A Century High School junior with autism was used to her routine and the comfort of knowing what each day would entail. But because of school closure and other measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19, her world is now filled with frustration and uncertainty as she adapts to a 24/7 life at home.
To help her understand this new normal, Deborah Brusio’s family, who lives in Sykesville, created a comic book in which she is the central figure, “Debbie Fights Coronavirus,” that they hope will “edutain” anyone with autism.
“It’s a tangible form of what is a popular term being used now, ‘edutainment,’ and that is educating people and entertaining them at the same time; that’s the model for ‘Debbie Fights Coronavirus,’" said Vincent Brusio, Deborah’s father. "It’s portable, it’s full of color, it’s a PDF format so it can be seen on any plane, any tablet any computer because of the universal application.”
Vincent was in charge of publishing the comic book, his wife Julie used her teaching background to edit and oversee production and their son Joseph, who attends Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, helped with the artwork.
The comic went live on March 31 on Pathfinders for Autism website’s coronavirus page and after some marketing, it will also be on Autism Speaks website and the Facebook page for the Carroll County Public Library’s Eldersburg branch, Vincent said.
Deborah was the perfect model for the comic book, Vincent said, because of her facial expressions.
“Comments we’ve been getting from people and, particularly with Autism Speaks, said they’ve really liked how well Deb models for the book because people with autism respond a lot to facial expressions,” he said. “Deb’s really good at creating a variety of different faces that we were able to use for the comic, everything from fear to exhaustion to determination to being inquisitive to shock value, she’s really good at expressing a lot of different facial expressions.
"That really comes across, especially on the cover where she’s standing with her fist in the air, all defiant with my son’s coronavirus bug coming at her full tilt.”
Debbie was diagnosed with autism when she was 3 years old. She also has a trained ear for the piano, although she isn’t always inclined to take requests, according to Julie.
Julie hopes this book helps others reconcile what his going on during this confusing time.
“I really hope that this book helps kids understand that even though they’re at home and their normal routines have altogether stopped, that it brings them an understanding of other things they can do in place of those normal routines,” said Julie. “And that it’s OK to be upset at this time and frustrated because it is an incredibly hard and frustrating time for everybody and it’s normal to have to be upset. So I just hope that brings some comfort and it helps to support their understanding of what’s going on.”
Debbie enjoyed participating in the comic book amid all the uncertainty while staying at home, her father said.
"She really likes doing what she can, I mean it takes a while to get everything done because you can only do so much in a short period of time,” said Vincent. “Yes, she’s very open to doing something like this, she’s really, really good to work with.”
A realtor now, Vincent used his 23-year career in the comic book industry to teach his daughter things like social distancing.
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“Creating social stories to help her came naturally to me because people with autism, they think in pictures, they process ideas in pictures rather than words,” said Vincent. “So, putting together social stories to help her along came natural to me.
"She was having a very difficult time trying to understand why she couldn’t go back to the life that she had because of social distancing and things like that. School was closed and she was having a very hard time trying to understand why her life was turned upside down. So, I started originally creating a social story using images off the internet. But then when I started putting it together, I thought, this might be something that could be put online for other people to use as well.”
According to Vincent, Debbie hasn’t read the finished product because she has to take it in bit by bit and process it, but he hopes to make a video of her reading it to post online.
Julie said she was excited when Vincent came up with the idea to teach Debbie with a comic book that could help others but had initial concerns.
“So, my reaction when my husband first told me about his idea was I thought it was a really great idea,” said Julie. “My concern was that if he grabbed images that he might run into issues with copyright. And so that’s when he thought, ‘Well, let’s use Debbie as the model and that way, it’s a story for her.’
"And then it spoke to a general audience instead of being like, a typical social story for kids where when you have a typical social story for people with disabilities, it’s written in the first person. Since this was written in the third person, it’s really, it’s really great for anybody, including small children to understand what’s going on.”