Ch. E: Therapy Dog Needs Therapy (last revised 1/23/21)

Chapter E (Therapy Dog Needs Therapy) was completed and posted 12/31/2020. Ch. E tackles issues such as therapy animals, race, obedience, training, boundaries, confidence, friendship and how each of these relates to its Autistic characters — rodent, human and (in this chapter) canine. While a dog met Aspie Mouse’s forebear in a comic written when the author was about 13, this version’s plot is all-new.

Notes for Chapter E, “Therapy Dog Needs Therapy”

While the focus of this graphic novel is a mouse with Autism — so humans are usually secondary — Chapter E is a bit more focused on a human girl who also has Autism (Desiree a/k/a Deedee) and how her interactions with animals — first her dog, then Aspie Mouse — improve her confidence. Because Emma is a therapy dog, the topic of therapy animals for Autistic people is a theme. And because Desiree’s family is Black, issues of race, racial inequality and immigration in American society are touched upon — albeit not in depth, as race is incidental to the story line: the mother-daughter duo could be of any race, though details specific to these folks’ ethnicity enhance the story in the author’s view.

I’m trying to strike a balance: I have people — and animals — of different ethnicities, races, religions and abilities throughout this work. On the one hand, I put them in situations that could be played by characters with other backgrounds by changing a few details; on the other hand, those details allow the author to celebrate elements of diversity that fit these characters particularly well.

For example, in Ch. C, Mr. Nakamura, being Japanese-American, has reactions framed by his family’s internment during WW II. The lessons and wisdom he got from that treatment later affects the climactic scene near the end of Chapter G, having passed that wisdom on to his former cat, Brilli. Similarly, the lady professor in Chapters A & H, as an immigrant (could be from anywhere, but it works nicely that she’s from a Spanish-speaking country) — and a linguist — learned to speak English with unusual clarity, a trait that materially affects how things play out.

Then, in this chapter E, Cheryl Jean explains to Bobby why she’s taken her husband’s Haitian last name: to get rid of her “slave master” maiden name! The author personally knows Haitians, and first names are indeed popular there as last names (as to why, I’ve speculated!). There’s a history lesson here as well — Haiti was second only to the U. S. in the Western Hemisphere in declaring its independence from Europe, but unlike in the U. S., Haiti was freed by a slave rebellion.

What I didn’t realize — until I’d already plotted out this chapter and started putting it in panels — was that Desiree or Deedee is really a stand-in for my own mother Elsie in terms of personality. Born of two Swedish immigrants, my mother loved to draw as a child (wanted to go to art school, but for the Great Depression) and continued being artistic throughout her life (mostly with clothing/ fabrics), but was painfully shy (even as an adult), saying very little, and in retrospect clearly had ADD (no H!) and Asperger’s-level Autism. I will likely dedicate the second volume of the Aspie Mouse graphic novel series to her.

This first volume will remain dedicated to the older brother Karl of my life-long friend Keith — and then to Keith. Karl died tragically young (early 20’s) of a drug overdose (the OTHER pandemic!), but I best knew him as a brilliant cartoonist in early adolescence. How else did that Black Witherspoon family influence this chapter? Well, the boys both took dad’s “long slave master name,” as he indeed was descended from Southern U. S. slaves. And their mom was essentially an immigrant from the West Indies — for her, the U. S. Virgin Islands. In 6th Grade, I wrote an essay on who I’d like to be if I couldn’t be me — and I chose Keith, because as an only child, I envied the way he and his older brother played out the stories they created in their comics in their shared bedroom.

Desiree probably becomes more assertive, and abandons the need for her therapy dog to be a therapy dog, a bit too quickly — a Hollywood-style ending — while my mother (her “model”) stayed quiet to the end of her life. But it makes for a good story and good material for a class or parent-child discussion. And besides, what my mother did throughout her life — while only rarely speaking up for herself — was to pick confident, assertive, verbal female friends who loved and appreciated her so much. Wish I’d realized how much of my mother’s good traits I’d inherited before her death!

When the Coppola family returns as Desiree’s grandparents are flying back to Haiti, everyone notices that Desiree is no longer quiet. The question that hangs in the air is: will Desiree continue to have Emma, or — since she no longer judges she “needs” Emma as a therapy dog — will she “gift” her to another family needing a therapy dog? The answer will come in Chapter G.

Some good discussions could come from questions around the race/ immigrant issues touched on in this chapter. One would be whether the house-sitting family situation should have eliminated the race component or made the background of the house-sitters more unclear. A second would be how realistic is the situation, given the scarcity of mixed-race friendships and neighborhoods in the U.S. in general? One might even ask: is it realistic to portray a “middle class” Haitian family flying to the U.S. for a vacation (though it’s not clear who paid the airfare), given all the barriers being put up to visitors from particular countries in recent years — especially Haitians — and the country’s widespread poverty? My friend Keith made several visits to Haiti earlier in his adult life.

Besides issues of race and the use of therapy animals, this is the first chapter where Aspie Mouse admits to feeling “lonely” at times without any real “friends” (at least with Bobby gone, and without any possible romantic feelings being mixed in). As loneliness is often a big issue for many with Autism, questions for this chapter cover friendship and play. The topic of “what is friendship?” and its relationship to loneliness comes up again in each chapter that follows (F, G, H & I).

Questions for Thought/ Discussion: Ch. E, “Therapy Dog Needs Therapy”

E 1: Bobby and Desiree’s brother DeShawn seem to be good friends — at least in school. Yet a recent study found that while 40% of the U.S. population in 2020 was other than non-Hispanic white, only 25% of white adults in the U.S. had someone who is of another race or mixed race as a member of their inner circle — close friend or relative that they regularly see, share meals with, etc.

a. What reasons might account for why so few white Americans know even one non-white person whom they’d consider among their closest friends or relatives?

b. Given the issues people of color in general — and Black people in particular — face living in a majority-white country with a history of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, etc., what additional concerns might they have if they also have Autism Spectrum traits (knowing it or not)? How might that influence if/ how they’re diagnosed as well as treated? How much of that have you experienced or witnessed?

E 2:  Desiree (Deedee) has Emma as a therapy dog to reduce anxiety. Anxiety is nearly universal in people of all ages with all degrees of Autism (Anxiety is referenced also in following questions below for this chapter, as well as questions in other following chapters).

a. Do you or did you have a therapy animal yourself? If not, do you know someone who does? If you haven’t had one, do you wish you did? Are you jealous of someone else’s therapy animal?

b. If you have a therapy animal — or if you don’t, but wish you did — what does it, or would you imagine it would help you do?

c. Have you experienced having a regular house pet (dog, cat, etc.) help you in some way, even if it’s not an official therapy animal?

d. Is there an issue where you live that gets in the way of having the pet you’d want?

e. Cheryl (Desiree’s mom) says Aspie Mouse is Bobby’s therapy animal. In what ways is that true? In what ways is Aspie Mouse not a therapy animal?

E 3:  On page E3, Cheryl Jean makes the observation that while both Bobby and Desiree (Deedee) both have IEP’s (probably for Autism), Bobby has “no filter” for what he says, while Deedee hardly ever says a word. Autism is described as a condition of opposites, where different people tend to one extreme or another. For the following situations, which side do you fall on? Is it one extreme or the other, or for some characteristics, are you really in the middle? Ask someone who knows you well if they agree with you, especially for any where you believe you’re in the middle.

a. I say whatever comes in my head (no filter) OR I hardly ever say much (don’t want any trouble)

b. I’m always asking a lot of questions OR Even when I don’t understand, I don’t ask questions.

c. I speak in a monotone, with little expression OR I’m overly dramatic, as if always on stage

d. I prefer being alone or with those younger  OR Some people intrigue me, so I almost stalk them

e. I’m very picky when it comes to food  OR I’ll eat just about anything

f. Touching other people mostly annoys me OR  I really crave physical touching

g. I’m really passionate about politics  OR  I usually avoid political discussions

h. I love watching sports on TV or live  OR  I don’t watch sports on TV

i. I love playing sports, at least one  OR  I don’t really like doing sports – or exercise

j.  I’m pretty messy; don’t pick up enough OR I’m a neat freak – everything in place

k. I usually only take baths or showers when reminded OR I shower/ bathe daily at least

l. I’m always moving: flapping, swaying, fidgeting OR I stay still so as not to stand out

E 4: (Following up from E 3) Bobby & Aspie Mouse talk/ ask questions a lot; Deedee says little.

a. If you have Autism, do you say a lot and ask a lot of questions, or do you avoid saying much or asking questions even when you are unsure what’s going on, or are you in-between? If you don’t have Autism, what do you usually do when you have thoughts swirling around in your head? Or don’t you have that experience?

b. If you talk a lot/ ask a lot of questions, are you aware that talking/ asking lowers your anxiety in the moment? Has “no filter” caused problems for you afterwards? What has it cost you? How have you been told you might lessen such problems/ costs? Has any of these “solutions” worked?

c. If you tend to keep your mouth closed — even when you have plenty to say, or at least plenty of thoughts swirling around in your head — and don’t ask questions — even when you really aren’t sure what you’re supposed to do, or have serious concerns — what’s stopping you? Is it anxiety/ fear? What are you afraid what would happen if you spoke/ asked? Is it what happens to those from 6 b who say/ ask too much? What can/ do you do to overcome your silence when speaking/ asking is really called for?

E 5: Aspie Mouse says he feels “lonely” in the house now that Bobby is gone and the new animal there (Emma) seems to just ignore him. (Variations of this question also occur elsewhere)

a. Do you find it easy or difficult to make friends? If easy, why do you think that is? If difficult, is it due to: being quiet (introverted); having Autism; some other reason?

b. Do you always wait for someone else to ask first to do something/ be a friend, etc., or do you find you do most of the asking? If you hesitate asking someone to play, do you fear being rejected?

c. Do you have a lot of friends, just a few, just one good one, or none? Are you satisfied with the number you have? Are you satisfied with how truly honest you can be with at least one friend?

d. What do you do with your friends? What would you like to do with friends that you don’t do? If you have friends but don’t do what you’d like to do, why is that?

e. Aspie Mouse seems upset because Emma just doesn’t respond — rather than either going along (as all cats we’ve met so far have done, at least when awake, in chasing him) or rejecting him directly. Do you think AM sees the lack of response as being rejected? Do you think it’s the same if it happens to you? Are you able to ask “Why not?” and accept whatever answer is given as a gift?

f. Do you find it easier to have a friend of the same gender/ orientation as yourself or is it harder? What makes it either easier or harder — or do you make sure to avoid making friends with someone you may find attractive as a possible partner? (Questions 5 g, h & i continue on this theme)

g. Aspie Mouse is not eager to consider #83 as a friend who could help reduce his loneliness. Why do you think that is? What could #83 offer to do — and/ or not do — that would likely make AM more willing to spend time with her?

h. (Following from g) Do you think this difference in what AM and #83 want to do with each other would also apply to a situation where you and someone could either (or both) be a friend — to play with, have adventures with, hang around with, etc. — and/ or also a potential romantic partner? Might “moving too fast” on the romantic side have anything to do with losing (or never getting) that person as a friend?

i. (Following from h:) Do you see AM and #83 as doing a “role reversal?” That is, do you believe — as the author does — that it’s usually the male in a male-female pairing who tries being romantic “too soon” for the other? Or is that not your experience or expectation? If it’s usually the male who tries being romantic too soon, is that due to “nature” or society’s expectations?

E 6: Desiree and Bobby’s grandparents live very far away (have to fly), so they don’t see them often.

a. Do you have one or more grandparent(s) who live close by or even at your home? Do you see them frequently? Do you feel close to this/ these grandparent(s)? Why or why not?

b. Do you have one or more grandparent(s) who live far away? How often do you see them (if at all)? Do you feel close to this/ these grandparent(s) despite infrequent visits? Why or why not?

c. Do you have one or more grandparent(s) that you’ve never met? Is that because s/he/ they are no longer living or for another reason? From what you’ve been told, do you wish you could have met them?

d. Do you have other adult family members you feel close to in some way — aunt(s), uncle(s), cousin(s)? Is any a helpful resource other than your parents when you are dealing with feelings, problems or decisions in your life? If not, what kind of aunt/ uncle/ cousin do you wish you had?

E 7: Have you ever been in the position Desiree (Deedee) finds herself in at the end of the chapter — “losing” a friend (human or pet!) — to someone else?

a. If yes, what were the circumstances that led to the human or pet friend choosing to spend more time with another person rather than you? How did that make you feel?

b. If no, what does the thought of what happened to Deedee in this chapter — Emma ending up playing more with Aspie Mouse and spending less time with her — bring up for you?

c. What do you think of Deedee’s attitude about “losing Emma” — that she didn’t need a therapy dog anymore? Would you be able to “let go” as easily as Deedee does (or at least so it seems)? What have you done or would you likely do in this situation — to try to win the friend back; to crawl into a shell; to seek another friend; to get “revenge”? What response(s) do you think would most help your own well-being (even if it’s not the one you did or would likely do)?

d. What do you think about Cheryl (Deedee’s mom) seemingly so happy that Deedee found her voice that she seems not angry, but grateful, for what Aspie Mouse did? And similarly, Cheryl seems OK with Emma’s response to what Aspie Mouse did — even grateful? What do you think you’d do if you were Cheryl and what happened in this chapter happened to a child of yours?

e. Based on what Gloria Coppola says on the last page, how do you think she’d have reacted if what happened to Deedee had happened instead to Claire? Do you think Gloria’s attitude would be different (more like Cheryl’s) if she wasn’t operating as a landlord — asking Cheryl to take care of Bobby’s “pet mouse” while they were house-sitting — and thus feeling embarrassed when that AM caused “trouble”?

E 8: Per Question A 7: a list of common Autism traits, followed by two questions related to them:

  1. No eye contact
  2. Sensory sensitivity: noise, certain lights, smells & touch
  3. Voice Volume, Repetition & Variability
  4. Stimming (repetitive body or hand movements)
  5. Anxiety (fear) of social situations: responses of fight, flight or freeze
  6. Over-sensitivity: over-reaction or no visible reaction (mistaken as not caring)
  7. Pattern-seeking/ solving problems in unique ways
  8. Special Interest(s)
  9. Love routine/ dislike change
  10. Lack of Social Understanding
  11. Can’t remember names or faces, read body language etc.
  12. Not Showing or Over-showing Feelings
  13. Don’t Understand Jokes
  14. Difficulty getting & keeping friends, relationships & jobs
  15. Difficulty feeling safe, really trusting others
  16. Sharing one’s diagnosis — should I or not? When & where?

a. Which of these characteristics can you identify that Aspie Mouse or another Autistic rodent or human character exhibits in this chapter — either negative or positive? How about a non-autistic character? Feel free to skip any characteristic already answered in chapter-specific questions above.

b. Do you find examples in this chapter of cats or other non-rodent animals acting Autistic? If yes, how?

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