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Cambridge author writes book to alter perceptions about autism

Kelley Donner
Kelley Donner

Kelley Donner's picture book, the first in a series of books, is designed to help change how we view children with autism.

It is difficult to know how best to represent children with autism and special needs in literature, but American-born educator Kelley Donner – who has more than 20 years of experience working in this field, in the US, Germany and in the UK – is perhaps better placed than most.

As an advocate for children with special needs and autism, the mother of three strongly believes that all children need representation in literature, especially picture books.

With that in mind, Kelley – who is now a full-time writer and artist (she has had her work exhibited in the US and Germany) – wrote Ball! Ball! Ball!: A Picture Book to Inspire Sensory Awareness.

It is the story of a young boy with autism who is fascinated with round objects and enthusiastically points out any item he can find that looks like a ball.

Published in June, the book is the first in a planned series of similar works entitled Happy Heads, and the second book in the series, Little Jack Thomson’s Magnificent Brain, is due out in the autumn.

A Cambridge resident for the past year, Kelley, a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, read passages from the book in the Big Read at Cambridge Big Weekend on Saturday, July 6.

She says: “Ball! Ball! Ball! is a book about a little boy named Tom, who is fascinated with all things round – and every time he sees something round, he yells, ‘ball! ball! ball!’

"Whenever he does that, his mother explains to him some of the characteristics of the things that he sees, such as whether they’re hard or soft, or whether they can break... and he also learns a bit about their different sensory characteristics.

“Tom is autistic and does not speak a lot of words – the three words ‘ball! ball! ball!’ are some of the few words that he says but, as you can tell from the book, this is not an issue. It doesn’t affect the story at all – it’s just the way he is.”

Ball! Ball! Ball! cover
Ball! Ball! Ball! cover

Kelley continues: “My Happy Heads series is trying to change the perception of how picture books relate to autism, so instead of having one character who is the stereotypical child with autism, every character is very different – just like every child who has autism is very different.

“I think that’s the kind of thing that we need to change because too many people tend to over-simplify and think that everyone who has autism is the same, therefore every story that I write in the Happy Heads series is about one child and his or her challenges and triumphs.”

Kelley has already written five stories for the series and is hoping to do more.

“I’ve always found a big connection to children with autism and special needs, and I also think that a lot of people don’t always understand them and tend to group them all together.

"I think that on the one hand, children need to see that we’re all unique and that we shouldn’t separate children with autism for being different but, at the same time, children with special needs and autism need to be able to relate to characters; they need to find books that have people like them in it.”

Kelley says that the book has already generated a positive response: “It was listed at number one under special needs children’s health at the beginning of June on Amazon.com, that was very exciting, and I’m working on getting the hardback out soon.”

Ball! Ball! Ball!: A Picture Book to Inspire Sensory Awareness is available now at kelleydonner.com.

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