KOKOMO, Ind. – The girl in the purple romper picks up a cheeseburger in the school cafeteria.
Then, tragedy strikes — the burger slips from her hands, falling to the floor. She takes a deep breath, counts to five, and picks up her food, with help from another student. Then she walks back to the line for another lunch.
While this may not be typical comic book fare, it’s just one of the social skills lessons being taught to children with autism, through cartoons written by Indiana University Kokomo psychology students.
Vanessa Costello-Harris’s class on children with special needs created the comics, and printed them with an Indiana Campus Compact grant. They donated the books to the Indiana Behavior Analysis Academy (IBAA) in Kokomo, which works with children with autism.
“In general, children with autism struggle to understand the components of social interaction and how to apply what they’ve learned to do at home to the classroom setting,” Costello-Harris said. “We can teach them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ at home, but they may not understand that they use that same skill at school. We have to work to teach them the same skill in different contexts.”
Students used the free Pixton comic and storyboard creator to write short stories, showing students what to do in very specific situations, such as asking a friend to play, telling a friend you want to play alone, getting in line, and how to calm down if you drop your lunch.
Because children with autism tend to have trouble understanding another person’s perspective, all stories are told from a first person point of view, with sentences such as “I am mad that I missed the basket,” and “I need a break to calm down.”
“We focus on what they should do, and not what the other person does,” said Costello-Harris. “You always focus on what they do, instead of what they should not do.” The best stories created by the students were included in the printed books.
Austin Berndt’s story about greeting a teacher and friend was included in the book. Since writing his story he’s graduated and now works at the IBAA – an opportunity that came to him because of the class.
The director met with the students as they planned their stories. He asked more questions, and then interviewed for and accepted a job as a registered behavioral technician. Berndt, from Kokomo, is preparing to begin a graduate program to become a board-certified behavioral analyst so he can move up in the profession.
“I love what I do,” he said, adding that his degree was in exercise science, with a psychology minor. “As a behavioral analyst, I will create programs and interventions for kids with autism, to help them transition into school.”
Writing his story helped him understand what he had read in textbooks and scholarly articles, he said.
“During interviews, I could show that not only did I learn something about autism, but I could use that knowledge and explain it in a way people who haven’t taken a class can understand,” he said.
Costello-Harris said the class included students in education and psychology.
“My goal is that they can read and write like a professional, but they can explain what they know to a child,” she said. “You can have all this knowledge, but if you can’t explain it to someone who hasn’t taken a class, there’s no point to it.”
Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.