How one UAE author is spreading autism awareness through a children’s book series

Michele Ziolkowski was inspired by her son to pen the stories

Abu Dhabi, April 17, 2019.  Michele Ziolkowski has written a sequel to a fictional story about her Autistic son Suhail and his superpowers. -- Portrait of Michele and her son Suhail at Qasr Al Hosn where the book takes place.  
Victor Besa/The National 
Section:  BZ 
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias

An autistic child whose heroic actions take him to Qasr Al Hosn is the subject of a new children’s book.

Suhail's Abu Dhabi Adventure will launch at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which runs until Tuesday.

Written by Michele Ziolkowski, an archaeologist and naturalised Emirati, she was inspired by her son to pen the book. "Our children with autism will grow up to be adults with autism and it's so important that the community embraces them," she says. "Inclusion is a great word, but we need to make sure they grow up to have an understanding of what inclusion means. If you engage an audience, children will grow up with that sort of awareness."

The book is a sequel to The Boy Who Knew the Mountains, which tells the story of Suhail banished from his tribe, who uses his abilities to help a girl in the mountains of Fujairah.

In Suhail's Abu Dhabi Adventure, the character travels to the emirate of Abu Dhabi, where he sails from Al Maqta to the island village of Umm al Nar and the town of Abu Dhabi.

The series parallels the journey of Ziolkowski’s son Suhail, who is 12 and moved with his family from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi in 2014 to attend school. Like the hero of the series, he has a great sense of navigation, but at times is misunderstood.

"The decision was made basically because Suhail was home for six months," she explains. "There was no place for him within the school system."

In this book, readers learn more about Suhail's experience with autism. In one scene, a sailor asks why he avoids eye contact. In another, he displays his ability to connect with animals.

The book also includes ­several of Abu Dhabi's ­historical and archaeology sites. This was a given for Ziolkowski, who completed her PhD on Fujairah's ­petroglyphs, and for illustrator Susanna ­Billson, an architect and ­illustrator of archaeological digs.

"Michele sent me quite a few old photographs of the area, and it was really fun to pore over the pictures and ask myself how to weave them into the illustrations," Billson says. "What was it like in the old souk in Abu Dhabi? What type of buildings lined the waterfront? What was the atmosphere like? … It felt like a big responsibility to try to represent the people and their lives and reveal it to the children of today."

Billson has known Suhail since he was a child. "I wanted the illustrations to be true to the spirit of Suhail. While the word autism doesn't appear in the book, I wanted to show some small part of how he moves through the world. With the illustrations, this meant details such as showing him placing his hands on to rock carvings, running his hands through the water, sifting sand through his fingers, running through the waves at the shoreline with his hands out to feel the breeze, looking down or past or away rather than making eye contact."

<span>If you engage an audience, children will grow up with that sort of awareness</span>

Awareness has improved since the first book was ­published in 2016, but at talks Ziolkowski found most children are still not aware of autism or autism spectrum disorder. "I notice it when I'm out and about with Suhail. You do sometimes still get people who stare and don't understand. I'm more than happy to answer questions. It's all about opening up a dialogue. It's the only way we're all going to learn and understand."

Ali Al Shaali, owner and chief executive of Hudhud Publishing, describes Suhail's Abu Dhabi Adventure as "an Emirati book". "On the human level, it was a project that I couldn't miss," he says. "On a technical level, it's well written, well illustrated and it's what the Emirati reader should see; his country, his heritage, the nature of the country. Currently, most children's books are translated books from Europe, however, the people in them don't look like us. This book looks like us."

Ziolkowski has begun work on the third book in the series, while the real-life Suhail is currently being filmed for a documentary by Khadija Al Kudsi. 

He is sometimes recognised in public, but fame has not gone to his head. "Suhail is a caring, kind and happy child," his mother says. "He is smart, cheeky and has a fun sense of humour. Suhail knows the books were written for him and are about him. But they haven't affected him and his outlook. Suhail just sees the world for what it is. There's no pretension."