Review: "Who Took My Shoe"
Bringing abstract ideas into focus: Mom
writes book to help autistic son relate to his world.
by Joe Plicka for
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"Alone in the Crowd." That's the name of a poem that
fourth-generation Dixonite Karen Emigh wrote about her
10-year-old son Brett, who was diagnosed with an Autistic
Spectrum Disorder when he was six.
Children with autism and related maladies can find it extremely
hard to relate to the world around them, especially in social
situations. They also struggle to understand abstract concepts
and language, something that Emigh was trying to help her son
with when she got the idea for her recently published book "Who
Took My Shoe?"
was having trouble with abstract language like who, what, why,
when, where, and how," said Emigh, 39. So she started asking him
"Why do we go to the post office?" she would ask.
"Is it to buy ice cream? No. Is it to get shoes? No. Is it to
get mail? Yes."
After awhile she could see that the questions were helping train
his mind to grasp certain concepts. So she wrote a book using
the same method to help Brett and other children with autistic
After submitting the book to several companies, she never heard
back. Then 1-1/2 years later she got an e-mail from Future
Horizons, a publishing company that specializes in making books
and videos for autistic children. There had been some changes in
the editorial department there and the new editor had just
recently seen Emigh's book and decided to pursue it.
She collaborated with her childhood friend and artist Steve
Dana, who illustrated the book with full-page color drawings.
Autistic children are very visual, Emigh said, which makes the
drawings even more important. But the book is just as
entertaining for typically-developing children, she added.
She has already heard from a woman who said the method in the
book was helping her autistic son.
For her and her husband, Ken Emigh of Rio Vista, it has been a
long struggle to recognize, diagnose and adjust to life with an
"I think I knew when he was first born that something was
different," Emigh said.
Brett soon developed a condition called echolalia, the
repetition or echoing of verbal phrases.
"He learned to talk and communicate through videos," Emigh said.
"He learned how to use sentences from the videos in a
However it was many years before the official diagnosis was
At first, several psychiatrists - at a loss to describe Brett's
condition - tried to give the Emighs parental counseling,
shifting the reason for Brett's behavior on them.
"It's a fairly common thing for parents with autistic children,"
Finally, Brett was taken to the Langley Porter Psychiatric
Institute at UC San Francisco where he was diagnosed with a
fairly high-functioning autistic disorder called PDDNOS.
Since then, the family has made a concerted effort to help Brett
reach his full potential. But it is a daily effort.
The Emigh's 7-year-old son, Bryce, is the one who "keeps
everything light," Emigh said.
"He acts like a big brother sometimes," Emigh said.
"Maturity-wise, they're about on the same level."
They battled the school district in court to secure special
services for Brett. And Emigh tries to help Brett's classmates
at Gretchen Higgins Elementary School focus on his strengths as
an autistic child.
"He has a hard time remembering names of friends in class, but
can repeat a video verbatim after watching it two or three
times," she said. "It's amazing, but hard."
For her next book, Emigh wants to write about more abstract
language that can be hard for autistic children to grasp - words
like over, under, around, between, beyond, inside out and upside
She also wants to write some books that help teach how to act in
certain social situations.
"Autistic kids think everyone sees the world the way they see
it," Emigh said. "They often need to learn that that's not the
And for Brett, her hopes are high.
"In a lot of ways, we are lucky. Brett has a chance to get out
on his own. I think he'll be able to make his own life."
Joe Plicka can be reached at
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