When Erin Strange decided to write a children’s book about autism, she didn’t have to look far for inspiration. She grew up with a cousin, Chad Cross, who is on the autism spectrum.
“My Big Brother Ben: An Autism Spectrum Super Story” shares the tale of 6-year-old Max and his 8-year-old brother, Ben, and their special relationship.
Strange, who lives in Winter Garden, has thought about writing such a book for a while, and she kept her Notes app open on her phone, jotting down her thoughts for the story. Her dream was realized when she self-published her book earlier this year.
She dedicated her book to Chad Cross “for showing me the beauty in our differences.” She has a degree in exceptional student education, in part, because of her cousin.
She said she has been getting positive feedback about “My Big Brother Ben.”
“I’m excited that people are interested in it and want to read it,” Strange said. “I’m hoping it will start some conversations about it.”
The book is appropriately written for ages 4 to 10 and is something needed for this age group, she said.
“If you go on Amazon (and search) children’s picture books about autism, you’re going to get maybe four pages and half of them are geared toward parents or more of a workbook,” she said.
So she wrote a story about Max from his perspective.
“Ben is not verbal, and he goes to a special school, but he does all these cool things,” Strange said. “But it’s not until the end of the story that Max’s parents say Ben has autism. … No matter what your abilities are, someone always looks up to you. That’s the positive message there.”
The book is meant to start conversations with children to help them understand certain situations.
“Like, if you’re in the grocery store and you see someone having a tantrum and he looks like a high-schooler,” she said. “We need to normalize this; it’s not scary. It’s someone’s family, someone’s child.”
Strange would like to see her book available in school libraries. In the fall, she’s going to a local elementary school to read the story to students in a mentoring program.
“(The book is) definitely based on family experience based on what I watched and observed, and, ultimately, it touched my heart,” Strange said. “I feel like the research I did, it mostly dealt with families whose kids were verbal and could mainstream into the classroom.
“There weren’t any stories about Ben’s going to grow up and he’s still going to need someone to drive him places and go grocery shopping for him,” she said. “And that’s OK. And this little boy thinks his older brother is just the bee’s knees.”
Chad Cross, 26, can respond when someone talks to him, and he can rattle off facts about any animated Walt Disney movie, but he does not initiate conversation.
“He is super bright, he can read, he can work a computer, he can text if he is told to text, but otherwise he just lives in this happiness bubble,” Strange said.
“We’re a close family, and we’re always together, and I spent so much time over there (at the Cross house),” Strange said. “I was really able to process that this kiddo is different. It wasn’t wrong, because I loved him. … People are put in your life to teach and show you things, even if those people don’t have a voice.”
She has three children who have learned from Chad Cross, too, and understand the difficulties some people have in public.
“If that person is having a hard time communicating, … they realize, ‘Oh, they just need more help and they need a friend and if you want to go say hi, then go say hi,’” she said.
“There is such a need for autism awareness,” said Rena Cross, Chad Cross’ mother. “This book gives some insight into the ‘autism life.’ … The entire family is affected. Autism is a journey. We are so blessed to have family and friends to help us through it.”
Strange said people are reading the book and reaching out to her with photos of their children who are on the spectrum.
“I did do this for these reasons, and it’s affecting families in such a cool way, and I’m just so proud that I did this,” she said.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.