From the moment she was born, Tara Johnston, of Canal Fulton, was in a unique situation to learn how to befriend a child with autism. Now, 19 years later she shares all the knowledge she has learned in a self-published book, “Tara’s Tips for Friends with Autism,” which is dedicated to her older brother, Nate, and “his walk with autism.”
Tara, a Jackson High School graduate, used the book as her capstone project for the Jackson School of Arts Program. In addition to service hours, she was required to complete a project that used the arts to “make the world a better place.”
Susan Johnston, mother to Nate and Tara and a retired nurse who worked on the Children’s After Hours team, planted the seed for the capstone project after years of observing Tara interact with Nate.
“You know so much about helping kids and modeling how to work with kids with autism, starting when you were very young,” Susan told Tara. “It’s the type of thing that can change the world.”
When Tara was born, Nate was already 10, very big for his age, and struggling with sensory issues. He could be aggressive in certain situations.
While the family worried that because of his size and behavior, other children may be fearful to be around him, Tara seemed to have a natural instinct for keeping Nate calm and happy. They became close from early on.
Some of the tips shared in her book include:
- If your friend is pacing around, take them for a walk and they will slow down.
- If you’re at a place where there are lots of loud sounds, take your friend outside to quiet down. Take along headphones or earplugs if you know the place will be noisy.
- If your friend starts to cry, you may be quick to offer a hug. But the friend may better respond to having some space.
- Always try to keep the tone of your voice soft when you are with your friend.
“The most important rule of all,” concludes Tara, “is that friends with autism are good friends too.”
Dr. Chelsea Weyand, a pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s, says Tara’s tips are “appropriate, helpful and clinically sound.”
Tara honed some of her book illustration techniques, such as watercolor and splatter paint, in Akron Children’s Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Arts Therapy Center while her brother attended medical and therapy appointments.
Tara’s family helped her self-publish the book. The soft back book is available for $12 at the Happy Days Company in Canal Fulton and also on Amazon.com.
Now a freshman at Walsh College, Tara said she always had fun growing up with Nate. “He was protective of me,” she said.
After observing endless hours of her children from their days of imaginary play through shared interests in video games, theater, history and political science, Susan said the positive influence that Tara brought to Nate’s world cannot be overemphasized.
“Nate told me he missed his first childhood but he’s really glad he had a second childhood with Tara, beginning at age 10,” said Susan.
Nate, who is now 29, was diagnosed with autism at 30 months. After years of therapies at Akron Children’s and other hospitals, Nate is doing well in adulthood. He attended Kent State University, is living on his own, and is volunteering at a library with the goal of becoming employed there.
Tara said her hope is that her book elevates a very timeless virtue: kindness.
“I hope this book will remind people that kids with autism or any other special need should be treated just like a regular person,” she said. “They have feelings too.”