Book Review: “Who Took My Shoe”
Bringing abstract ideas into focus: Mom writes book to help autistic son relate to his world
By Joe Plicka
DIXON — “Alone in the Crowd.”
That’s the name of a poem that fourth-generation Dixonite Karen Emigh wrote about her 10-year-old son Brett, who was diagnosed with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder when he was six.
Children with autism and related maladies can find it extremely hard to relate to the world around them, especially in social situations. They also struggle to understand abstract concepts and language, something that Emigh was trying to help her son with when she got the idea for her recently published book “Who Took My Shoe?”
“Brett was having trouble with abstract language like who, what, why, when, where, and how,” said Emigh, 39. So she started asking him questions.
“Why do we go to the post office?” she would ask.
“Is it to buy ice cream? No. Is it to get shoes? No. Is it to get mail? Yes.”
After awhile she could see that the questions were helping train his mind to grasp certain concepts. So she wrote a book using the same method to help Brett and other children with autistic disorders.
After submitting the book to several companies, she never heard back. Then 1-1/2 years later she got an e-mail from Future Horizons, a publishing company that specializes in making books and videos for autistic children. There had been some changes in the editorial department there and the new editor had just recently seen Emigh’s book and decided to pursue it.
She collaborated with her childhood friend and artist Steve Dana, who illustrated the book with full-page color drawings. Autistic children are very visual, Emigh said, which makes the drawings even more important. But the book is just as entertaining for typically-developing children, she added.
She has already heard from a woman who said the method in the book was helping her autistic son.
Emigh will be at the Dixon Florist and Gift Shop from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 14 for a book signing. She continues to write and do speaking engagements to help raise awareness of autism.
For her and her husband, Ken Emigh of Rio Vista, it has been a long struggle to recognize, diagnose and adjust to life with an autistic child.
“I think I knew when he was first born that something was different,” Emigh said.
Brett soon developed a condition called echolalia, the repetition or echoing of verbal phrases.
“He learned to talk and communicate through videos,” Emigh said. “He learned how to use sentences from the videos in a conversation.”
However it was many years before the official diagnosis was made.
At first, several psychiatrists – at a loss to describe Brett’s condition – tried to give the Emighs parental counseling, shifting the reason for Brett’s behavior on them.
“It’s a fairly common thing for parents with autistic children,” Emigh said.
Finally, Brett was taken to the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute at UC San Francisco where he was diagnosed with a fairly high-functioning autistic disorder called PDDNOS.
Since then, the family has made a concerted effort to help Brett reach his full potential. But it is a daily effort.
The Emigh’s 7-year-old son, Bryce, is the one who “keeps everything light,” Emigh said.
“He acts like a big brother sometimes,” Emigh said. “Maturity-wise, they’re about on the same level.”
They battled the school district in court to secure special services for Brett. And Emigh tries to help Brett’s classmates at Gretchen Higgins Elementary School focus on his strengths as an autistic child.
“He has a hard time remembering names of friends in class, but can repeat a video verbatim after watching it two or three times,” she said. “It’s amazing, but hard.”
For her next book, Emigh wants to write about more abstract language that can be hard for autistic children to grasp – words like over, under, around, between, beyond, inside out and upside down.
She also wants to write some books that help teach how to act in certain social situations.
“Autistic kids think everyone sees the world the way they see it,” Emigh said. “They often need to learn that that’s not the case.”
And for Brett, her hopes are high.
“In a lot of ways, we are lucky. Brett has a chance to get out on his own. I think he’ll be able to make his own life.”
Joe Plicka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.