As a home tutor to children with autism, Valerie Sheehan saw first hand the stress of coping with a diagnosis — for the parent and the child.
She wanted to do something to help. So she created Tony, a little turtle with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting one in 100 children.
Tony is a character in a new series of books, written by the 37-year-old from Carrigaline, Co Cork, for parents and children with the condition.
Sometimes the world is too much for Tony, and he needs to hide away in his shell. His mum and dad are there to coax him out, to help him cope with a supermarket trip or a swimming lesson.
They distract him with counting games as they queue at the checkout; they use day plans and flash cards to prepare him for what is coming next.
Other times, they leave him alone in his shell, to enjoy his own little world. “He doesn’t always need to join us,” says Valerie.
With a degree in Montessori education and higher diploma in social studies, Valerie discovered her passion for working with children while studying a module on special education. It was a natural progression to become a home tutor to kids with autism — she has helped more than 25 children to date make the transition to ‘big school’.
Valerie knew she’d struck gold with Tony when one of her former students, now 10, turned to his mother and said, “Tony’s just like me”.
“I wanted the kids to identify with the main character,” Valerie explains. “There’s so much information out there helping professionals and parents understand autism — but this can help the child as well.”
Valerie knows her books will also support parents through “a very difficult time after the initial diagnosis”.
So we see Tony struggle with loud noises, become overwhelmed by the bright supermarket lights — and we observe his mother’s methods for coping with challenging behaviour. (These coping strategies could equally apply to parents of neurotypical children.)
‘At dinner,’ Valerie writes in one of the books, ‘Mum uses the FIRST and THEN chart, when encouraging Tony it helps a lot.’
“The techniques, games and distraction methods Tony’s mum uses won’t work every time, of course,” she says. “These books aren’t a miracle — but they will help.”
We watch Tony’s mum work to his pace — everything, even the journey to the car for a day out, is ‘slow and steady’. These are precious nuggets of advice for parents of autistic children, that will simultaneously help the child as they identify with Tony.
Valerie also wanted the books to be positive, to show all that Tony can do and achieve. So we see him eat new food, meet new people, try different games, enjoy a play date.
The stories capture the mind of the autistic child. In Tony Goes Swimming, she writes: ‘Now they are all packed up in the car Mum says, ‘Tony you are a star’.
‘Don’t say that Mum it’s a lie, I don’t live up in the sky’.
She knows these words will resonate with many parents of children with autism. Later she writes, ‘Mum loves it when Tony uses his voice’.
Sometimes the world is too much for Tony, and he needs to hide away in his shell
The books are beautifully written in a simple and accessible rhyming format. While she has selfpublished three so far, four more are already written.
“Tony came very easily to me. They weren’t rhyming at the beginning, but I’ve always loved rhyming books so I went back to them,” she says.
The little poems are a large part of Tony’s appeal — but the stunning illustrations make it a perfect package.
“Graphic artist Susan Meaney who lives in Galway came recommended to me. She said she would draw a sketch of how she saw Tony,” says Valerie, who named her main character after her father.
“The second I saw Susan’s drawings I knew that was him. It was Tony.”
■ The three Tony the Turtle books – Tony Goes Swimming, Tony Tries New Food and Tony Goes Shopping — are available on www.tonytheturtle.com for €18.99, for all three. Illustrations s are underway for the fourth book.