promises to net several hundreds or several thousands of dollars to invest in education!

CAPTION: Research about facial feature recognition is well-vetted in peer-reviewed literature. Most graduate-level helping professionals and insurances recognize the utility and value behind social learning theory, too.

INTERIOR – BANK  – DAY

3. ACTION: An individual wearing a fine three-piece suit offers the same female teacher (see above) a briefcase. Bursting with money, bills lay pinched and trapped in the closed briefcase, with a few dollars floating and falling away.

CAPTION: With careful investments, these monies could be invested and protected under FDIC regulations. Even a modest investment rate, multiplied by each billing classroom, provides a new economic practice.

INTERIOR – CLASSROOM  – DAY

4. ACTION: The Zephyr sits behind a desk. The briefcase (see above) also sits opened on his desk. Around him are several people of different backgrounds. They all wear t-shirts with a label to identify them, so “TUITION” speaker wears a t-shirt labeled, “TUITION.” The Zephyr hands money to each person like he were an many-armed octopus.

ZEPHYR: Who needs a tax-free grant?

TUITION: I do! I’ve to pay for books this semester.

THERAPY: My insurance won’t cover equine-assisted therapy this year.

HOUSING: My landlord asked for a deposit if I was serious about this new apartment.

TRAINING: Our classroom needs more puppets to teach facial feature recognition.

CAPTION: Wise investments over time allows schools to build interest on their original capital. These funds could be offered as non-profit, tax-free grants!

PAGE THREE

INTERIOR – CLASSROOM  – DAY

1. ACTION: From the teacher’s POV, students sit in their seats. Several students’ thought balloons betray their facial expressions.

CAPTION: Teachers and direct-care staff will learn to spot facial features of their students.From this identification, we can work together to overcome individual challenges.

SAD BOY: I miss my dog. I hope our runaway comes home tonight…

AFRAID BOY: Those kids always wait to tease me during gym class…

SURPRISE GIRL: I didn’t know there was going to be a test today! Oh-no Oh-No Oh-NO!

ANGRY BOY: Just wait til I get my hands on those kids spreading rumors…

Sadness
Michael’s expression of sadness has biological constants, making his sadness look like anyone else’s expression of sadness, too.

2. ACTION: One meek boy hides behind a row of library book shelves. His eyes peer in the direction of a monstrous bully. This peer bully has a bull’s head (minotaur), and balled his fists as he swings them through the air. In his wake are a series of drop-kicked books, overturned tables, etc. This bully is on the warpath!

CAPTION: …as well as empower students to navigate social situations. At its core, autism is a social communication condition. We’ll give kids more information about human behavior and build predictive empathy.

BULLY: <RAWR> <CRASH>

BULLIED BOY THOUGHT BALLOON: I’ll have to tell the teacher about Billy’s bullying behavior. In the meanwhile, I should stay away from him while he clearly looks angry!

3. ACTION: A small girl smiles and extends her hand to a boy who smiles at her.

GIRL: You seem happy. Would you like to be my friend?

CAPTION: In elementary schools, our curriculum includes basic buildings of genuine friendships and skills to combat sadness or anger outbursts.

4. ACTION: In a traditional woodshop classroom, two young adults and a teacher banter by a band-saw (complete with cutting safeguards, their safety goggles, etc.)

KID 1: You seem to understand this assignment better than I do. Will you please show me how to operate the power saw?

KID 2: In our last project, you taught me about electric circuits, and I passed the test. I’d be happy to help!

TEACHER: Great examples of teamwork, kids!

CAPTION: For older students, facial feature recognition helps to build pre-professional relationships. Kids begin to identify how people can help, and who may be most receptive to offering said help.

PAGE FOUR

1. ACTION: This splash page shows the Zephyr surrounded by many children of various ethnicities, ages, and abilities. Do not be afraid to depict diversity in learning, including physical challenges like arm canes, wheelchairs, glasses, braces, etc. All of the kids show either 1) feigned happiness, 2) genuine happiness, or 3) neutral expressions. A teacher, a parent, or other loving adult also looks at the Zephyr with awe.

ZEPHYR: Let’s review what facial feature recognition can do for your school’s special needs (autism support) classrooms:

CAPTION: Build vocabulary to consistently learn multicultural, universal emotional expressions.

CAPTION: Empower kids to recognize their own feelings, and emotions of their peers. By building predictive empathy, we dispel a damaging myth about autism’s lack of reciprocal emotions.

CAPTION: Create insulated funding streams from third party payers.

CAPTION: Grow capital through long-and-short-term investments for immediate educational projects or post-graduate assistance.

CAPTION: Reduce bullying by limiting victimization tactics and spotting problematic behavior as it stews.

ZEPHYR: Based on the success of our international award-winning comic book – the world’s first to FEATURE a hero with autism – we’ve global advocacy groups interested in our research. We’re reaching the first generation of autistic students…with a comic book. Take a deeper look at the science we use on two-dimensional pages.

KID (PICK ANY ONE): Ask how you can help us!

— end

Copyright (C) 2015, Autism at Face Value

Email: Angie@faceValue.US email

Tout est pardonné

This is part of the message we wrote to the French Embassy. Our words reinforce solidarity and sympathy against misunderstanding and prejudice. In our comics, we created a fictional intergalactic invaders who want to rob us of our individuality and freedoms. We believe our message is fitting, given its message and timeliness.

Dear Friends in France,

     We applaud your patriotic spirit! In light of recent terrorists’ threats, you determine to uphold civil liberties like free speech. We stand with you as free people, not just as Americans.
     In our futuristic comic book, we are the world’s first comic to feature a hero with autism. We’ve enjoyed some success internationally, and love our French fans! We understand some of the challenges that international print and distribution on non-mainstream ideas can have.
     As we prepare to continue our comic series, we’re adding a special acknowledgement of your struggles. In our minds, anyone who is asked to be silent deserves to have their voices heard. When people – or countries – rally support and persevere, the world recognizes this behavior as ‘heroism.’
     To commemorate your work, and the ideals they represent, we are re-creating the Statue of Liberty in our steampunk comic book. During an intergalactic invasion, your original gift to the United States was (sadly) destroyed in our story. We choose to harm an inanimate object instead of innocent citizens.
SLibertyTeaser
     As French architects redesign a new statue, we’ve made some significant changes. For example, a lovely banner will adorn her with the phrase, “Tout est pardonné.” Other changes, like an infant child, show a loving and protective stance made for our most precious resource: free children with hearts filled with dreams.
     This phrase, “All is forgiven,” symbolizes the hopes of every free citizen looking to improve their lives, not just Americans or French. In this idea, we find brotherhood. We find common ground. Our civil liberties are designed to level the playing field for citizens, each having a unique contribution and voice. Freedom of Speech is among the most important rights we enjoy!
     Even if I never meet an official French Ambassador, we know we have friends in spirit in France! Our strength of support will drown out critics and detractors. Please, keep your home-fires burning brightly by the examples you set. We will all grow stronger by fighting against prejudice and misunderstanding.
We stand with you, brethren, and against hateful censorship.
With respect,
Dave Kot, Founder and Script Writer- Face Value Comics

Learning to Embrace Differences and Build Empathy

Embrace Differences to Build EmpathyOne of the most important goals of Face Value Comics is to help both neurotypical people and people with an ASD diagnosis embrace differences in people. It can be really difficult to understand the different ways people have of understanding the world. To embrace differences is harder still. However, if we as a society are going to make any progress in decreasing prejudice and building empathy, we’re going to have to start to understand and embrace differences.

One way to help people to embrace differences is to tell stories. Telling stories is one of the ways people learn best. When our interest is engaged in an exciting tale, we’re more likely to be open to other messages in the story. We hope that Face Value Comics will be a leader in helping people to embrace differences. We have a wide variety of characters, each with different challenges and strengths. Our autistic hero Michael has friends who deal with physical disabilities, depression, anxiety, and other struggles. By showing these characters in interesting and relatable situations, we hope readers will come to like the characters and even see them as friends. Once we have embraced a person (even a fictional one!) we’re ready to embrace the differences that person experiences and embodies. We see the person as quite similar to ourselves. This is the process of building empathy and understanding.

Use Self Care to Combat Holiday Stress

Combat Holiday Stress with self careTeens with ASD are especially vulnerable to holiday stress. All the disruptions to the normal routine and the changes in celebrations from one year to the next can be enough to push a person with autism toward feelings of overwhelm and sensory overload. While some level of holiday stress may be unavoidable, there are several strategies of self care that can help keep the holidays manageable and fun.

One key to combatting holiday stress for autistic teens it to identify triggers. What makes you feel overwhelmed, anxious or depressed? Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can take steps to minimize negative feelings. This may mean that you say no to certain parties or outings. Or you decide to avoid some people.

Another important factor in decreasing holiday stress is to practice positive self care. In addition to avoiding situations that are stressful, make sure you schedule time for things that you enjoy and that help your relax. Get plenty of rest. Make time to bake a special treat. Visit a close friend. Practice meditation techniques that calm you and get you in touch with your inner emotional state. Make a plan of activities you want to do. Allow enough time between events to rest and recover. Be sure to enlist the help of family and friends so they can help you decrease holiday stress and make time for self care.

Helping People with Autism Read the Signals of Depression Over the Holidays

Watch for signals of depression over the holidaysThe holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and togetherness. Unfortunately for many people with autism, the holidays can create extra stress. Holiday stress can then trigger or exacerbate depression. It’s important for family members and friends to be on the watch for signals of depression. Since people with autism can have a hard time expressing emotions, they’re especially dependent on others to help them recognize signals of depression and develop coping strategies.

Signals of depression for all people include dramatic increase or decrease in appetite or sleep needs, consistently negative thought patterns, despair, irritability, or a lack of interest in physical appearance. For people with autism, depression might manifest as an increase in self-harm behavior (like hand-biting), an increase in tantrums or violent behavior, or find everyday tasks harder to perform, especially in different environments.

Sometimes people can cope with depression through more regular sleep and exercise, healthy eating, prayer or meditation, or finding a hobby or social outlet. It’s important for family and friends of people with autism to respect the need for those things, even in the midst of holiday obligations. Sometimes knowing that others struggle with depression can help a person cope with it.

Face Value Comics include characters and stories about depression. When anyone notices signals of depression, whether the person with autism or a friend or relative, that’s a sign to slow down. During the holidays, that may mean turning down some invitations or having more subdued decorations. It’s better to have a quieter holiday season than a frantic series of events leading to depression.

Autism Labels As a Tool for Understanding

Autism labels do not define usMany people receive autism labels these days.  Sometimes people are diagnosed with autism when they are young children.  Other people struggle into adulthood until their challenges are given the autism label.  This labeling can be helpful for some to get professional support and education.  Different labels can help us understand aspects of ourselves and our loved ones, and help us empower ourselves to address our unique challenges.

At Face Value Comics, we’ve dedicated ourselves to helping society understand those given Autism Labels: children, teens and adults everywhere who are challenged with Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASD. At the same time, we want to give people with ASD tools to help them navigate the neurotypical world.

One thing that people with ASD struggle with is recognizing what others’ facial expressions mean.  In our stories we use the theories of Dr. Paul Ekman and his Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to illustrate different emotions.  Because a comic is a static image, people can study the face as long as necessary to decode the emotional signals.  The words appear in speech bubbles and captions help place the scene in context.

More than anything, we hope that Face Value Comics will give useful autism expressions, both to help people with ASD understand the emotions of others, and to give a positive and affirming view of people with ASD to a neurotypical world.  An autism diagnosis isn’t the last word on a person.  Autism labels should just be a tool for understanding.  We hope that we can further this understanding with our stories of Michael, his friends, and The Zephyr!

What’s the Difference Between Labeling Autism and Raising Autism Awareness?

When trying to understand something, we human beings often turn to labels to help us organize our thinking.  This can be useful or it can reinforce prejudices.  Anyone with ASD knows the dangers of labeling autism.  Most of the time, people want to understand, but they accidentally choose labels that are hurtful or misleading.  I’ve written before about how Marvel and DC Comics have had characters with ASD.  While I applaud the willingness of these companies to include people with ASD, I dislike labeling autism with the category tags “Mental Illness Weakness,” as Marvel does.

Michael Draws Zephyr - do autism labels workAt Face Value Comics, we’re trying something new.  We’re raising autism awareness by giving the main character, a Superhero, autism.  This allows us to show an autistic person dealing with everyday situations.

Rather than simply labeling autism as a weakness or a mental disorder, we’re showing a person coping with it in realistic situations.  Of course, our futuristic steampunk universe isn’t exactly reality, but who could pass up the chance to write about crazy aliens or robots that are a mix of plants and metal?!  By removing the stories a bit from our daily lives, we’re allowing space for our readers to get involved in the characters and the story lines and absorb the messages, raising autism awareness and teaching readers to decode facial expressions.

Autism awareness is the first step we take with readers. We make relatable characters for kids in middle school. Demystifying the broad spectrum of autism is a huge task.  Our goal is to start by showing kids can have heroes like themselves, and one hero just happens to have autism.

Wanted: New Toaster & Acceptance

I have a toaster, and use my toaster almost daily. Having a toaster doesn’t automatically grant me authority or privilege to speak on behalf of other toaster-owners. Honestly, I don’t even know how toasters work. Yes, I understand basic electrical concepts, like how conductors generate substantial heat needed to toast bread. *chomp* Yum. There ends my knowledge about toasters.

Mmmm...do you have any toast?
Mmmm…May I please have some toast?

Label me. I am now a toaster-owner AND user. What does this label mean for me? If a friend were hungry, I suppose I’d offer him toast. He may not like toast, though. Wait- who doesn’t like garlic bread, or blueberry bagels? If I keep writing while hungry, I’ll never finish this post…

Some clinicians diagnosed me with Autism. For the first time in my life, I publicly address my diagnosis. I don’t hide in shame, nor do I brazenly self-promote my comic book featuring an autistic hero. My artist and publisher don’t know I have autism. To be fair, I never told them I have a toaster, either. I light one lantern for others to hopefully ease their journey with compassion and entertainment. Life takes courage, whether one has autism or a toaster.

Again, what do labels mean for me? Sometimes, this knowledge helps me understand social situations, but often AFTER the fact. My anxiety (another label) causes me to stutter. My depression (another label) makes me retreat from judgments. I have a toaster, and as a “toaster owner,” I can better utilize this label than any clinical diagnosis. For some, getting a professional evaluation opens doors for services and treatments by trained providers. For others, having an answer or resources may foster empowerment. A diagnosis could alleviate some guilt over presumed parental mistakes. Many people have different experiences along their life-long journeys with an ASD, therefore needing different support systems.

Potential partners who seek an alignment with our comic book routinely ask: who advises about what works for autism. Ummm…me? Would it matter if I had the world’s premier authority on autism as my muse? Please tell me about this/these expert(s). Do I need two, maybe twenty, professional advisers? What role might a person with Asperger’s Syndrome play in Face Value Comics? More importantly, does Face Value Comics need an official endorsement- is self-advocacy and sociological theory sufficient? Certainly, Face Value Comics welcomes any help from anyone in any way. Know that I’m more likely to ask people if they’ve a toaster than if they’ve an ASD.

Do you like my hats? Do you like me?
Do you like Frank as much as you like his hats?

Poor Frank! He owns many hats. Frank wants to look his best. Which hat looks cool? Did you LABEL each hat, yet? Do people notice any fear in his face? His eyes widen, his mouth opens with surprise, and his eyebrows raise. Frank has a social anxiety disorder. Does Frank care more about his hat, or how people accept him?

Facial feature recognition remains a key strategy for improved social communication. Dr. Paul Ekman identified seven, core, universal emotions. Seeing and appropriately responding to these emotions builds empathy and positive social behavior (Kemeny et al, 2012). Some people with ASD lack long-term eye contact. Recognizing these micro-expressions may not be easy, and takes practice. Dr. Richard Cook and his team (2013) believe a lack of facial feature recognition results from (wait…for…it) another co-morbid communication deficit/label: alexithymia. No statistically-significant data links alexithymia with autism, though.

Using Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System (FACS), our comics freeze facial features on a page. Readers may take as much time as they want to study a character’s face. See the consistent muscular patterns associated with different emotions (Frith, 2009). Read words from speech or thought bubbles to give language and meaning to expressions. Caption boxes place the situation in neutral context. Face Value Comics’ existing patterns of well-defined faces teaches emotional empathy (Besel & Yuille, 2010).

We also include funky aliens! Plants and metal form our hybrid robots! Michael (who has autism) fights middle-school bullies as well as strange eel-men. In our steam-powered, futuristic comic book, we don’t have toasters- the scariest thing I can imagine.

When readers look at Frank, I hope they see a young man with the same dreams and doubts as most kids. His diagnoses don’t make him a special character; his ability to overcome these challenges, for and with his friends, molds true heroism. With Face Value Comics, I hope kids find heroes like themselves, because we need ‘em.

References

Besel, L.D.S. & Yuille, J.C. (2010). Individual differences in empathy: The role of facial expression recognition. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(2), 107-112.

Cook, R., Brewer, R., Shah, P., & Bird, G. (2013). Alexithymia, not autism, predicts poor recognition of emotional facial expressions. Psychological Science, 24(5), 723-732.

Frith, C. (2009). Role of facial expressions in social interactions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London;. Series B, Biological Sciences, 364(1535), 3453-3458.

Kemeny, M.E., Wallace, B.A., Ekman, P., Foltz, C., Cavanagh, J.F., Cullen, M., Giese-Davis, J., Jennings, P., Rosenberg, E.L., Gillath, O., & Shaver, P.R. (2012). Contemplative/emotion training reduces negative emotional behavior and promotes prosocial responses. Emotion, 12(2), 338-350.

© Face Value Comics 2013