Understanding Autism with Author Judith Mammay

 

There is something that is quite close to my heart and something that I live with daily:  a child with learning disabilities. 

So when I had the opportunity to interview Judith Mammay, I was really excited. 

It kind of helps that she’s one of my crit partners and is kind of amazing. 

But the best part is that Judy really gets where I’m at, what it’s like to live with a child with disabilities and she is simply one of the most caring, understanding and supportive individuals I’ve ever met. 

Well…sort of met.  You see, we’re online crit partners…so we’ve never had a chance to actually meet in person.  But through a year of emails, through tears, frustrations, joy and excitement, Judy has been there.  I believe we know each other quite well….And I’m so excited to share this interview – with this amazing author –  with you!

ME:  So, I understand you were a teacher for 20 years, is that right? 

Judy was a presenter at this year's SCWG-FL conference.

JUDY:  Yes, I started teaching physical education, but after I had kids, I went back and received my masters in learning and language disabilities, and taught special education for seventeen years.  

ME:  So when did you start writing ? 

JUDY:  I have always enjoyed writing, and usually was the one who produced the newsletters for the various organizations I was in. Then in the nineties, during a personal crisis, I started writing poetry to help me through it, and when I came out the other side, I had learned that maybe I had some talent for writing. (You can see some of my poems on my website, www.judithmammay.com ) That is when I started sharing my writing.

ME:  I think writing is a great release!  That’s why I started, too!  So what inspired you to become a writer? 

JUDY: Once I decided I could write, many things inspired me to become a writer. First, the idea of my poems helping others to cope better motivated me to write more. Then when I could not find simple enough stories for my young special ed. students to read I wrote some and they made their own books ( my story, their illustrations)…which helped motivate them to read and gave me suitable materials. Finally, as I approached retirement, I knew I would have to have a plan or go crazy. So I decided my next job, after retirement would be to write books for children.

ME:  That’s one of the things I love about writing, too – knowing that it’s helping someone else.  So I imagine your years as a special education teacher had a great influence on your writing, didn’t it?

JUDY:  My experiences as a special educator at an inner city school, where the poverty level was at 85%, and both the special needs and ESL (English as a second language) populations were at 25% each, with little overlap, showed me there was a need to address some of the problems these kids dealt with on a daily basis.  With the observations I had made, I thought that books showing that kids could survive and do well in spite of their poverty might be an inspiration to some of these kids.  I had kids coming to school and saying, ‘Mrs. Mammay, I couldn’t do my homework last night because my father tried to shoot my mother and the police came.’ The sad part was that it was true; we read about it in the local paper. So in a nutshell, I thought I could make a difference through my writing, even if it was with only a few, and that was something I wanted to do.

ME:  That’s great, Judy.  I wish there were more teachers like you!  I’ve noticed that most of your books have characters with disabilities. What did you most hope to accomplish by creating these particular types of characters? 

Although this book is an easy reader geared for younger children, it is an excellent reminder for us to celebrate every victory.

JUDY:  The three books I have had published are about kids with autism. When I was teaching, my students with autism were in the regular classrooms, and it was difficult to find books that would help explain the behaviors and needs of children with autism to the rest of the class.  Having those books available to classroom teachers and their students was part of my motivation for writing It’s Time and Ryan’s Victory. I believe that kids who do not understand about kids with disabilities, or even kids who are different are less likely to accept them and more likely to bully them, so helping them to understand autism through books may help them accept and even become friends to the child with autism or other disability. If nothing else, they would know that the child who has a meltdown, for example, is not being bad, but is not necessarily able to control his behavior. 

Knowing Joseph was the first of my published books, and while much of my motivation was the same, it goes beyond that. After I had learned a great deal about autism so I could better work with my students, I learned that one of my grandsons had autism. One day when he was four or five, I was at the bowling alley with him, his brother, two years older, and their mother. On the way out, my autistic grandson had a meltdown on the sidewalk because his mom had asked him to wait until we got home to have a Sprite.  As my older grandson and I walked to the car, he said, “I’m glad I don’t know that kid,” and of course he was talking about his brother. In the next breath, he said, “but I love my brother.”  I could see the inner conflict he was going through as a sibling of a child with autism, and knew that there were other siblings who were probably experiencing the same degree of conflict.  I decided to write Knowing Joseph not only to help educate a slightly older audience about autism, but also to let kids with autistic siblings know they were not alone, and hopefully to give them a story that may help them understand that it is okay to have such conflicted feelings. I have used this scene as the beginning of Knowing Joseph, and the beginning line is “I’m glad I don’t know that kid.”

This easy reader is an excellent tool in helping other's understand Autism.

ME:  I loved Knowing Joseph.  You really captured the essence of what it’s like living with someone with disabilities, especially someone with Autism.  Your first line drew me right into the story as well.  I was so impressed with it, I even read it to my children.  It’s pretty challenging to write these types of characters…so why do it? 

 

JUDY:  Thank you!  I write realistic fiction about such challenging characters, because LIFE is challenging for kids in one way or another, and what better way for kids to learn that they are not alone on their journeys than through books? And I have chosen to write about kids with disabilities, because that is what I know and have seen a need for.

ME:  Have you tried any other genres? 

JUDY:  Actually, I have written in another genre…I am currently working on a chapter book mystery, and have plans to write more mysteries with the same characters (one character has autism <G>). But I like realistic fiction because I think kids can identify more with it…I see my mystery book as a more fun book, where kids can see if they can beat the characters in solving the mystery.

 ME:  I loved your mystery story!  :)  (To Mixed-Up Files readers, no it’s not published yet…but that’s one of the perks of  being her crit partner…I get to read these great stories firsthand!)  Have you seen a change in your interactions with others and their perception of learning disabled children because of your books?  And how have your stories helped others?

Judith Mammay at "Walk for Autism"

JUDY:  In some of my school visits, I have noticed that kids really want to know about kids with disabilities, including autism, and they ask good questions. I like to think the attitudes of some may change because of my books or at least help them to understand better.  I also have had many children who want to share their own experiences with their siblings or friends with autism, ADHD and a variety of other disabilities. I am sure the books have had an impact on them.

ME:  I know you have some goals, aspirations, dreams…care to share them?

JUDY:  Like any author, I would like to have more of my books published and readily available to kids. My goal is to work to make that happen. My dream is to have more teachers use these books in their classrooms to help more kids understand about children with disabilities, and to know that even with disabilities, these kids have feelings, dreams and goals just like every other kid. Ultimately, I would like to hear from children who have benefitted from reading them or otherwise gained insights from my books.

ME:  What can we expect from you next?

JUDY:  Besides my mysteries, I am working on a story about a boy with ADHD who is also from a dysfunctional home (his father ends up in jail). Aside from learning to control his behaviors and survive his abusive environment, he has to deal with the fear of one day becoming just like his father.

ME:  I love that story, too, Judy!  Can’t wait to see it through to publication :)  Thanks so much for joining us and all the best to you!

Judy is so generous that she’s giving away TWO copies of Knowing Joseph!  A paperback to one lucky Mixed-Up Files reader and a hardcover to be donated to that winner’s location of choice (a local library, school, Autism center, etc)!  Just leave a comment to be entered. 

This Middle-Grade reader is perfect for all children to help them better understand and respect the differences in others.

If someone you love has Autism,  please visit AUTISM SPEAKS for more information.
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Amie Borst writes fairy tales with a twist with her middle-grade daughter (who just so happens to have learning disabilities). Please visit her at http://amie-borst.com

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