Author’s brother has autism: she shares their story in “I Hear a Red Crayon”
“It was hard growing up with a brother who has autism,” Bonnie Feuer begins in her newest book “I Hear a Red Crayon.”
Feuer, an educator in the Milford school system, previously published two children’s picture books, but when an incident occurred with her now-adult brother, Mark, she decided it was time to tell their story.
The book is geared for children ages eight and up and delves into the struggles of siblings who grow up with an autistic brother or sister.
Feuer has always loved her brother, but as a child she was saddened and challenged because she felt she could not interact with him in the same way sisters interact with their big brothers.
“Because I kept hearing that my brother was ‘on the spectrum’, I asked my parents if he could come off of it, just for a while, to be with us,” Feuer writes. “My mother’s eyes filled with tears when she told me this could never happen.”
According to Autismspeaks.org, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
Mark is quite verbal, but his actions and responses were often inappropriate as they were growing up, Feuer recounts. Much of her parents’ planning revolved around trying to keep things in order so her brother would not become distressed. Sometimes if activities took an unexpected turn, Mark would throw a tantrum.
“My heart wanted to stay and comfort him, but my mind wanted to run,” she writes.
Her story of growing up and her relationship with her brother takes a turn when the two are at summer camp: Mark was 12 and Bonnie was 9.
The counselor told the children to take a red crayon from a crayon box, and her brother picked up the box and proudly announced, “I hear a red crayon.”
When the other children started to laugh, Bonnie stood up and yelled for them to stop, and defended her brother, pointing out that he did indeed hear a red crayon.
This is really the first time Feuer has opened up about her brother. A former columnist with a local weekly newspaper, she said she had every opportunity to share her childhood struggles and knowledge, but she never put those ideas in print because it was too close to her heart.
“He is my only sibling, and I felt protective,” she said.
But not long ago, Mark, who is living in New Jersey, made a decision that nearly cost him his life. Rather than seek medical help when he began feeling pain that turned out to be a hernia, he hoped it would go away. When the hernia ruptured, Mark required emergency surgery and then rehabilitation to regain his strength.
“Once the crisis passed and I was able to resume normalcy, the story of our growing up together simply flowed,” Feuer writes in an Author’s Note section of her book. “I was suddenly driven to share our experiences with others, who may be facing similar situations.”
She shared the idea and story with Mark to make sure none of it embarrassed him. He liked the story and told her, “It’s fine with me because it really happened.”
The book is for families, siblings, mental health professionals who work with autistic children and their siblings, she said, explaining that siblings often feel they are pushed aside and that the majority of the family’s attention is focused on the child with autism.
“He was born first, but I had to be the older one,” Feuer shares in her book.
Published by The Connecticut Press in Monroe, the book includes forwards by two doctors who study autism. Harry D. Schneider, research scientist at Columbia and Yale universities, writes, “As Feuer reminds us, children with autism have their own talents and they have strengths and abilities, like everyone else. We the readers, we the parents, educators and all the stakeholders in our autism epidemic need to incorporate the richness of the insights the author has provided us.”
Gerard Costa, founding director and senior lecturer at the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University, says, “I Hear a Red Crayon” provides insights for academics and doctors.
“...we rely on first person accounts; stories and interviews from those who can speak for themselves,” Dr. Costa writes. “We seek the guidance, insight, compassion, love and pride of those in the lives of persons with autism, who can speak not only on their behalf, but about their own experience.”
The book is illustrated by Feuer’s granddaughter, Kayleigh Boemmels, 15, who lives in Hamden.
Feuer lives in Orange, and she works with children at Pumpkin Delight Elementary School in Milford.
Her book was released Oct. 15. She is currently working on another book, which will be the third in a series that includes Wallaby the Wannabe (2012) and Goliath’s Secret (2013), which are both picture books for younger children.