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Bringing sensory differences into kids’ books with Lindsey Rowe Parker

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From the colors of the classroom to the noises of the playground, school can be overwhelming for kids with sensory processing challenges. One author has turned these experiences into a new picture book. The book aims to help kids who have trouble processing sensory information. 

In this episode of In It, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk with Lindsey Rowe Parker, author of Wiggles, Stomps and Squeezes: Calming My Jitters at School. It’s the second in a series of picture books about sensory differences for kids.

Lindsey was a child with sensory differences. And now she’s a parent to a daughter with autism and a son who is neurodivergent. 

Lindsey begins by reading a section of the book. Then she talks about the importance of representation in children’s books. She also shares some of the sensory challenges she faced as a kid, and other real-life stories she included in the book.

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Episode Transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor with a family that's definitely in it. Today, we're calming the jitters with children's book author Lindsey Rowe Parker.

Gretchen: Lindsey has a new book coming out, all about a girl with sensory differences. It's called "Wiggles, Stomps and Squeezes: Calming My jitters at School." And it's the second in a series.

Rachel: Lindsey herself was a child with sensory differences and is now a mom to a daughter with autism and a son who's neurodivergent.

Gretchen: We wanted to talk to her about the importance of representation in children's books for kids like she was, and for her own kids. So, welcome to the podcast, Lindsey.

Lindsey: Thank you for having me.

Gretchen: We're so excited to talk to you. And we wanted to start by congratulating you on your new book. So exciting. We really, really love it. And so, we were wondering if you could actually read us, maybe the first few pages from it so we can give our listeners a sense of it?

Lindsey: Absolutely.

"I need to wiggle. I need to spin. I can't explain why. 'Today is a school day, school day!' Mom sings. She takes my hand and we spin, spin, spin around. She makes me giggle with her goofy songs. 'What would you like to wear today?' She asks. I want my favorite shirt. The one with the dinosaur. I point to it. It's in the stinky pile. 'Hmhm. Can we try another shirt with the planets today? \

That one is clean and we'll get the dino shirt washed for tomorrow.' I feel my jitters start to bubble inside. Little bubbles. Like the kind in orange soda. She shows me the shirt with the planets. They have sparkles and they match my shoes. I nod. I do like planets, especially Jupiter. That's my favorite. She takes my hand and we spin, spin, spin around. And that's what calms my jitters down."

Rachel: Thank you so much for that. And since the listeners can't see the illustrations, I just want to say that the illustrations by Rebecca Burgess really give the reader a feeling of the narrator's sensory experience. Like the spinning and the sounds of the bus, and like, the loudness of the letters on the page that are coming off, you know, from the teacher. I just, I really loved that part of it as well.

Lindsey: Thank you. Well, and when I was looking for an illustrator — because we started this process back in, oh goodness, 2019 maybe — and I knew I wanted an illustrator that had the lived experience of sensory experiences. Because it's kind of a, if you don't know what you're looking for, not quite sure how to share that information.

So, I reached out to Rebecca on Twitter and I was like, "Hey, I have a crazy idea. Would you read this manuscript? And I would be so honored if you would consider doing a project with me." And they jumped at the opportunity. They themselves are an autistic creator. And since our original partnership, they've gone on to illustrate a bunch of other books. And I'm so excited for that journey for them. I'm so, so lucky to have them on this project with me.

Gretchen: That's awesome. So, I'd like to know what inspired you to write a book about a girl with sensory differences.

Lindsey: So, I actually didn't start out to write a book about sensory differences. I was just writing little snippets, from, you know, my day with my children. I do have a little girl and a little boy. Both are neurodivergent. One is autistic, and the other, has not been diagnosed yet, but very, very clearly it runs in our family. So, I kind of just was writing these little vignettes or these little snippets of the day.

And after going through a lot of occupational therapy with my daughter, I kind of started to see the differences in sensory experiences, and I was able to identify a lot more of the things that I grew up not knowing were sensory differences, I just thought I was weird.

And so, kind of through that process, this evolved from just a little snippets of our day to identifying like, "Oh, what I'm actually writing is about sensory challenges." And I like "Oh!" and light bulb went on and I was like, "OK, this makes so much more sense."

And we also didn't start out to do this as a series. It was just going to be one book. You know, I'm an unknown author, and it was my first book. And, you know, I thought that was going to be a one and done.

And, because of the response from the first book and the need in that space in children's literature for — not only books about sensory differences, but books that celebrate neurodivergence in general — you know, we decided to keep going with it because the response was wonderful. And so, that just kind of I was like, "OK, we're going to keep going, because it's needed."

Gretchen: You said when you were working with your own children that — occupational therapy for example — you looked back at your own childhood and sensed, "Huh, maybe some of this was me, too." Would you mind sharing some of the things you realized, maybe you thought you would label as just like, "Quirky," but actually were sensory differences?

Lindsey: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I had so much internal narrative of myself that I've collected over my 40-plus years of — you know, I have ADHD and sensory differences — I was labeled a dreamer. I was labeled as not applying myself. Spacey, obnoxious, like all those things. And it just kind of becomes your internal dialogue after years and years.

And going through that process of learning about sensory differences, specifically during my daughter's, you know, therapies, I was like, "Oh, wait a minute." So, I also then got, unfortunately got into a car accident and had to go do some neuropsychological testing.

And that's when I actually got diagnosed, was after that. So, while that was a, you know, a hard time of my life, something really beautiful came out of that, which was a diagnosis that I didn't even know that I needed.

And it just made so many things make sense. And then I was able to kind of retrain myself in my own narrative and be like, "No, you're not lazy. You're not spacey. You're not, you know — well, maybe I am obnoxious. I'm not sure — and all these things that I thought that I was. I'm like "No, that is not what it is."

I think I have ADHD and I have sensory differences and these things I can manage, I can find supports, and I can give myself a little bit of grace, too. And I'm so grateful for that to have happened, even though I'm an adult, it has taught me so much of how I can try and help my kids not create those internal narratives for themselves.

Gretchen: Are any of the sensory experiences in the book, ones that either you've experienced in your childhood or that your own children experience now?

Lindsey: Oh, absolutely. The food ones, the clothing. I mean, one of the ones that was actually me, in this new book, is when the child is putting their face on the table and the table is really cool. And they're feeling the scratches or the divots in the table. And like, that exactly happened to me as a kid. I would just sit there when I was overwhelmed with whatever was happening in the classroom. I would then just, you know, feel senses around me.

So, I put my warm face on a cool table. And it looks like, who knows what it looks like to the teacher that you're doing, or to the other kids. But what you're doing is you're just trying to regulate yourself. And it varies so much from person to person, as far as like, what things are difficult for them.

Gretchen: That example you just gave of the head on the cool table and like feeling the little cracks on the desk like, yeah, you're right. To someone from the outside — like, I'm a former classroom teacher — I don't know, I might have looked at the kid and wondered what they were doing. So it's really informative, this book, to teach people that, actually this might be a way that they're calming themselves down amidst all of the commotion that's going around them.

Lindsey: Yeah. I mean, it's fun and almost kind of, healing to like, kind of put it on the page and have the outcome be something that maybe didn't actually happen the way that I would have liked it to happen. Some of these responses that we show in the book are not necessarily how those moments actually played out. This is more of how I wish they could have played out.

Rachel: Yeah. And I also really liked how understanding, like you said, that the outcome wasn't always how it really went for you or for either of your kids. Because there were moments while I was reading where I'm like, "Oh no, how is this going to go?" And it went OK. So, thanks for that.

And so, another thing that struck me in the book is the repeated phrase, "I can't explain why." Like, when the narrator is saying, like, "I need to wiggle, I need to spin. I can't explain why." And it seems like there's something really important that you wanted to get across there. Can you talk a little bit about why you left it there, that you didn't add an explanation or anything specific about a labeling or a diagnosis?

Lindsey: That's a great question. I think while I was crafting this, I had a lot of different authors — I was in a group, a critique group — we would get together and read each other's manuscripts. And part of that was saying, like, "How are you going to wrap this up? Like, how is this going to go down?" And, you know, I was like, "I don't know if we need to explain why. I don't know if a child explains themselves like, you just feel it. It is just your reality."

And one of my critique partners, he was just like, "That's it. That is your repetition. That is your 'I can't explain why.'" And I was like, "Huh!" And he was so right. And you don't necessarily need to explain why all the time. You just need to be accepted, and supported.

And so, even if the child or the adults or whomever it is can't tell you why they're doing the things that they're doing or why they're feeling the things that they're feeling, it doesn't matter. We still need to support and, you know, accept people and meet them where they're at.

Gretchen: Lindsey, we mentioned this earlier that, we just appreciate how the story doesn't have, you know, a teacher coming in and saying, "What are you doing? Why are you doing that?" That the teacher is really supportive. And I feel like other authors might have gone the other way, because they might have thought it was more interesting, right?

To have like, it's sort of like a children's movie. Some of those movies have these, like really harsh points because they think that that's what kids need. So, why did you choose to not add that? Why did you choose to have such a supportive teacher, supportive friends, etc?

Lindsey: This was a definite choice. It took me actually a while to get this book published because, as I was shopping it around to different editors and you know, publishing houses, they were like, "Oh, we like it, but it's too quiet. Your story's too quiet." You know, "There's not enough drama in it. If you could make it a little more..." And I was like, it didn't sit right. And I understand that, you know, their job is to sell things. I get it.

But for this specific, you know, I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to make it more than it needed to be. The arc in both of these stories is dramatic enough for the person experiencing it. More things don't need to be added to make that experience valid when other people see it. And so, that's partly why there is no like, huge explosion outside of just internally in that person's experience.

And then having these supportive adult figures was so important to me and my illustrator for this particular series, because we want to model the way that it should go for kids. We want kids to see the way it should go for them. And, I was in another interview once with the first book and they said, "So, is this how you respond? And I was like, "Well, sometimes I can, sometimes I mess it up." You know?

So, this is not like me doing all the things perfectly in this book. This is me showing what I would love to have happened. And I don't always get it right either. But modeling that type of support from adult figures in a kid's book, I thought was very important, and I was not willing to change that just to get it solved.

Gretchen: Yeah, I agree. I mean, when my kids were little and we would watch, you know, the typical kids' movies that had those dramatic moments in them, they hated it because they felt unsafe. They felt like, "Well, what's going to happen? I'm scared." And so, I feel like this book is so great for kids, because they're reading it and they don't have to feel worried for the main character for the most part. And it does feel safe and warm, right? So, I like that about the book a lot.

Rachel:Yeah I think it's nice to have a quiet story that is relatable for, especially for kids who maybe don't have a lot of quiet, because they're always getting the like, "What are you doing? Why are you doing that?" And now they're like, "Oh, it's OK here." So, yeah. I love that.

So, Lindsey, you haven't just written these two books for your series — and I shouldn't say just two — but you've also recruited other children's book authors and creators to put out stories about sensory needs and challenges. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about and what's come out of that campaign?

Lindsey: Sure. So, I started seeing — as I got deeper down into the children's literature, like industry or environment or community, I guess you could say — I started seeing that there were actually a lot of books coming out specifically for, you know, neurodivergence, sensory differences by autistic authors and illustrators and creators.

And I did not necessarily encourage them to write these books. They were already doing it. What I encouraged them to do was come together and not see each other as competition. And more see each other as like collaborators or community. And so, there's probably about 20 or so of us now that are either creators, illustrators, authors and even just advocates and other organizations.

And then, during Sensory Differences Month in October, you know, I just really promote all of the different stories that are available and out there that have this, that's not the same story, but it is a similar feeling in the fact that, like, "You're not broken. There's nothing wrong with you, but this is an actual thing that people experience, and sometimes it's hard."

And here are a lot of different resources for you to understand yourself, to know that you're not alone. And just to, to kind of like make a community of people who have the same goal.

Gretchen: I'm wondering if you've heard from kids or parents and caregivers about your books, like, have you gotten any memorable feedback that's really stayed with you from those families?

Lindsey: Yes. I have so many beautiful reviews that it just like each time I read one I tear up a little bit. But I think the one that got me the most, it was in person and I was at a children's hospital reading to the kids. And there were some parents there, and one of them came up to me after, and she was crying. She's like, "Thank you for seeing my child. No one sees my child." She's like, "You see them in this book and they can see themselves." And I was like, "Oooh."

And I've heard that, you know, I don't wanna say many different times, but really is a very common thing for them to say. But having a mom in front of my face tell me, with tears in her eyes, that just got me pretty good in the heartstrings.

Rachel:Yeah. So, looking ahead, do you have ideas for a next book in your "Wiggles, Stomps and Squeezes" series?

Lindsey: Yes I do. Absolutely. So, we have the two — this next one I should actually be getting just like in three days. I can't wait to unbox it — I also have an activity book that goes along with it. But then, aside from those three pieces, I'm hoping to do, I mean, the dentist right now is a big one in our home. So, that's a rough one. So, I'm thinking that might be one of the next ones.

Holidays are usually like, sensory nightmares. They can also be really exciting for sensory, because I mean, I'm a seeker for the most part, a sensory seeker. And I love lights and loud noises and all this kind of stuff. But at some point it gets overwhelming. So, I might explore that a little bit. And then travel, you know, going on airplanes or going to new places with your family. That one can also be really fun and exciting, but hard. So, those are kind of the three that I'm toying with manuscripts right now.

Gretchen: Those are all so good. I must say, I could really benefit from the dentist.

Rachel: Yes, and we did episodes about the overload of the holidays and of traveling.

Gretchen: We have, yes. So, we'll have those in the show notes.

Rachel: Yeah. But like, yeah, those are big ones.

Gretchen: Those are big ones.

Lindsey: Yeah. And I try and pull from things that we experience personally, because I feel like most of the time it's so much more authentic to write from something that you understand and know. So, I'm sure there's a million other scenarios that I could write about, but because those are right now pretty, pretty intense for our family, I think that's why I'm gravitating towards those.

Gretchen: Yeah. Do you have anything else you want to share before we wrap up?

Lindsey: I just... I want kids to know that they are not weird or broken, ever. They're not. And it's — whether that's through books like mine or through other, you know, ways to find that out — I think it seems like there's a shift in the way that we talk about disability. And it seems like it's getting better and more inclusive and more accepting. And I'm very happy to be part of that. And I want to keep pushing that message like, "Hey, you're not broken."

Rachel: We wholeheartedly agree. Thank you so much. This was really a great conversation. It was so nice to get to know you.

Gretchen: Yes. Thank you for talking with us.

Lindsey: Thank you for having me! I was so excited. I love Understood, I think it's such a great organization.

Rachel: Lindsey Rowe Parker's new book is called "Wiggles, Stomps and Squeezes: Calming My Jitters at School."

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we've covered today, check out our show notes. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Ilana Millner is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Ericco wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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