Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Sevelopment
We want to change the way people talk about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). We invite educators, practitioners, curriculum designers, learners, students, and anyone interested in the field of SEL to share their learning with the community. — UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development
By Joshua Korenblat & David Folk
“If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism,” writes Robert Rozema, a Professor of English at Grand Valley State University (Michigan, United States). This aphorism says that every individual with autism has a story to disclose, vivid and unique. And there are a lot of individuals with autism. In the United States, researchers estimate that in a group of sixty-eight children, one will be on a spectrum of autism (Rozema 60). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) presents an array of diverse developmental challenges that affect children. ASD impacts Social Emotional Learning (SEL), as children navigate school, home, and the world. Yet despite this neurodiversity, researchers rely upon just two criteria to characterize ASD.
Criterion number one: people with ASD face consistent challenges with social communication. In particular, children with ASD might struggle with recognizing nuanced facial expressions and with taking the perspective of others. Educators call these social communication skills ‘empathy,’ a vital part of reading works of fiction. Cambridge University Professor Simon Baron-Cohen defines this type of empathy as “‘the drive to understand another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion…in other words, the ability to empathize is related to the ability to take another’s perspective…in current autism research children’s difficulties in comprehension of narrative are related to understanding motive and intention, perspective-taking, causality, and generalizing from detail to a coherent ‘bigger picture’” (Hardstaff 81). Criterion number two: children with ASD tend to have affinities for particular interests — from dinosaurs to comics — that deepen into grooves and become patterns of acting and behaving. For example, children with ASD often dedicate time and energy to acquire a specialist’s detailed knowledge about the interests that animate them.
My co-author, David Folk, is a comic book artist and writer, and also a university student with ASD, where I teach. Based on experience and research, David and I believe that comics can help children who might be underserved in reading and writing classrooms. Teachers can introduce comics to children with ASD in a guided way, to help them discover and develop skills vital to SEL. At the same time, comics can help children with ASD discover lifelong affinities for reading and writing.
Early in his childhood years on Long Island, a suburb near New York City, David experienced challenges with social communication. “When I was in Kindergarten,” David says, “my teachers believed that I would never speak for the rest of my life, due to my ASD.” Eventually, David says, “My parents helped me learn to speak during my early years.” School, however, presented other communication and learning challenges. In school, David tried to adapt to mainstream classrooms that prioritized verbal thinking and communication over the type of visual thinking that he favors — which is also prevalent for children with ASD. Professor Rozema advises teachers, “Not all adolescents with ASD in your class will possess exceptional visuospatial skills like (Temple) Grandin, who can reproduce complicated architectural structures from memory, but research has shown that many will pay more attention to small visual details than will their neurotypical peers, sometimes at the cost of the larger picture (Dakin and Frith 500)” (Rozema, 61). Like Temple Grandin, when David reads a text-only book, he struggles to read swiftly. David says, “My biggest challenge was reading long books. At a young age, I was unable to read books like The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, due to having trouble with long-form reading.”
For Temple Grandin, an abstract word like ‘dog’ doesn’t resonate in her mind. While reading the word, she needs to picture a particular kind of dog — say, a golden retriever — doing particular things. Where other students might swiftly read the word ‘dog’ without the vivid, dimensional image in mind, she may even need to play a movie of this golden retriever in her mind, before moving on. Like Temple Grandin, “I do picture things while reading,” David says, “but it is only of simple key moments with the characters and backgrounds.” David’s life would change with the discovery of an award-winning graphic novel (a long-format genre of comic books). “It wasn’t until 2007,” David says. “I was in my school library’s new book section, where I came across a copy of Bone, by Jeff Smith. This was my first time seeing a graphic novel, So when I looked inside, I was surprised to see a comic story instead of text! And of course, that was what encouraged me to get better at reading. I read the Bone series beginning to end five times. It was also what opened the door to try writing, in order to plan my own comics.”
David began to read and draw comics on a consistent basis. This practice aligns well with literacy. Educator Michael Bitz writes, “Communication and expression are key components of any definition of literacy. The conjunction of building communication skills, being artistically creative, and expressing oneself is a powerful combination realized through the comic book format…”(Bitz 585). “Bone was a gateway to discover more comic stories,” David recalls. “Originally, I thought superhero and newspaper comics were the only kind that the industry had to offer. That was when I started to discover manga, independent graphic novels, then independently-made webcomics. The whole idea got me excited, since it’s just drawing anything you want sequentially, and it becomes something that you can read. I could just write a homemade movie script that I have no budget to create, and turn it into a graphic novel.” Many teenagers like David read manga, the Japanese genre of comic books that tells stories with a distinct visual grammar, which comics researcher Neil Cohn calls Japanese Visual Language. This is true for teens with ASD too. “At the most basic level,” writes Rozema, “manga may appeal to adolescents with ASD simply because it is an image-rich medium, and many autistic individuals are better at processing images than words.” The patterns and rhythms of Japanese manga rely upon visual conventions that readers learn, such as panel arrangements, word bubbles, emanta (abstract marks that indicate motion, emotions, and other difficult to perceive qualities), and juxtapositions of narrative imagery that pause linear storytelling, creating a lyrical quality at times. Manga often have vividly described background settings, which also appeals to detail-oriented visual thinkers.
“Beyond appealing to visual thinkers,” Rozema observes, “the unique aesthetics of manga may also provide adolescents with ASD with unambiguous social and emotional input, primarily through its exaggerated, stereotypical depiction of the human face. For many individuals with autism, the inability to recognize faces, differentiate between them, and identify facial expressions severely impairs social interaction.” Manga characters typically have schematized faces — large eyes, pointy noses, an ellipse for a smile. Rozema elaborates, “Faces in Western comics take a variety of forms — from Prince Valiant to Peanuts — a manga face always looks like a manga face, making them easy for adolescents with ASD to recognize. At the same time, each bears a simple feature that signifies, unequivocally, the identity of the character, helping adolescents with ASD draw distinctions between faces.” To differentiate these characters, artists give them unique hairstyles, clothing, and props, and magnify facial expressions. These magnified facial expressions, used within a distinct visual language, may help those with ASD recognize social and emotional cues in the context of a story.
Figure 1. Children’s drawings from Japan show a consistent, studied visual grammar.
Despite the affinity David had for comics, most of the books he read in courses were more conventional text-only experiences. “What I wish happened,” David says, “was for there to be more visuals, such as educational comics for people who had trouble with reading plain text.” David also believes more diversified texts would foster improved relationships between teachers and students, who might recognize and appreciate efforts to reach neurodiverse students, and to entertain students as well as educate. He claims, “A more diverse and creative form of education would mean students can have a better relationship with not only education, but with the teachers.”
Conventional texts dominated David’s earlier coursework. Yet by his senior year of high school, he was being assigned some graphic novels to read, such as Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned. An emotional memoir in comic book form, Pedro and Me recounts the author’s friendship with Pedro Zamora, one of the first openly gay men with AIDS to be featured in a US television series. Zamora would become a prominent advocate for the HIV and AIDS community. “I still remember the entire plot of Pedro and Me by Judd Winick,” David says, “thanks to the comic format. Visuals, such as comics, help me remember stories long-term, rather than just words.” Books such as these cross borders between self and other. They help develop empathy as a form of perspective-taking — a noted challenge in children with ASD. “All graphic novels tell stories one bordered panel at a time,” writes educator James Bucky Carter, “and often those stories cross into rich, exciting, and socially important territories.” Carter believes that comics work well with challenging societal topics. He references contact zone theory, which asks “students and teachers to critically examine important issues from multiple personal and social points of view, and to posit those views in a dialogic conversation with those who do the same.” The very medium of comics is a conversation between text and image, creating a subtext that encourages a dialogic disposition. Comics can help students “‘meet, clash, and grapple’ with complex social issues and their attitudes toward and beliefs about them” (Carter, 51–52).
David is not alone in his lament that “It took me a few years to master multiplication, and it took me most of elementary school to read novels.”
Children with ASD can find themselves mismatched between learning modalities that work well for them, such as comic books, and the verbal thinking that schools emphasize in classrooms other than art. This concept of the mismatch, popularized by Inclusive Designer Kat Holmes, aligns with the social model of disability. Here, disability is a mismatch between a person’s capabilities and how society is organized. In contrast to the medical definition of disability, this means we all can find ourselves in permanent, temporary, and situational mismatches that create painful exclusions. For example, the comic books that make reading more visual might also engage readers with dyslexia. The visuals in comics might also benefit readers who don’t speak or write at home in the same language that the text is written in for public consumption. The pictures might also help people who share the primary language, but who lack the cultural context to understand connotations around words.
David discovered how far he could travel with comics in his educational journey. Today, David is on the cusp of college graduation with a published children’s book and many webcomics to his credit. David’s recent comics project, created in an independent study with me, is a brief comic book titled Poetic Adaptation. Here, David compares haiku poetry writing in Japan to a related poetic form in the United States. David is using this comic as a foundation for future writing: a more conventional text-only academic essay on short-form writing across cultures.
Figure 2. David’s comic book, Poetic Adaptation.
Figure 3. David’s comic book, Poetic Adaptation.
Figure 4. David’s comic book, Poetic Adaptation.
David finds the comic book form to be engaging, socially and emotionally. On a practical level, comics help him imagine, create, and share thoughtful written work, using a visual language that he’s studied in depth. He shares this work with groups of fellow comics readers, who form affinity groups online where they share knowledge, skills, and values. This is where David feels most included in educational experiences. David believes others on the autism spectrum share the feelings, needs, and values bundled into the comic books he reads and writes. In reading and writing classrooms, “it has taken a long time for me to learn how to adapt,” David reflects. “I worry about those like me who were unable to understand text-heavy books and could never graduate.” David stresses that “children are our future.” The stakes could not be higher for those who will read, write, and make our collective future. Today, by including comics in a curriculum of more conventional text-only books, we can foster inclusive learning environments. Neurodiverse students will have more ways to read, understand, and write, in a social and emotional context they can grasp. Comics create a spirited conversation around pictures and words, and a potential lifelong affinity for reading and learning.
Bitz, Michael. “The Comic Book Project: Forging Alternative Pathways to Literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 47, no. 7, 2004, p. 585. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Carter, James Bucky. “Transforming English with Graphic Novels: Moving Toward our Optimus Prime.” English Journal, vol. 97, no. 2, 2007, pp. 49–52. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Hardstaff, Sarah. “Maybe he’s on the toy train”: empathizing and systemizing in an encounter with David Macaulay’s Black and White.” Literacy, vol. 48, no. 2, 2014, p. 81. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Rozema, Robert. “Manga and the Autistic Mind.” English Journal, vol. 105, no. 1, 2015, pp. 60–68. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Dr. Temple Grandin, and how she describes her experience with ASD as ‘Thinking in Pictures”
David Folk is a senior Illustration major at State University of New York at New Paltz (SUNY New Paltz), about seventy miles north of New York City in the Hudson Valley. He’s the author of numerous webcomics.
Joshua Korenblat is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at SUNY New Paltz, and Art Director at Graphicacy, a design firm in Washington, DC. Graphicacy is a real word that means ‘graphic literacy.’