Siblings teach the ABC’s of autism

Penticton man who has autism created a children's book with his sister to help others.

Robert Bull works on one of the colourful illustrations he regularly creates at his West Bench home. He did the artwork for the children's book Animal Appetites he and his sister Andrea put together to help raise awareness about autism.

Dolphins eating doughnuts in the desert?

That is just one of the unusual and colourfully-illustrated tidbits from the minds of siblings Andrea and Robert J. Bull that can be found in their new children’s publication, Animal Appetites.

This book of very unusual ABC’s is designed in large part to take a bite out of the stigma of autism which the brother and sister know all too well.

Robert, 28, who lives with his parents Carol and Bob in their West Bench home, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age four.

Due to the closeness of their ages, Andrea is just 18 months older, they developed a strong bond very early in life.

“I never really understood how different he was until I was quite a bit older but for the most part I grew up thinking he’s just my brother,” said Andrea, who now lives in Vancouver where she works as a registered audiologist at a private clinic. “Back then if he didn’t understand something or couldn’t do something that I was doing I would just find a way to make it work so we just sort of adapted on the fly.”

Autism is a group of complex disorders affecting development of the brain and it’s estimated one in 68 children will be identified with the condition.

The book, which was launched in October as part of Autism Awareness Month, actually began for Andrea as creative writing, alphabet-alliteration challenge.

At the same time she was thinking about how to best package the many brightly-coloured drawings Robert does daily.

“I started wondering what he could do with this (her writing) because his art is generally so detailed and so vibrant,” recalled Andrea.  “So I just sent them off to him and said ‘Rob draw me some pictures — here this is what I want you to draw’ and I didn’t give him any perimeters. But as soon as the first couple came back I was really amazed because they were so detailed and exciting.

“Even for someone who believes in him 110 per cent and knows his strengths and weaknesses I never really believed that I would get back something so great.”

At that point the light bulb came on and Andrea decided a children’s book would be a perfect vehicle to showcase the abilities of someone with the disorder.

“It was about changing the conversation around autism, instead of what they can’t do or what their limitations are, what can they do and how do you find a way to work around the limitations,” she said. “To think of the strengths of those individuals and how if you give someone the right support they can do just as amazing things as anyone else.”

But really, gorillas eating garlic in graveyards?

“The alphabet is harder to alliterate than you think,” said the author with a laugh. “There are tons of alphabet books out there that are A for apple and B for ball, they’re boring and even if they’re exciting to look at they’re boring in structure so it’s a way to engage by being a little bit different and a little bit crazy.

“I just started thinking what would be something outlandish that would capture someone’s attention, not just autistic kids, but all kids.”

But it was her brother who was tasked with the onerous job of figuring out just exactly what a snail eating spaghetti in space would actually look like.

“They just came to my mind and then I put it on the paper,” said Robert while working at home on a new illustration.

To raise the $6,500 needed to produce the book, Andrea began a month-long Kickstarter crowdfunding platform last April.

To her surprise they reached their goal less than halfway through the campaign finally topping out at nearly $9,000.

“It was really overwhelming,” said Andrea. “Yes, I think there is more awareness out there but also that people are more willing to see something be done about it as well.”

With the additional money they decided to include companion activity sheets for kids to practice writing and colouring skills.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the publication go the Canucks Autism Network which provides innovative, sports, recreation, arts and social programs for those with autism and their families and raising awareness in B.C.

So what is the next creative chapter for the brother and sister team?

“I was thinking about making this a series of books at first but Robert has already moved on to bigger and better things,” said Andrea. “He’s talking about computer or video games, so I guess we’ll see, I’m just trying to keep up with him now.”

Animal Appetites is now available in stores and online and the Bulls are scheduled to be on a Vancouver morning news program later this month.

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