Helen Eaton identifies as autistic and has three funny, enthusiastic, creative and neurodiverse children. She’s spent the last 15+ years delivering leadership and business skills training to some of the UK’s leading finance and technology companies. After one child was diagnosed as autistic, she began to “specialise in autism, transferring my communication and business skills to my passion for neurodiversity.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Helen had a chance to create Arna and Ruby—An Autism Story to educate others about autism in a popular graphic novel format.
Tell us about your Arna and Ruby—An Autism Story
Arna and Ruby is a wonderfully illustrated graphic novel combing two families’ stories with a practical guide to autism. It explores school anxiety, masking, sensory difficulties and family relationships in a very honest and open way.
What inspired you to write it?
I created a graphic novel as, when working with families with an autistic child, I often hear how difficult it is to get reliable and accessible information about autism. I also appreciate that not everyone wants to read a 500-page textbook to help better understand their child. The amazing illustrator Kris Coley is a fan of graphic novels and so together we developed the idea of ‘Arna and Ruby’ over a cup of tea. I provide the ideas and Autism knowledge and Kris magically transforms my words into pictures.
How does being autistic influence your writing?
Being autistic (late self-diagnosed) means that I have experienced and felt what I write about. There were several times, when the illustrator Kris sent me the images, that I cried as they provoked such a strong emotional response. Tears of joy as he had captured the moment so well through his artwork, but also tears of sadness as I thought about mine and my own children’s difficulties.
I was very lucky that between the age of 11 to 18 I went to a school that in many ways was perfect for autistic teenagers. It was a regular, mainstream school, but was quite old fashioned in its nature. Lots of large windows with natural light looking across the sports fields, and a comparatively small numbers of pupils, 120 in a year group. Staff stayed in their posts, and this provided consistency and some really positive teacher – pupil relationships. In sensory terms it was low impact and calming across the site, with lots of space to move freely. The routine and sameness of each day, week and month was reassuring and meant that school days were pleasant and manageable.
I know this scenario is not the case for most children though, and the classroom and modern school environments can be very stressful. In the UK teachers often have very little understanding of this, and don’t adapt their teaching or behaviours, which can trigger challenging behaviour both at home and school. I wanted my characters Arna and Ruby to reflect some of the difficulties faced by the autistic children I have had the pleasure of meeting. I really have met some fantastic young people through my work.
Who’s your illustrator and why was he perfect for capturing the spirit of your book?
Kris Coley is my father-in-law, and a very versatile and talented artist. We have a great working relationship and are happy to both challenge and support each other’s ideas. We generally communicate via text or email. For me this gives me time to think about Kris’s suggestions and illustration, and my own responses, without being distracted by face-to-face conversations, where I have to process and manage more than just the message being sent. It also helps me better plan my response if we disagree!
Who is the ideal reader and how do you see the book being used?
I think it’s perfect for children aged 10 + all the way through to adults, educators and professionals working with young people. It makes a great learning resource for families to read together or for older children to explore on their own, as the comic-book style illustrations seem to make it more enjoyable and accessible to read.
What’s the message you want your readers to take away after reading the book?
The two children Arna and Ruby are wonderful and marvellous and delightful young people but are struggling to share that with the world. It was really important for me that the onus was on the people around them to learn and adapt, whilst offering helpful strategies the children could use each day. Arna appears sullen, withdrawn and unwilling to make friends, and so his parents are frustrated as they don’t understand his behaviour. Ruby is bright and vivacious, but at school hides her true nature in order to fit in. Throughout my work the key message is the importance of unlocking potential in autistic people.
Do you have a proud moment you’d like to share?
I’m most proud of my first reader review on Amazon, as reading positive things about my book from someone I don’t know is very reassuring. She wrote “Wonderful book. I’ve read many books relating to autism, having worked with autistic children and having an autistic son, this one is by far one of the most useful to use with the mainstream pupils I work with. And myself as a mum could totally relate to every part of the book. My son loved the illustrations and said they were very true.”
Anna Kennedy is a fabulous autism advocate in the UK and has been recognised for her work with an OBE from the Queen. Anna said of the book that it’s “…a great way of sharing important issues that are complex and serious in an appropriate way.”
If our readers leave with only one message after reading this interview, what would you like it to be?
The world around them is what makes life challenging for autistic children and there are many really easy adjustments that could be made to make life both easier and a more positive experience for everyone.
What words of encouragement can you offer to other autistic creatives?
I sometimes get caught up in over-thinking and over-planning, always looking at the what if… scenarios. It’s often better to just do the thing than worry about it!
Best ways to connect with Helen and purchase the graphic novel:
- Buy Arna and Ruby-An Autism Story on Helen’s website
- Find Arna and Ruby on Amazon UK
- Helen Eaton Autism and Neurodiversity Facebook Page
- @helen_eaton_autism on Instagram
- @HelenEatonASC on Twitter
Read More Author Interviews
Our website at Geek Club Books is a platform for autistic voices, positive autism advocacy and education, and sharing autism resources we think you’ll want to know about. In addition to our autistic-themed comic, here are topics we cover and questions we explore:
- How to Find Resources
- What is Autism?
- What is Autism Awareness?
- Autism Myths
- Autism Glossary
- Books by Autistic Authors
- Autistic or Person with Autism?
- Speech and Language
- Autism Business Ideas
- Autistic Self-Care
- Asking Autistics Resource Page
- Zoom Autism Magazine – Autism through many lenses
- Find great books in our Amazon Book Shop