Once the guilt stage passed, Williams-Hines became determined to learn everything she could about her son’s condition. She and her husband decided to become proactive in dealing with Joshua’s autism, and learned to accept the reality of the situation. Her writing helped with that.
Williams-Hines has long written poetry, and says she began writing poems about Joshua’s autism in the hope of putting words to the struggles he faces each day. Those poems became the foundation for “Joshua and the Startabulous Dream Maker,” which was developed into a children’s book in 2006 through AuthorHouse, a company that helps writers self-publish their titles.
“It came about that a family member said I should go into publishing children’s books,” she said. “I had thought about publishing some of my poetry collections and I guess since this poem was about my son, I felt more passionate about it than some of my other poems. Once I got it out there and seeing people’s reactions and talking to other parents, it kind of spurred me to go on to writing the next book.”
Funded in part by a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, her second book, “The Adventures of Suther Joshua from Planet Yethican,” focuses on the autistic behavior of fixation. Children with autism tend to become preoccupied with certain objects or people. Joshua’s fixation is animated movies, particularly Disney films.
“He will go into this world where everything is about these movies,” said Williams-Hines. “Like now, everything is about ‘Kung Fu Panda’ — he is completely obsessed with it.”
Autistic children retreat into their own world during these fixations, the author says, which can make it difficult for other children to relate and understand. This is the main reason Williams-Hines began writing children’s books: to explain such behaviors to what she calls “typical children.”
She began with the children on her street in Springfield, explaining to them why Joshua may act different than most other children they encounter.
“It is difficult for autistic children to make friends because they don’t have the ability to understand body gestures or pick up on speech inflection,” she said. “So once I started to explain this to other children, it made Joshua less alien to them, and I would hear them tell new children, ‘Oh, that is just how Joshua is!’”
“If we can do that on a larger scale, it would be easier for autistic kids to be seen as normal.”
Williams-Hines is now working on the third book in her “No Small Victories” series. The new work will look to explain an autistic behavior called “stimming,” a phenomenon involving repetitive movements or phrases, such as bouncing on one’s feet. This is a way for autistic children to regulate the stimuli that the outside world throws at their bodies when they come in all at once. She also has plans for a fourth book, discussing the difficulties that autistic children have with making eye contact.
“The response to my books has been extremely positive,” Williams-Hines said. “It’s been probably the most gratifying part of this whole experience, just knowing that I’ve touched others positively and simply being an advocate for their children.”
Williams-Hines recently received another grant, this one from The Black Men of Greater Springfield, an organization that works in the author’s hometown to expose the community’s black youth to inspirational African American role models. Earmarked for autism education, the grant will help fund her second annual No Small Victories Autism Awareness Event/Walk-a-thon and book signing, scheduled for Sept. 27 on the campus of Western New England College in Springfield.
For his part, Joshua is very involved in the community and extracurricular activities. He swims for the Springfield Sharks youth swim team and is a member of the W.E.B. Dubois Academy, a supplemental school that meets on Saturdays and helps students in need of focused support, teaching social skill-building and providing insight into black history.
But in spite of his family’s commitment and his outside involvement, things still don’t come easily for Joshua.
“While the therapies and the social organizations that we involve him in have helped tremendously, he still lags significantly behind his counterparts educationally, socially and emotionally,” Williams-Hines said. “The road ahead of us is still very long; we just choose to make this journey as a family and as positively as possible.”
Williams-Hines said she calls the books the “No Small Victories” series because she wants to leave her readers with the message that every achievement is important.
“We should celebrate everything our children accomplish, whether it be learning to tie their shoes at 2 years old or 10 years old,” she said. “As parents of autistic children, we may not want to brag about such accomplishments because most people don’t understand it. Only other parents living with autism applaud it, but we should be able to do that universally.”
“There are no small victories; this is my anthem of empowerment for parents living with autism.”