Kevin Howard also is now a published author, using his experiences as the parent of a child with autism, to help other people.
“My 15-year-old son, Seth, was diagnosed with autism before this third birthday,” explains Kevin. “At that time, a therapist suggested we create social stories to help him.”
Kevin — who lives in Cory Lake Isles with his wife, Christina, Seth, and Seth’s younger brother, Joey — explains that the social stories would introduce Seth to typical life situations that could be intimidating for a kid who is autistic. The first book Kevin wrote for his son, for example, was about having his blood drawn.
“We got pictures off the internet to make this book, and looked at the story over and over again,” he says. “We practiced having our blood drawn together with fake needles. So, when Seth went to have his blood drawn, we had no issues.”
He says it became a valuable tool in his household, so he began writing more stories for Seth, such as about going to the grocery store or the amusement park.
When the family was getting ready for a trip to visit family in New York, Kevin began working on a new social story. He collected pictures of all the things they would do — from packing to sitting on the plane — to the places they were going to go, including his father’s house. After reading the story over and over again, Kevin says, “We went to New York several times before we ever left (Florida).”
In the process of writing that book, Kevin was reminded of his favorite childhood toy, a stuffed monkey named Kookabuk.
“Kookabuk was given to me when I was a little boy and had an extended stay in the hospital,” Kevin says. “He took me on so many adventures. We played, we raced cars, we went on safaris, we had a band… all these adventures to occupy my time while I was in the hospital.”
So, when he happened to Seth, “You’re going on an adventure,” when referencing the family’s trip to New York, Kevin says it was, “like a light bulb went off. It reminded me of my adventures with Kookabuk, and that’s when the creative juices started to flow.”
He partnered with his brother, Jesse, who lives in New York and is a special education teacher, teaching elementary and pre-kindergarten kids who have a variety of exceptionalities, including autism.
The two worked together to develop stories that would help families. They have self-published the first story in the series, called Kookabuk Shares His Shovel, and have several more stories written and planned for future publication.
“I just love the name,” says Kevin. “I can see the smile on your face when I say it. I want Kookabuk to help other children the way he helped me.”
The series has been thoughtfully developed with characters who are inspired by real life. Kookabuk — or “Kooky,” as Kevin calls him – is the character in the book who is on the autism spectrum. And, he says Kooky’s friend, Emily, was inspired by someone in real life, too. “Emily was the first little girl who became friends with my son,” although both Kooky and Emily are monkeys in the book.
About the character Emily, Kevin says, “She is the model for every typical child when it comes to awareness, acceptance and understanding,” says Kevin, “We want typical kids to see the model of Emily, where we’re showing them how they can have a rewarding relationship with a child with special needs.”
Kevin’s pet macaw, Trevor, appears in the series, too. Trevor became part of the Howard family 20 years ago when Christine convinced Kevin to adopt Trevor. In the book, Trevor shows up whenever the characters are using a strategy that can be helpful to parents and caregivers of children with autism.
“We call it our ‘Best of Help’ tips,” says Kevin. He explains that whenever a specific strategy is being used that parents, teachers and caregivers can emulate, a picture of Trevor indicates to go to the back of the book to learn about the strategy and how to use it.
The tips come from Jesse’s expertise as a special needs educator and what Kevin has learned as the parent of a child with autism.
“We tried to make these tips the things that are going to help you on a daily basis,” Kevin says. “It’s what’s going to help with my kid having a meltdown right now.”
He says the books can be enjoyed by children — both those with special needs and those who are typical — either together with their parents or on their own.
“The response has been very positive,” says Kevin, saying Kookabuk Shares His Shovel has received great reviews, and was recently chosen by the University of South Florida faculty as its “Book of the Month.”
In April, to celebrate Autism Awareness Month, Kevin worked with the Youth Basketball League of Florida to put on an event called, “It’s Kool to be Kooky.” He says the event brought in a lot of sponsorships — including from the Miami Heat and AND1 basketball footwear and clothing company.
The event raised $1,301, which was donated to Focus Academy, a Hillsborough County magnet school for students with special needs, where Seth currently attends.