Superman. Batman. Spiderman—oh, and don’t forget Clark, hero of It’s Not Easy Being a Superhero (Pink Umbrella Books, 2019). If author and mother of three Kelli Call has anything to say about it, you’ll put Clark in the pantheon of superheroes too.
No, not Clark Kent. This Clark is a hero of a different sort: a child with Sensory Processing Disorder whose five superpowers—super hearing, super sight, super smell, super taste, and super feeling—can sometimes be a little overwhelming. But with the help of his trusty sidekicks, Clark learns to cope and take down bullies like Igor Ance. Call’s book, dynamically illustrated by Tony Pham, helps family members, friends, teachers and caregivers to understand the world of Sensory Processing Disorder as seen through the eyes of a child.
What misconceptions about Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism do you hope to counteract with this book?
Kelli: I think the most common misconception I am running into is that people don’t even know what Sensory Processing Disorder is, but they do know about Autism, to a point. Many people don’t realize that SPD and Autism aren’t mutually exclusive. One does not equal another. Also, people that are unfamiliar with SPD (both children and adults alike) can be unable to tell the difference between a sensory meltdown and a temper tantrum. There is a lot of judging and misunderstanding that goes on in the grocery store, church, and on playdates when a child has a sensory meltdown. With this book, I’m hoping to educate not just parents and teachers, but these children’s peers, and the strangers who might witness a meltdown and, because of the book, be more empathetic to the child and their caregivers.
Talk about your main character, Clark. How did you make him relatable not only to kids who live with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, but also to kids who have relatively little contact with the Clarks of the world?
Kelli: Like nearly every little boy, superheroes and their powers to defeat bad guys is how the main character, Clark, relates to readers, parents, and teachers alike. Anyone who has been around little boys or children in general for any amount of time can see just how admired superheroes are. Showing Clark’s optimistic struggle with superpowers helps anyone reading the book to understand how sometimes life can be a challenge that we as outsiders might not always perceive. Many of the events that happen in the book actually happened in one form or another in the lives of my two sons who have this disorder.
Characters on the Autism spectrum are beginning to achieve visibility in the media—like Abed in Community, or Shawn Murphy in The Good Doctor. What does the media get right about these special people? What do they get wrong?
Kelli: I think that it is great that there is a lot more inclusion and awareness about Autism than there used to be. People are learning that Autism doesn’t have to be some kind of tragic life sentence. Instead, people with differences are being seen as positive contributors to society. When looking at the portrayal of Autistic characters in the entertainment business, like in The Good Doctor, or Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, there are some things that they get right—for example, the lack of or problems with forced eye contact, the nervous or fidgety hand gestures, the body rocking, and aversion to certain sensory stimuli and general anxiety that most Autistic children and adults face on a daily basis. However, I have noticed that in the entertainment business they also make Autistic characters these superhuman geniuses. I have had people ask me about what my son is “super smart at”, because apparently if you have Autism you are also supposed to be brilliant in math, or something else—when really, in my experience, most autistic people are just people with their own talents and struggles, just like anybody else.
What children’s books inspired you growing up?
Kelli: When I was really little, I remember having large fairy tale encyclopedia books that I read over and over. I loved the pictures most of all and have loved children’s picture books ever since. As I got a little older, I loved (and still do) anything by Roald Dahl, but especially Matilda. His books show just how smart and underestimated children are. They gave me a sense of empowerment as a kid that I hope this picture book can do for others.
What inspired this book? Where did the idea for this come from?
Kelli: I have seen the entire spectrum of SPD, both with and without Autism attached. It has given me the perspective of just what these kids go through on a daily basis. Funny enough, Clark is actually a combination of my own two sons that both have Sensory Processing Disorder. My son, Clark, is on the Autism spectrum, whereas his brother is not, yet both have this disorder. Clark’s experiences in the book were based on events that have happened to both of my sons throughout their lives. The concept of superpowers came from my boys being obsessed with superheroes when they were little and how almost every child can relate to that in some way, making this story more relevant.
Kelli Call grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas, where she passed the time by reading books and making up stories. As an adult, not much has changed. Although she no longer lives in Kansas, you can almost always find her reading a book or writing one.
She graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies and a minor in English.
She is a wife and a mother of three children, two of whom have Sensory Processing Disorder.