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

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.

At 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.

Raising Autism Awareness with a Superhero Labeling Autism

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. We start by showing kids can have heroes like themselves, and one hero just happens to have autism.

© Face Value Comics 2013

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

Sadder Day Mornings

On Saturday mornings, remember when…

…Superhero theme songs made our heads pop up and pay attention to radio or tv?

…Commercials were as fun as the show, and we wished Santa Claus took notes beside us?

…Playing during the show, we made our action figures watch themselves on screen?

What happened to good Saturday Morning Cartoons? The amount of cartoon available on Saturday Morning dwindled. Yes, cable or satellite dish networks offers zillions of programs. Yes, Blu-ray , CD, and DVD sales let me relive old classics. However, I miss a ritual of Saturday Morning routines. Where’re “To be continued…” cliffhangers? Where’re fun toys that advance or match the storyline? Where’re great guests or voice actors, or consistent writers? Where is non-computer generated animation?

Face Value Comics will change some of these things. Forward thinking, we promote positive awareness about autism in ANY medium. Comic books are our best launching point, allowing our use of a specialized science and developing characters. Readers will feel immersed in a good story. Kids (with autism) may learn and retain more things by invoking different senses.  People learn in different ways. Therefore, we announce that The Shimmer are coming (with special thanks to Frank Kozak)…

© Face Value Comics 2013

Unmasked, Part One

Comic books invoke daydreams. Regardless of how bad villains become, fans expect their hero to win. Most major protagonists, or heroes, have a weakness. Smart opponents exploit character flaws for their own gain. In Face Value #1, we have many stories to tell about overcoming human frailties. Hopefully, our heroes win. The story begins with advocacy.

Face Value Comics, Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. We chose this designation to represent our commitment to community. Maybe we’ll make a sizeable profit from comics and related merchandise (Pssst- we already have designs for a line of fully articulated action figures, and storyboards for more than eighteen months of comic book plot). Most likely, every cent we derive from sales goes into funding the next issues.  Money isn’t our biggest problem. Instead, we face the same challenge that many children have, with or with an ASD diagnosis: acceptance.

Look at other comic books. How many feature a hero with autism? Batman aligned with Lucas, a young boy with autism, but for only one issue in 2011. Also from DC Comics, Black Manta fights Aquaman, but has been inexplicably “cured” of his ASD. Marvel Comics’ database lists five “Characters who exhibit or have been diagnosed with autism,” here: http://marvel.wikia.com/Category:Autism_spectrum.  Readers take note: two of the five characters are the same person. Furthermore, Marvel’s official article appears with category tags: “Mental Illness Weakness (emphasis added).”

Sincerely, I applaud any attempt to include autistic characters by Marvel and DC Comics. Few brave writers discuss autism outside of blog posts or scientific study. Fewer writers seem to believe children with autism can be capable of doing grand things, like being an aquatic-dwelling, infant-murdering, criminal mastermind. My bucket list pales by comparison.

Relaxin' Chillaxin
Being different doesn’t automatically make someone or something a monster.

Our comics FEATURE a hero with autism. Make no mistake- the entire series is Michael’s story. He doesn’t have superpowers. Michael doesn’t have a spiffy catchphrase forced upon readers. His best friend isn’t a do-good vigilante sidekick. Honestly, Michael will be lucky to pass his most-recent science test! His greatest ability, aside from art and a mathematical mind, is compassion. Michael tries to understand his world during an on-coming alien invasion. Face Value Comics never had intentions of being like a heart-warming, tea-sipping, kitten-cuddling, after-school television show. We tell a great science-fiction story to keep readers’ interests.

Social injustice and prejudices against children with ASD requires more grit than fluffy promises. Reader’s aren’t sheep. Kids recognize comic books that have action and long-term plot. Face Value Comics isn’t just another therapeutic tool disguised as entertainment. Our team just has decades of combined experience with professional comic books AND mental health advocacy. Like Michael, Face Value Comics makes no apologies for who we are. Like Michael, we only ask for some time for people to understand something different and new.

Will you like Michael?

Will you like Face Value Comics?

© Face Value Comics 2013

REAL Comic Book Heroes

How do superheroes spend their free time? Most comic book heroes lead dual lives. Their secret identity protects their public persona. Heroes’ typical lives range from billionaire playboys to pauper journalists. Regardless, heroes routinely find themselves a front row seat to disaster or mayhem. Meanwhile, average citizens gawk at their valiant crusaders while never knowing who really fights.

Edge relaxes with his  guitar.
Edge relaxes with his guitar.

I hate Superman. *phew* Yes, I said it. His fantastic stories in cartoons, comics, and movies interest me. However, I can’t relate to the Man of Steel, no matter how hard I want to like him. I don’t fly, but this ability would help avoid rush-hour traffic.  Heat vision would be a fun way to warm apple cider and hot chocolate. I’d be too self-conscious about using freezing breath, so I’d have to carry a toothbrush. Green-glowing rocks give Superman pause; I stutter in front of crowds. The Son of Krypton crushes boulders in his bare hands while bullets bounce off his chest. I use a cane to collect my mail. Nope, I can’t pretend to understand a hero like Superman.

In Face Value Comics, our middle-school heroes have a vast array of opposition. They struggle with homework assignments, making new friends, and romantic interest. Add some bizarre aliens with sharp teeth, and now they fight a dehumanized bully. Extrapolate the long hours spent with professional educators and therapists into time with Dr. Moebius. He personifies a darker, extremist interest into understanding how children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) behave. Our characters don’t need really weird super villains, because life presents enough confusing and scary challenges. Michael’s friends aren’t imbued with magical gifts or phenomenal wealth- just a strong desire to be understood. This quality makes them heroes against a great, old prejudice against anyone who seems different.

At the end of the day, our heroes wipe off the sweat of adventuring and have homework due tomorrow. Their families may be as alien to them as the evolved talking sea-horses they met. It’s a fantasy world, but challenges and opposition are as real in 2072 AD as today. Will mankind better communicate our individual and shared suffering?  In my mind, perseverance to real threats makes someone a hero and role-model. Our main protagonist, Michael, has an ASD. He wants friends to help him solve problems, not laser-beam eyeballs or telekinesis. Michael and many other kids need and want acceptance. Children seem to know more about Superman’s personal struggles against a monthly comic villain better than their best friend’s grief or loss. Let’s teach children compassion, emotional regulation, and empathy for people and pets. Next, we can prioritize a wish list of comic book talents after the real battle against misunderstanding has been won.

© Face Value Comics 2013

PhD, COMICS

Face Value Comics places great emphasis on education. Comic books traditionally lack educational merit, but appeal to a wide audience. President of the Canadian Council on Learning, Dr. Paul Cappon, said, “educators and parents embraced comics as a positive teaching and learning tool (Paton, 2010).”

Before Issue #1 has printed, several educators asked about our educational content. Face Value Comics replied:  We introduce one alien race, the Chillaxin. They are anthropomorphic bioluminescent fungi, whose color hues change when they become glad, mad, or sad. We use onomatopoeia as naming conventions for some characters. Names have significant meaning, too. For example, take Claudia Faust. Her last name pays homage to the Germanic epic poem, while her first name means “lame” in Latin. Now, astute readers may predict Claudia’s future behaviors. Our specially powered bio-droids mimic cog-and-spring clockwork devices with hy·phen·at·ed speech. The Jartavi, an evolved sea-horse group, speak using fənɛtɪks (phonetics).

Most importantly, Face Value Comics utilizes the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). We believe readers will 1) learn how expressed emotions look, 2) see appropriate language that matches feeling, and 3) take ownership of facial feature recognition, as a tool to understand emotional regulation. This strategy drives Face Value Comics, Inc. Our name reflects this goal.

Cass hopes readers will like her.
Cass hopes readers will like her.

We tell a grand adventure, too! Unlike any comic book in the world, our main protagonist has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Many of Michael’s middle-school friends also have real-world mental health symptoms, like anxiety and depression. Using professional mental health experiences, explicit consultations, and criteria drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), we present behavioral symptoms on a page with utmost respect. ALL people deserve dignity and a voice. Face Value Comics gives ONE voice to many under-represented groups within comic books. Our characters strive to feel safe, wanted, and successful. Their “super heroism” is a relentless passion to be accepted and understood. Face Value Comics begins with a galactic invasion involving aliens and robots. Prejudice looms as a bigger threat, just for being like any kid with some problems.

Join the fight…against misunderstanding! Maybe readers will learn some grammar. Some may like the Victorian-era steam-powered technologies. Hopefully, our fans see Michael and his friends as real people. Kids need heroes like themselves.

Reference

Paton, G. (2010, August 13). Comic books ‘help boys to read.’ Retrieved 11/03/13, from http://telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7943041/Comic-books-help-boys-to-read.html.

© Face Value Comics 2013

SATURDAY MORNINGS

Dear Chris Latta,

Thank you for making cartoons fun during the 80s. I woke-up early on Saturday Mornings to have breakfast with Cobra Commander, Starscream, and Cravex. Imagine my surprise to learn how each of these iconic characters shared the same voice actor: Chris Latta (you). Spider-man and His Amazing Friends fought the Sandman you. The Simpsons continues long after your passing, but I remember your voice as an early C. Montgomery Burns. Excellent, Mr. Latta…excellent.

What happened to children’s entertainment? When you left us in 1994, another void occurred. Live-action child actors replaced traditional animated cartoons. Comic books characters flopped, whose artists followed a rapid cookie-cutter template. Toys became expensive collectors’ treasures, not rugged playthings. I shed a tear for your passing, as well as uninspired imaginations we inherited.

Let me share some good news and hope, Mr. Latta. Face Value Comics debuts this month. We’re the first comic book to feature a hero with autism. This social communication disorder wasn’t prevalent during your lifetime, but now autism affects more than 1% of children worldwide. We only know its symptoms.  Professionals help children and their families understand the social world around them. This is why I founded Face Value Comics. I love discussing the science behind our comic book, but let’s have fun on a Saturday Morning…like we used to do.

The Zephyr vs. ???
The Zephyr vs. ???

In Face Value Comics, we have a Victorian-era society driven by steam-power. Therefore, gadgets and equipment use imagination as well as compressed steam, or solar power.

In Face Value Comics, we have the Chillaxin. This bioluminescent fungi-race returned to Earth after centuries of forced expansion following the dinosaurs’ extinction.

In Face Value Comics, we have the Jartavi. Resurfacing from our deep oceans, these evolved sea-horses seem playfully curious and almost magical.

In Face Value Comics, we have The Shimmer. These women-warriors watch humanity’s social progress and sit as cosmic judges of our destiny.

In Face Value Comics, we have a comic-within-a-comic! The Zephyr is a do-good costumed crime-fighter. He wears “steampunk” gear and sometime sports a very special electric sword…”mMuhTZAP!” The Zephyr gives our middle-school hero – Michael – fantasy and hope of a better future.

Dr Moebius asks, "how do you feel?"
Dr Moebius asks, “how do you feel?”

Isn’t creative play the goal behind all comic books and kids’ entertainment, Mr. Latta? I figured you may know best. Personally, I can hear your voice as our fiendish mad scientist – Dr. Darling Moebius!

Be well, Mr. Latta…wherever you are.

Respectfully,

Dave Kot, Founder of Face Value Comics, Inc.

 

© Face Value Comics 2013

Autism and FACS in Comic Books

By definition, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) indicates social development difficulties. Face Value offers to teach readers a better emotional understanding through facial feature recognition. We apply the Facial Action Coding System as our first step to improve social communication…using comic books.

Dr. Paul Ekman uses the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to help explain how people show different emotions. Seven core universal emotions include: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust. Face Value artists draw specific emotions on our characters’ faces.

FACS
Michael displays four basic emotions.

EMPATHY STRATEGY #1: Draw characters’ faces consistent with FACS, especially during highly emotional scenes.

EDUCATIONAL HYPOTHESIS: Readers will improve recognition of various micro-expressions that are frozen on the comic book page.

DISCUSSION: Children with ASD typically lack consistent eye contact during interpersonal conversations. Cognitive neuropsychologist Micheal Spezio suggests children with ASD focus their gaze on the face, just as neurotypical children do. However, Spezio et al (2007) discovered how children with ASD scan other facial features longer than the eyes. Therefore, emotional expression occurs across the entire face, and this idea makes FACS more important. A comic book allows readers to take their time to review the page and absorb the emotional content at their pace. This strategy will help children with ASD overcome “mindblindness,” a theory by Simon Baron-Cohen. He suggests people with ASD lack an ability to understand how other people feel.

We emphasizes strong facial features to express emotions. Face Value Comics believes readers will be able to recognize our different characters’ emotions. Developing this baseline, children (especially children with ASD) will be able to better spot emotional expressions by others in real-life, too. Ultimately, readers may feel facial muscular changes within themselves, and begin to identify how they feel using seven basic examples from FACS. In the future, we will explain our other empathy awareness strategies!

REFERENCES

Ekman, P. (2011). What is meant by calling emotions basic. Emotion Review, 3(4), 354-370.

Lombardo, M.V. & Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The role of the self in mindblindness in Autism. Consciousness and Cognition, 20(1), 130-140.

Spezio, M.L., Adolphs, R., Hurley, R.S.E, & Piven, J. (2007). Analysis of face gaze in autism using “Bubbles.” Neuropsychologia, 45, 144-151.

© Face Value Comics 2013

Advocacy on Day #1 (LINK)

Advocacy on Day #1 (LINK)

This link helps explain our mission at Face Value Comics. Dave Kot answers a professional critique about the social misperceptions inherent with fictional stories, and autism spectrum disorder diagnoses. Our goal has been to listen to the pain of misunderstanding, because we share it, too. However, we offer a new role-model for children…one like themselves.

 

© Face Value Comics 2013

Face Value Comics Becomes Autism at Face Value To Touch More Lives

Face Value Comics Cover - Autism at Face ValueThe release of our first comic has prompted us to change our name. Face Value Comics has officially been renamed Autism at Face Value.

The new name better reflects our goals of raising autism awareness, advocacy, and action. Our focus is and always has been helping people with autism and neurotypical people come to understand each other. We want to facilitate understanding and being able to take each other “at face value” and our comics are the chosen vehicle for that understanding. But our mission is not just about comics or telling a story.

Autism at Face Value reflects our wider goals and our hope that our comics will be part of a nation-wide change in how people with autism are viewed. As part of that wider change, we’ve developed a local literacy program which we will introduce to local libraries starting in January.

Autism at Face Value will be a leader in creating ideas and spreading autism awareness through a host of methods, including comics that are family friendly and make a positive impact on social change. We’re confident that this is just the first step to positive change and acceptance for those with ASD and those without.