Children’s Book Offers Boy’s View Of Life With Autism
HARTFORD, Conn. — Nine-year-old Milan Bonilla-Cruz has autism, but it’s not who he is.
It says so right there on the last page of his new children’s book, “Autism & Me.”
Milan, who will enter the fourth grade at Braeburn Elementary in West Hartford this fall, wrote and illustrated the book with Allison Butler, a West Hartford resident who is a paraprofessional at Whiting Lane Elementary, where Milan previously attended.
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The two formed a close relationship while working together.
“I do not want people to feel bad for me,” Milan wrote in the book. “I like having autism and I would never change anything about myself. I would not be the person I am today if I did not have autism. I am very creative and smart because of this. However, autism is just a little part of me; it is not who I am.”
That’s the conclusion to the story of a fictional character named Mike that Milan based on himself. It’s all about living with autism, how he views the world around him, and how he’s similar but also different from his classmates.
The book was one way Butler began to further understand how Milan sees having autism.
“I was there more for the behavior side,” Butler said. “If something was hard for him, he gets upset very easily, and I would try to help him with different strategies and to try and cope with it.”
“But I don’t get upset anymore,” Milan chimes in.
“He’s come such a long way,” Butler said.
Milan, sitting next to Butler, grabs onto her arm and rests his head on her shoulder. He doesn’t get to work with her in school anymore, but they still see each other on weekends, taking trips to the park or getting pizza for lunch.
In their book, Milan tells of some of the ways he copes with his behavior. A section in the book details one of Milan’s favorite places in his Whiting Lane classroom, his “space station.” It was his own private room, walls adorned with stars, where he could go to unwind when he was upset.
“There’s a back room we called his space station,” Butler said. “I would try and get him to go there if he could so he wouldn’t hurt himself or others. It was where he could calm down by himself. It was a safe room for him. If he was tired he could take naps there.”
In the space station, aside from his beanbags, pillow and red blanket, Milan had two stuffed toys, one called the “maker of peace” and the other called the “destroyer of hope.” They represent two ways he might be feeling, with the destroyer of hope trying to make him uncomfortable and the maker of peace trying to defeat that feeling of sadness.
Butler’s relationship with Milan is actually what inspired her to attend the University of Saint Joseph to get her master’s degree in special education. Her mom, Debby Butler, is also a paraprofessional at Whiting Lane.
“Until you get to know a kid, you don’t really know or understand what they need or how they think,” Butler said. “That’s where this book came in. I wanted to understand him and figure out what he needed, not what I thought he needed. I would always say, ‘What do you need?'”
To create the book, Butler asked Milan a series of questions, some as simple as having him list his favorite foods or school activities. Others were more complicated, like asking Milan how he views other teachers who are trying to attend to him when he’s upset.
“I asked him all these questions about what autism feels like to him,” Butler said. “He is so cognitively there. He has such a unique way of thinking. The whole school learned so much about him.”
Milan’s answer was that he sees them as zombies. A single page in the book is dedicated to that. Even though a teacher might be trying their best to help them, if Milan has never met them, he won’t be as receptive to their efforts. That’s what Butler wanted to find out about Milan.
“Most teachers don’t know that I don’t trust many people, especially teachers that I have never met before,” Milan wrote. “When teachers I do not work with come and tell me what to do, it makes me more frustrated. It makes me feel like there are a ton of zombies surrounding me and makes me extra uncomfortable.”
The rest of the book details how Milan feels during recess, which he compares to a giant maze as he tries to find other students to play with, aside from his twin sister. Sometimes, it’s hard, and he hides behind trees watching how certain games are played.
In that section, he quotes Butler with one of his favorite pieces of advice, and how he overcomes that feeling.
“You can’t spend the rest of your life behind a tree,” Milan said.
The book is on sale through Amazon and Butler said around 50 copies have already been sold. They are working on setting up an event at a local library this fall to talk more about the book with the public.
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