Meet the author/illustrator putting children with special needs at the center of her picture books

Kristen Guay
Author/illustrator Samantha Cotterill

It is not easy to find books where children with sensory processing disorder, autism, or other forms of neurodiversity are reflected. But in the Little Senses series, author/illustrator Samantha Cotterill touches on sensory sensitivities, overstimulation, and friendship. We caught up with the mom of two, who is currently working on her fourth book for the series. 

Your series for Little Senses features children with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and autism, yet you decided not to give the characters in your books these labels. Why? 

The books are purposefully void of any labels that might otherwise turn away a reader who needs it most. Some kids who are reluctant to open up and talk about their diagnoses may be resistant to reading a book with stated labels, and miss an opportunity to see characters with similar mindsets successfully navigate situations. By eliminating labels I can hopefully connect with more kids that either share all or some of the traits seen in the book. Keeping the interpretation open allows more kids to see themselves in these characters. 

Your books show parents’ patience, and even creativity, in helping their children navigate trying something new or going to a special place for the first time. Why was it important to show this? 

I wanted to show the positive effects a gentle and loving support system can have when stressors present themselves. As hard as it can be sometimes, staying calm helps kids navigate through the stressful obstacles with more ease, resulting in a quicker resolution. With the dialogue itself, it was important to keep everything short and to the point. Every word has weight and meaning, and finding the exact words to best express characters' voices often took weeks at a time. ​Speaking as someone with Asperger's and having those close to me on the spectrum as well, I know first hand how much "less" can be "more." 

What do you think a neurodivergent child is thinking when they see themselves mirrored in a book? 

Seeing a character just like oneself takes away feelings of estrangement and replaces them with the sense of belonging. One of the most incredible outcomes of publishing the first two books has been the heartwarming letters I've received from care-givers, relatives, and kids.  

What kind of feedback have you gotten?

One parent wrote, "as we got to reading my son sat still, paid attention, didn't blurt out, and at one point looked at me with wide, excited eyes because the boy in the book was almost an exact replica of our last trip to the beach." The fact that this boy was able to recognize himself, and see the main character "win" is huge and why I wrote Little Senses. Add to that the catalyst for a conversation between parent/sibling/and child, and you have an outcome of understanding and appreciation for how these kids often view the world. 

In This Beach Is Loud! the illustrations showed how sounds (bells, seagulls squawking, planes, etc.) impacted the child. The sound words were in large, jagged print all over the page and the boy was clearly upset. How do you approach illustrating your books? 

​Putting my younger-self in this child's shoes helped set the stage for his emotions and reactions throughout the story. In the scene mentioned, the main character is at his maximum of sensory overload, and at the verge of going into meltdown. I tried to visually create a clashing whirlwind of sounds with words surrounding him in a claustrophobic manner, overlapping in colors and increasing in sound and boldness to magnify the sound. The father remains calm and positive while encouraging his son to keep practicing the self-calming tools during this overwhelming moment. 

How do you think these stories can be used to educate other children and their parents about neurodivergent children?

It’s my goal to have this series accessible to any child in school that needs to connect with a character who understands the common struggles for children on the spectrum or with sensitivities/anxieties in general. These books have a lighthearted approach to handling overwhelming moments and can be a tool for teachers to raise awareness and understanding for others, ultimately creating an atmosphere of compassion and support. Beyond the classroom, bringing the books home can help start a conversation between parents, children and their siblings. 

Do you want to share any thoughts on the fourth book for the Little Senses series? ​

Book number four is currently "under construction," but will address the challenges that can come with unexpected change. This one is still quite early on in the writing process, and I myself am looking forward to seeing where this story will go! 

What other topics would you like to address in your books?

The response has been nothing short of amazing, especially when it comes to hearing directly from both parents and children about the positive impact these books have had on their lives. All those late nights banging my head trying to get the words to be "just right" were so worth the effort. These first four stories just touch the surface of the topics yet to explore, and should Little Senses continue, I would love to turn the tables, so to speak, and introduce points of perspective from family members, such as younger or older siblings.