The illustrations of Fergus and Delilah immediately grab your attention.
Children with TV box heads and bright coloured wires for hair play at the park. Delilah, affable and outgoing, tries to make friends with every kid she meets, but one – Fergus – is harder to get to know than the others.
Delilah stood tall and looked around. This park was all new, bright sights and strange sounds…
Clinging and climbing, swinging and sliding. But all by himself, one kid was hiding.
Miša Alexander, a mother of three who lives in the Byron Shire, illustrated the book. “Fergus has got tangled wires and all the typical children have straight wires – that’s the difference. They all still have brains and hearts and arms and legs,” she says. “There’s just that one thing that’s different.”
Alexander’s son Hugo was diagnosed with autism and a moderate intellectual impairment when he was two years old. “My mother-in-law would always say Hugo’s just wired differently,” says Alexander, who is originally from Canada but moved to Australia 21 years ago.
The months following Hugo’s birth were tough for Alexander. “I knew there was something wrong with my baby but didn’t know what,” she says.
“He was really delayed. [It took him a] long time to walk, talk, do the typical things.”
The diagnosis of autism, when it came, was terrifying. “I was so scared. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what kind of life I would have, the life he would have.”
Much of Alexander’s fear came from the fact she knew very little about autism. “I didn’t have much to do with people with disabilities growing up nor in my young adulthood. I didn’t know that there could be positivity, that there is a can-do in the realm of disabilities, that they have capabilities, that they can love, they can feel joy. I was very frightened and naïve,” she says. “That’s why this project is so important to me.”
Hugo was nonverbal when he started pre-school and Alexander was concerned about how he would fit in. “I myself was learning about autism, and I didn’t think that his peers would understand this little child who was in the sandpit flapping and making funny noises – they would think he was some weird kid. I thought he was weird! How do you bridge that gap?”
She made a flyer for parents and kids introducing her son and explaining “that he was wired differently.” She wanted to start a conversation and encourage children and their parents to “talk about why this kid was a little bit different…I wanted it to be really open.”
And it worked. “The kids started approaching Hugo and being a little but more inclusive,” she says. “It was that easy.”
When it came time for Hugo to start primary school – where he would be one of three or four hundred students – Alexander realised something more than a flyer was required. An idea for a book took hold and she put an ad in the paper looking for a writer. By good fortune, Erin Knutt responded. “I got completely inundated by phone calls and Hugo put my phone in the toilet, so I lost Erin’s number,” recalls Alexander, laughing. “She was the only person who emailed me. She was very persistent.”
Knutt, a fellow Canadian and soon-to-be mother of three, works in the learning support unit at a local high school. “Erin works with a lot of children with additional needs,” says Alexander. “She’s got a really good handle differences and inclusion, and that’s why the match really works for us.”
They set out to create a book with an inclusive message that still appealed to a mainstream audience. “I found as a parent of a child with a disability there really lacked mainstream stories that were fun and whimsical, not like a textbook,” says Alexander. “It needed to be more about making friends and connecting and just being a silly, fun book for kids to enjoy.”
It only took one, to try a small spin, for others to see, they too could join in.
They now were a team, all playing as one. Wired-up different and yet having fun.
Fergus and Delilah has sold out its first print run of 2000 copies, and another 1000 have been printed. “We’ve got feedback from teachers, feedback from parents, all loving it,” says Alexander. Her goal is to see a copy in every primary school. The pair plan to create more Fergus and Delilah books aimed at later stages of primary school and develop teacher resources to go with the series.
Today Hugo is in Year One and attends his local primary school four days a week, a scenario that wouldn’t be possible without the help of a fulltime aide. Alexander believes everyone benefits from including children with disabilities in mainstream schools. A child like Hugo has the opportunity learn from typical children and model their behaviour, she says. “It’s also really great for the typical children, because it makes them more compassionate and more understanding. It’s better for our communities to have minorities in among us, rather than lock them away.”
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