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By Sarah Watts

For Kids with Special Needs, Creating Comics Helps Communication

Sharon Eilts, a special education teacher in Sunnyvale, CA, has given her low-functioning students, some of whom have autism or intellectual disabilities, a creative outlet that helps them communicate and deal with social problems: They make comic books.

Comic strip made by student
Comic strip created at MakeBeliefsComix by one of Sharon Eilts' students who was being bullied. Courtesy

Eilts' students are integrated into the middle school and have lunch with other students and participate with them, when appropriate, in electives like physical education as well as regular academic classes. But, she says, "sometimes they would come back to the classroom and misbehave. They'd be grumpy or noncooperative, when normally they're low-key and easygoing, and I wouldn't understand why.

"Communicating is a huge challenge for these kids," says Eilts. "Even if they can talk about things, when it involves feelings, it's not easy."

Then Eilts discovered MakeBeliefs Comix, a website that provides templates for creating comic strips, and she introduced it to her students as a communication tool. "I had the kids make three- or four-panel comics and put in characters and speech bubbles, and they'd type in the words," Eilts says. "That's when I learned that the kids were being bullied, or they were frustrated they couldn't do something their peers could do. There were all kinds of things they had to confront that they couldn't talk about, but they could write about it using a cartoon."

Eilts also approached the school's administrators to stop the bullying, and she used the comics to teach all students how to navigate socially. "As soon as kids would misbehave, I'd invite them to create a comic and tell me about it. The cartoons allowed students to feel safe describing their experiences."

MakeBeliefsComix has been used by social workers in Germany to teach German to Syrian refugee children and help them express the trauma they experienced in leaving their country. Inspiration for the website came from its founder Bill Zimmerman's own childhood. Zimmerman says immersing himself in the world of comics was an escape from his "stormy" and dysfunctional family life. Ever since he learned to read by sounding out the words in the "funnies" section of the Sunday paper, he had his nose in a comic book, reading other artists' work and creating his own.

"I didn't feel like I had a voice when I was a kid," says Zimmerman, now 78, a journalist and former editor at Newsday, a Long Island, NY, newspaper. "The comics I write come from trying to help other people, especially children, find their voice. I wanted to reinforce to children that their opinions are valuable and should be shared with other people."

While at Newsday, Zimmerman created interactive comics for the newspaper with the help of illustrator Tom Bloom. The comics, which he called Make Beliefs, posed questions to readers and asked them to respond to the editors. After Zimmerman retired in 2004 and began teaching English as a second language (as a volunteer), he launched MakeBeliefsComix in the hope that it could help his students better grasp the concepts he was teaching.

Site users make their own comics panel by panel, adding characters, objects, speech bubbles, and backgrounds from a selection on the website and inserting their own words. "Part of my goal was to create an activity that might bring families closer together while having fun. But it was also a way to teach language skills and encourage reading and writing," he says.

As more people came to the website for educational and therapeutic purposes, Zimmerman added a special needs section that includes ideas for helping those with autism, physical disabilities, or head trauma. "Comics characters are enjoyable to look at and explore, and I want people to have fun and create a story that's an empowering experience," he says.

Today, Zimmerman is working on an e-book that prompts people to write down their blessings. "I have liver cancer right now, and treatment is difficult," he says. "When I go in for chemotherapy every two weeks, I write to find strength to deal with the treatment. I write words of comfort, courage, and gratefulness about what's going on in my own life. Asking questions and finding a way to express myself is how I cope with problems. You might say I live in a fantasy world to some extent, but that's what helps me."

With his e-book and website, Zimmerman hopes the fantasy world of comics will help others, too.