Author Donna Carol Koffman hopes her second children’s book inspired by her autistic, non-verbal grandson, Reese, will teach acceptance and empathy to children and parents alike.
Kooper’s Tale, co-authored by Koffman and Lawrence Segel, is about how a brilliant yellow Labrador called Kooper became a service dog and transformed the life of a young autistic boy named Reese by helping him navigate through life more safely.
This is a sequel to Koffman’s first book, Different Kinds of Special, which was published in 2011 to help readers understand the challenges that non-verbal and differently-abled people face, and the importance of overcoming the discomfort people may feel when communicating with them.
Koffman said the inspiration for her first book was a negative experience in the park with her grandson.
“A little girl came up to talk to him… and she tried to talk to him and she was asking me, ‘Why doesn’t he speak?’ I was just about to explain it to her when her mother grabbed her away as if he had some terrible, contagious disease. So I’m sure that affected me,” Koffman recalled.
Different Kinds of Special features a little boy, inspired by her nephew, who engages in play with a non-verbal boy. She hopes his character will serve as an example for other children of how to interact with non-verbal people.
“When my nephew came to visit, I explained to him that Reese can’t talk, and we explained how to engage with Reese by just following him around and copying what he did. This was the first time that Reese engaged with a child and actually cared. He even went to hug him,” Koffman recalled, adding that she hopes the book will help children understand the importance of being inclusive of people with disabilities.
“I wanted people to understand what it felt like to not be able to speak and to have the need to express themselves, and not be able to do these things,” she said.
“People are often afraid of what they don’t understand, and sometimes they can be cruel… Smile. Even if they don’t respond to you, if they don’t know how. Be kind. I want the children, and the parents of children with special needs, to have dignity and respect. I want people to learn empathy. It’s so important.”
The idea for Kooper’s Tale, which was published late last year, came about when she and Segel connected at a book signing on behalf of Autism Ontario, an organization that advocates for people with autism.
She said when Segel met Reese and Kooper at the book signing event, he convinced Koffman that they should collaborate on a book that tells Reese and Kooper’s story.
The book begins by introducing Reese and a boy who can’t speak and doesn’t understand danger. When his parents and nanny struggle to protect him from dangerous situations, like darting into traffic, they decide to get a service dog who is trained to keep special needs children safe.
“Kooper’s Tale is a true story, but I do it in a playful way that children can understand,” Koffman said.
Despite the special bond that Koffman shares with her grandson, she said there was a time when even she questioned whether he felt connected to her.
“There was a time when I wondered if he loved me back because when he was little, he didn’t show his feelings as much,” she said.
“It’s not a natural thing to develop a relationship with a non-verbal, severely autistic child, and it’s not natural for them to develop a relationship… It takes work, but I know now that he loves me back. I adore him and he knows it.”
Some of the proceeds from the books, which can be purchased through Amazon, are donated to autism and animal charities.