April 2 is both World Autism Awareness Day and International Children’s Book Day. We couldn’t think of a better time to talk about MacEwan alumna Laura Gilmour’s ongoing PhD work – a children’s book that is the foundation of her study on cultural neurodiversity.
When Laura Gilmour (BA, Psychology ’11) heard an expert on behaviour recommend teaching children with autism to make eye contact with adults but to be careful not to do so with children where the practice conflicted with cultural norms, it didn’t sit well with her. After a significant amount of reading and research, her frustration provided the inspiration for her PhD research.
For the past three years, Laura – a PhD candidate in psychological studies at the University of Alberta, autism researcher and autistic self-advocate – has been writing a children’s chapter book that draws on her own experience growing up as a child on the spectrum.
The book explores the experiences of fictional eight-year-old Malika, who was born in Haiti, orphaned, then adopted by Miss Eva who brought her to Canada. She and Zendaya, her new almost-eight-year-old cousin who has autism, create “The Book of Can’t and Don’t” as they get to know each other’s fears, experiences and behaviours.
In this scene from the book, Malika reacts to the unwanted action of Zendaya touching her hair.
The story is grounded in a theory of cultural neurodiversity, which aims to avoid making people with differences in thinking and behaviour feel like they always need to assimilate, explains Laura.
“Therapy for people with autism often has the goal of suppressing behaviours that are harmless and simply look different, like stimming – rocking, spinning or repeating words, and phrases,” she says. “But having to mask your natural personality all the time may lead to mental health problems in adulthood.”
So Laura’s book uses an analogy between autistic people and new immigrants – a fictional account of two children struggling to adapt to the school system, based on her collaborations with adoptive families and parents of children on the spectrum. With this story, she hopes to help children and teachers explore and discuss the idea of social norms, have conversations about inclusion and diversity in the classroom, and develop empathy for their peers.
“I hope it’s a tool that can help kids realize there are many reasons why someone may feel different, and to help normalize all differences,” she says.
It’s a message that’s reinforced as the book closes with Malika and Zendaya together writing “The Can and Do Chapter,” pulling together the things they have learned about themselves and each other.
Laura is hoping to take the book into elementary school classrooms this fall, using it to conduct a qualitative study that looks at how the book might help promote cultural neurodiversity, and influence the attitudes, thoughts and feelings of students and teachers.
Celebrate student research
Laura first discovered her love of research as a Bachelor of Arts student at MacEwan. See what our current students are inspired to study at Student Research Day on April 23.