Friday, May 9, 2008

Author aims to raise autism awareness

SPRINGFIELD - Several years ago, Jacqueline Williams-Hines discovered that explaining the characteristics of autism to neighborhood children made them much more comfortable with her son Joshua, who is now 11.

Children with Joshua's condition often avoid eye contact, may engage in repetitive movements or sounds, and may develop strong preoccupations with particular toys or favorite movies.

"I always felt that when children don't understand something, that's when it seems alien and weird to them," Williams-Hines said. "When we explained these issues to children on our street, things changed. Our son was no longer seen as weird. He was just Joshua."

It was that experience that inspired Williams-Hines, a full-time medical transcriptionist, to begin writing a series of books that aim to demystify autism for those she refers to as "typical children,"or those who do not have this condition.

The first book, "Joshua and the Startabulous Dream Maker," was a brief overview of autism. Her second book, which was released in April, is called "The Adventures of Suther Joshua from Planet Yethican."

"The new book deals with how autistic people tend to get preoccupied with things," Williams-Hines said. "In my son's case, it's Disney movies. He can see a movie once and then repeat the dialog verbatim. It's hard for other children to relate to (children with autism), so I wanted to explain a little about why they're preoccupied and how to communicate with them."

The third book she plans will focus on the habit of "auto-stimulation," which refers to self-soothing habits that can include rocking, bouncing or humming.

"Basically, I wanted him to develop friendships," Williams-Hines said, "and I knew it was a going to be hard for his peers."

Both books are self-published, but the author did receive a $2,100 grant from the Springfield Cultural Council for the second book.

When the first was released last year, she celebrated with a small launch party in her son's classroom at Boland Elementary School. Pizza and cake were followed by a reading of the book, which was fine with Joshua.

"He loves it," Williams-Hines said. "He feels like he's a celebrity now."

Originally from Louisiana, Williams-Hines graduated from the former Classical High School in Springfield and attended American International College. She and her husband, Robert, have two other sons, Robert IV, 19, and Anthony, 27.

"I've always written poetry and stories and wanted to publish, but I had never felt the passion I felt with these books," she said. "My first book began as a poem, and then I wondered how I could take my love of poetry and use it to express the difficulties that my son has to deal with every day."

Williams-Hines, who organized the annual No Small Victories Autism Awareness Event/Walk-a-thon - the second of which will take place on Sept. 27 - says her main focus is on raising awareness for parents and children, not raising money.

"People often hear about fund-raisers to help find an autism cure," she said. "My goal is more immediate. As a parent I have to live day to day, and I want to share with others what's going to make life easier now."

Wiliams-Hines said that when her son was diagnosed at the age of 2, she didn't know anyone else affected by autism. Since that time, it has become much more prevalent, which means the audience for her books includes just about everyone: classmates, younger siblings, friends and family members.

"Now it's getting hard not to know someone who has autism," she said. "It breaks my heart because whenever I meet someone who has just received the diagnosis, it takes me back to that day when my son was diagnosed. So I want to be able to share with others that's it going to get better and reach out to other parents and let them know: It's not over yet. Don't write our kids off."

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