Autistic Teen Featured As Comic Book Hero

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In the Face Value comic book series, the hero is a middle-schooler with autism who will explore basic human emotions in four issues. 


Imagine Earth in 2072: Aliens have invaded the planet and deemed humans dangerously emotional, causing a war between the flat-faced villain Dr. Mobius and Michael, a middle-school-age boy.

Michael must battle through social pressures, misunderstanding and bullying on his way to understanding the emotions of other people and himself. Using science and a little help from his robotic therapeutic support staff, T.E.S.S., he will come closer to emotional discovery.

As the main hero in the steampunk-noir comic book series, Face Value Comics, he’s a bit different from most: Michael is autistic. And that is unheard of in the world of comics, said founder Dave Kot of Dover Township.



Michael is a young hero with autism in a comic book by Face Value founder Dave Kot of Dover Township. 


“We’re the first and only comic book to feature an autistic hero,” he said. “Our main hero has autism, and it’s OK.”

The concept: Kot founded Face Value two years ago, and it aims to provide both entertainment and education about emotional understanding in social situations to young readers and their families, he said.

“Everyone can learn more about emotions,” Kot, 38, said. He added that the social lessons weaved into the story are designed for everyone — not just people with autism or comic book enthusiasts.

Using comic books as a teaching tool, the concept implements a newer science, psychologist Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System, to explain the nuances of communication in a simple way, he said. Kot has a close family member with autism and is a therapist certified in FACS who has worked with many autistic clients, he said.

The system categorizes human emotions based on facial muscle pulls and says there are seven basic emotions.

The comic book series, which is still in production, will consist of four 16-to-22-page issues exploring happiness, sadness, anger and fear.

The happiness issue will address how to make genuine friendships, and the sadness issue will cover issues like grief and rejection,

Kot said. The anger issue will tackle bullying and peer pressure, and the fear issue will help kids plan for tests and sudden changes. A fifth basic emotion, surprise, will be peppered throughout those issues.That leaves two emotions: contempt and disgust, which will be combined into a special edition that explores villain Dr. Mobius’ backstory. He is named after a syndrome that prevents one from displaying emotion.

Who it’s for: Although the comic books will specifically address autism and understanding emotion, they’re not confined to one specific audience, said Face Value business manager Jeremy Flickinger, 25, of Warrington Township.



“In my opinion, anyone with any level of autism can learn and utilize this,” he said.

The series will be aimed toward those of middle-school age and be as close to G- or PG-rated as possible, with a minimal level of violence, Kot said. The team is also considering the possibilities of adult-themed material in the future, he said.

The two are passionate about their mission and have pushed the thought of money aside, he said.

“The people on our team are willing to go without financial compensation to see our dream come alive,” Kot said.

So far, word is spreading: The company’s fanbase on Facebook hit 250 likes in just under a month, he said.

“It’s growing, and it’s exciting,” he said.

Flickinger agreed.  “Why not teach the world this?” he said.

Local support: As the Face Value team prepares to publish its first issue, it has connected with local comic book stores about its cause, Kot said.

Comix Connection in West Manchester Township plans to put the comics on its shelves once production is finished, said manager Jared Wolf.

“I think it’s a really nice, original idea,” he said.

The unprecedented concept could stretch across readership demographics, Wolf said.

“Since there hasn’t been a superhero with autism before, it will open people’s minds about autism and let them know about it in a fun way,” he said. “I think families (affected by) autism might also have interest in the book.”

Comic Store West in Springettsbury Township also supports the endeavor, both because the series is about autism and because the creators are local, said manager Scott Koehler.

“We are going to have it here for sale once it’s finished,” he said. “It’s very interesting.”

Kot, Flickinger and their small team of artists have worked long hours on the series and hope to raise the money to produce the issues as soon as possible, they said.

“I am deeply moved and cry almost daily at the responses others freely give me about this project,” Kot said. “So I feel exceptionally responsible for providing a quality product in the shortest amount of time.”

— Reach Mollie Durkin at

How to help

Face Value Comics is seeking support as it begins production of its four-part comic book series.

To donate to the cause, visit For volunteer opportunities, contact Dave Kot at or Jeremy Flickinger at


Drumming To A Rhythm All His Own

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Ian Engelsman, 12, plays the drums in his family's home in Vancouver on Thursday. Ian plays as a form of therapy for his autism.

Ask Ian Engelsman his musical inspirations, and he’ll give you an earful.

Dokken, Slaughter, Skid Row and Twisted Sister. White Lion, W.A.S.P., Judas Priest and, his mother’s favorite, Pink Floyd. He doesn’t care much for The Who. And, did you know, nearly all of the songs on The Outfield‘s album featuring their hit, “Your Love,” are only about 3 minutes long?

Ask Ian about his bright blue Ludwig drum set, and he’ll explain the different types of drums. Snare. Bass. Toms.

That instrument on a stand next to him? That’s a cowbell. And the copper-spun cymbals, those are noisy percussion instruments, Ian points out.

“Playing the drums is kind of like my thing,” Ian says simply.

Five years ago, Ian didn’t speak — not even about drums. He didn’t look people in the eye. And he surely didn’t twirl drumsticks between his fingers after freestyling for visitors.


Ian is autistic, and but not for the drums, his parents say, he would still be exhibiting the behavior that made him an isolated, muted child.

“The drums, they’re like our lifeline,” said Claudia Engelsman, Ian’s mother.

Looking back, the drums have always been Ian’s “thing,” his parents said.

At age 4 — not long after receiving the autism diagnosis — Ian was like many children his age, banging on pots and pans he pulled out of kitchen cupboards, said his dad, David Engelsman.

But about three years ago, Ian started playing with other items he found in the kitchen. He retrieved empty jars and bottles, turned coffee cans upside down and wrapped paper plates in tinfoil.

Then, he played music.

“He had rhythm,” said Claudia, who studied music and played the guitar.

She bought Ian a set of cheap toy drums from the drugstore. Ian fastened his makeshift instruments to the set and kept playing.

“I told David, ‘There is something here,'” Claudia said.

That Christmas, Santa brought 9-year-old Ian his first real drum set. After that, Claudia started looking for music classes for Ian. But as soon as she mentioned her son’s autism, doors shut, she said.

“It’s the leprosy of the 21st century,” she said.

But then Claudia found Musical Beginnings in Orchards, not far from their Vancouver home. They welcomed Ian — and his autism.

After 10 minutes of playing, Ian’s teacher was pulling other teachers in to hear the 9-year-old beat on the drums.

“They said, ‘He’s a natural,'” Claudia said.

From there, Ian began to flourish.

Ian’s coordination improved. He was no longer bumping into things. He could color inside the lines.

He began talking without being prompted. He became focused. He gained self confidence.

The music classes — coupled with a school program Claudia fought hard for, one tailored to Ian’s needs — resulted in more success.

Ian stopped running from his parents. His violent episodes dissipated. His IQ jumped from 76 to 130. He earned awards, musical and academic. And two years ago, Ian learned he no longer needed occupational and physical therapy.

The drums are his therapy.

“He said, ‘Don’t ever take away the drums,'” Claudia said of Ian’s psychologist.

Ian’s success hasn’t been limited to his behavior.

Since picking up his first set of drumsticks, Ian’s playing has drawn the attention of others.

Just a few months after he began drum lessons, Ian decided to participate in his school’s talent show. He took first place.

After the talent show, the Silver Star Elementary School band teacher asked Ian to join the band.

“It was so rewarding,” Claudia said.

Since then, the offers have continued for Ian. He was given a solo act in his first recital. Middle school band teachers ushered him into their classes. And he’ll play drums with a band in the upcoming Portland Rose Festival.

The praise and recognition have helped to balance the countless times Ian was told “no,” the times he was ostracized, criticized and judged, Claudia said.

Now people are taking notice of Ian, not for his disability but his ability.

“You have no idea how many times he’s been rejected,” Claudia said. “But now, the drums have opened, maybe not other doors, but doors that offer opportunities.”

Autism As The Painter’s Muse

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Amanda McConnell

There’s little doubt that Amanda McConnell’s art has been influenced by the autism of her son, Daniel. She readily admits her show of figurative oil paintings and intaglio prints at the Marie W. Heider Center for the Arts in West Salem this month — entitled “Sense & Spirit” — was inspired by the fact that he “lives in a world where sense and spirit are inseparable.”

McConnell’s presence in West Salem can be attributed to Daniel. McConnell has lived most of her life in Hawaii and still has a home there. But the search for a place where Daniel could receive a better education led the family to relocate to the mainland and eventually to West Salem.

“We looked all over the country and eventually settled here,” she said. Daniel attended classes at the Chileda Institute in La Crosse and graduated from Logan High School.

“It was very hard to leave Hawaii and a lot of my work is reflective of that move,” McConnell said.

Her father was a painter and she grew up with the arts. There’s still a gallery back in Maui that carries her work, and she has won numerous Hawaiian art awards and commissions.

In addition, she’s illustrated children’s books and even has a commissioned sculpture at the Honolulu Zoo. Much of her work can be described as meditative, and she said there’s a solid connection between that fact and her nonverbal son.

“He’s very quiet,” she said. “In terms of autism, the senses are very acute plus very intense spiritually because they are cut off from the world in so many ways. Watching him grow up and using that as an avenue of connection has influenced how I look at things.”

About four years ago, the family had a revelation of sorts regarding Daniel. Because he was nonverbal, people didn’t think he was capable of doing much in terms of academics.

“We had him assessed and found that he was totally aware, but it’s all inside,” McConnell said. “He can’t speak but he can think and read. That was a huge life changer because we had kind of accepted the way he was. I always knew he was present, but I didn’t know how.”

Daniel now uses a typing device to communicate. He’s told the family he wants to go to college. He’s now auditing classes at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“He wants a life and he has no problem doing academics,” McConnell said. “He’s very handsome but very autistic. The big message to me is that things are not always what they seem.”

Art Lessons: One Mom’s Journey to Hope for Her Son with Autism

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“All art,” says Mia McNary, “comes out of emotion.”

As an artist and a mother, McNary has a full repertoire. She knows the joy of the accomplishments of her three children: Patrick, 13, whom she describes as a “deep thinker”; Mary Jane, 10, who is “super creative” and Colin, 12, who recently learned to tie his shoes. What would be a relatively simple feat for another child took five years of daily work for Colin, who has autism and lives in an out-of-state therapeutic residential facility for children and young adults with severe disabilities.

McNary also knows fear and worry, which she captured in a large tableau of a handsome blond boy who appears fractured like his mother’s broken heart. The painting commemorates the day she and her husband, Tim, were told of Colin’s diagnosis and given a prognosis so dire it left little room for hope. “That painting was never meant to be displayed. It’s too raw,” McNary admits. Her friends, however, insisted; the emotional honesty of it was simply too compelling.

Throughout Colin’s life, McNary has been a tireless advocate, gaining access to help and resources for her son and ultimately finding the right environment where he can obtain the support and development he needs. Moving Colin to a residential facility four years ago at the age of eight meant letting him go, but never giving up. McNary captured that moment in a painting entitled “Colin Leaves,” which features long brushstrokes that depict movement, change, and transitions to a new life and a better future.

Art is McNary’s solace and vehicle for expression. Through her studio, Masters in Art (the acronym spells her first name) in suburban Chicago, she offers a lifeline to other parents of special needs children. “My focus is on the parents because they are so under-served,” says McNary, who studied art at Carnegie Mellon and in Florence. “Everything goes to their children.”

McNary taps her creative skills to help parents who need a cheerleader to tell them that they are not alone, that there is a way forward no matter how hopeless things may appear now. Deeply therapeutic, the creative process allows parents to express their feelings without judgment, especially the anger, frustration and isolation that they often try to hide.

Here is a lesson for all of us: No matter what our emotional burdens may be, art provides a necessary channel of expression. We can create change externally because we experience a shift internally that allows us to see new possibilities.

The common refrain among the mothers who are the majority of the youth and adult students McNary has taught over the past three years is, “I’m not an artist.” Yet, with McNary’s gentle coaching and permission to tap their deepest feelings, art emerges.

At a gallery showing for the Masters in Arts students, the paintings and drawings on display were surprisingly good and highly emotive. An autumn landscape depicts trees that represent family members. A frayed and frazzled shoelace speaks of seemingly simple tasks that become herculean challenges, which, with time and patience, can be mastered.

Art assignments allow parents to explore common experiences, such as “Mask Mom,” whom McNary describes as thinking “she can do everything for everyone else, yet is hollow inside her soul from the sadness of knowing her child is not talking at age seven”; “Different Not Less,” to explore the differences and uniqueness of being a family with autism and “Constant Motion,” which makes it “hard to keep things in order when you are being pulled in so many directions at all times of the day.”

An advocate on behalf of the organization Autism Speaks and a frequent speaker to groups, McNary opens her studio and her heart to others, enabling them to discover the gift of their own creativity. In images and the stories they tell, parents find a way forward and give themselves hope for the future.

Inspiration is everywhere, even in the simplest things. On a recent visit to see Colin, McNary and her husband took their son out for a day of small pleasures, like eating a doughnut. As McNary watched, Colin took one perfect sprinkle and put it on his tongue. Then he turned to her and smiled. As McNary tells the story, an image begins to form: a painting in waiting.