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Using comic strips to communicate with autistic people

Zeke Clough, a professional illustrator, describes how he created comic strips to help explain difficult situations to his partner’s autistic twin boys. Zeke recently created graphic notes of presentations from Tony Attwood and Luke Jackson at the National Autistic Society’s Autism and Mental Health conference. 

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Author: Zeke Clough

Using comic strips to communicate with autistic people

My partner has 12 year old twin boys with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD who go to a specialist communication school. I first met them when they were 6 years old – they are a lot of fun, intelligent and very imaginative but struggle with slow processing and self-care.

We quickly discovered that my love of comic strips and drawing could be used as an effective way to communicate with the boys. These have ranged from social awareness issues, personal hygiene and avoiding hazards. Recently I've been including their favourite toys in the comics as a way to build up a narrative through the various stories, as the toys either give advice or learn along with the boys.

As a family we find the comics really helpful to explain situations in which the boys may struggle to comprehend what's happening or what's required of them. Many a meltdown or hazardous situation has been circumvented by a quickly drawn explanatory comic strip.

An example of this is the comic I drew about not cutting wires. This was a very hazardous situation and no amount of verbally explaining the dangers or removing scissors helped. There was a similar situation with the boys putting batteries from their toys in mouths. Thankfully the comic strips stopped both of these activities immediately.

The comics also work well as a discussion aid, enabling their mum to talk through the situation with the boys, often as a starting point for a two way conversation similar to Carol Grey's 'Comic Strip Conversations'.  We now have a sign at home instructing visitors on how best to communicate with the boys to avoid any stress for them.

During the last year, I've branched out and started doing graphic notes at conferences so that delegates have a visual reminder of the key points discussed. Attending these conferences and providing notes has also been a great way for me to learn, and I feel my understanding of the boys’ condition has improved as a result.

In the future I'd like to publish some social stories that have been adapted for general use as I know other families have also found them useful, and perhaps also publish some children’s story books.  I have run community arts events for neurodiverse children and adults, and I'd like to try supporting them to draw their own comic strips to assist in communication with their carers and teachers, as the boys have certainly enlightened us with their new found comic drawing skills!

Further reading

The National Autistic Society, Social stories and comic strip conversations

Zeke Clough

Date added: 5 July 2016