Story Time: Cameron Goes to School by Sheletta Brundidge

09.02.2020
Blog

By Ren Cooper, Public Affairs Specialist

Photograph of a young girl standing in front of her mother, who crouches down to embrace her daughter. The girl holds a book called “Cameron Goes to School.”
Sheletta Brundidge and her daughter, Cameron.

Sheletta Brundidge is an author, radio and media personality, autism advocate, and a whole lot more. Brundidge is behind the book “Cameron Goes to School,” which is the true story of her daughter, Cameron, starting school as a child with autism. The book, told from Cameron’s point of view, depicts her quiet determination as she prepares over the months, weeks, and days leading up to her first day. Cameron’s story is one of courage and perseverance. It also provides helpful insight on how to better understand and support a friend, neighbor, or classmate who is on the autism spectrum.

When Sheletta and I first discussed the possibility of a virtual Story Time of “Cameron Goes to School,” we did not know what school would look this fall. As Brundidge explains in the video, going to school is an exciting experience! But for some, it may also cause a bit of anxiety, especially as an individual with autism. Given the current situation, kids (and parents) may be feeling heightened levels of anxiety regarding school—whether it be in person, virtual, or a hybrid version.

We are pleased to now present an online reading of “Cameron Goes to School” that Sheletta filmed for the museum. Stay tuned after the reading as Sheletta shares “A Few Good Things to Know about Autism,” which is available below as a downloadable PDF. You can also download a coloring sheet from the book of Cameron in her desk at school. Following the video, an interview with Sheletta provides background on the iteration of the book, the role of community, and the importance of representation. As you will see, Sheletta’s story is also one of courage and perseverance.

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Hi friends! My name is Sheletta Brundidge and I live in Minnesota.

As schools are reopening, you may be excited to see your friends again and learn with new teachers in the classroom.

You may also be just a little bit nervous about going back... and maybe your parents are, too.

Guess what?

Our friends at the National Postal Museum miss all you guys! They miss their visitors and they're looking forward to welcoming everyone back once they reopen. Especially when you guys take your school field trips!

Starting school can make you feel a range of emotions.

Maybe you're not sure if you'll know anyone in your classroom or if you'll fit in with the other kids.

Maybe you're not used to being away from your parents all day... I know that can be pretty scary.

Maybe you're also worried you won't understand everything the teacher is saying.

But you know what? You may also feel grown up and eager to begin a new adventure! You may feel confident that you'll have lots of fun making new friends and enjoy learning new things.

Let me tell you something. When my daughter Cameron was starting kindergarten, she was so excited! Her family was, too, but we were also a little bit anxious. You see, Cameron is six years old and has something called autism, which makes it challenging at times to communicate with adults and kids.

Now listen: Cameron is very smart and she was more than ready to apply her skills at school.

I wrote this book "Cameron Goes to School" about my daughter's autism journey as she got ready to start off in kindergarten. I'm in the story and so are members of our family and people in our community.

Now listen: after we read the story, you and I are going to talk a little bit about autism and how you can better understand and connect with your friends who are on the spectrum.

(Reading) "Cameron Goes to School" by Sheletta Brundidge and Lily Coyle.

Illustrations by Darcy Bell-Meyers.

Everybody says I'm going to school someday and I don't know what to think about that. It's a big change, especially when you have autism like I do. So I just don't say a thing.

Now they say I'm going to school in one year.

Mom is already sad.

"Cameron when you're there making new friends, who will play Candyland with me over and over and over again?

And again? And again?

I don't say a thing. I just study my ABCs.

Now they say I'm going to school next fall.

Dad is pretty broken up about it. "Cameron, when you're taking that big yellow bus back and forth, who will I drive to all the play dates and lessons and appointments?"

I don't say a thing. I just work on my numbers.

Now they say I'm going to school at the end of summer.

Grandma Cynthia is pretty nervous. "Cameron... when you're busy learning how to spell and add and write, who's going to decide what tv shows I watch?"

I don't say a thing. I just practice cutting and pasting.

Now they say I'm going to school in a month.

Big brother Andrew is all put out. "Cameron... when you're off taking field trips, who's going to sneak into my room and mess with all my stuff?"

I don't say a thing. I just memorize all the months of the year.

Now they say I'm going to school in three weeks.

Little brother Daniel is very concerned. "Cameron, when you're listening to teacher who's going to be sitting on mom's lap right when I want to be sitting on mom's lap?"

I don't say a thing. I just put my new school supplies in my backpack.

Now they say I'm going to school in 10 days.

Mr. Phil our neighbor is worried. "Cameron, when you're out playing games on that big school playground, who's going to leave toys all over my yard and pick my flowers?"

I don't say a thing. I just work on tying my new shoes.

Now they say I'm going to school next Tuesday.

Chelsea my therapist is brokenhearted. "Cameron, when you're singing songs with your classmates, who will sort through all these flashcards with me?"

I don't say a thing. I just pick out my first day outfit.

Now they say I'm going to school today and everybody's pretty worried about that. It's a big change for them, but I think they'll be okay.

So, I just say, "Goodbye!"

That's the end of Cameron's story, but it's not the end of learning about autism. Because at the very back of Cameron's book, there's a few good things that you should know about autism.

First is, autism isn't something that can be caught from another person like a cold or the flu.

And autism isn't something new, guys. It's been around for a very long time.

People on the autism spectrum are all different and totally unique.

Some people with autism have ticklish senses, so even if you tap them on the shoulder or touch them on the back to get their attention, they may laugh and giggle but it's okay!

Some people with autism use something called "stemming" to help calm them down.

So, you may see your friends with autism rocking back and forth or shaking their hands... they just got to get the sillies out!

And it's nothing to be frightened about.

Some people with autism like routines. A lot.

So, make sure if you have a substitute to tell them "stick to the schedule" because we've got friends with autism who like to do things the same way at the same time every single day.

Some people with autism can be very, very interested in a certain thing. So, your friends with autism may play with the same toy over and over again but it's okay! They just are studying it to make sure they know how to play with it right the next time.

All people with autism have feelings, so guess what? Even if your friends with autism can't say anything, it doesn't mean that they don't feel things.

So, they may be just as excited and happy or sad and grumpy as you are feeling that day, but they can't express it. It's okay!

And the last one: all people with autism can be friends with people who don't have autism. So, if you've got a kid with autism in your class or at your church or in your neighborhood, you can still be friends with them and they'll want to be friends with you!

Thank you so much for having Story Time with me and listening about my daughter Cameron's journey as she gets ready to go to school. I hope you learned so much today about Cameron and autism and take all this information back to your teachers and other friends and family so you can be an autism advocate and a great helper for your friends who have special needs.

Bye, friends!

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

Can you talk a little bit about your journey writing "Cameron Goes to School?"

My five-year-old daughter Cameron came home from school and left me shocked and shaken when she said she wanted white skin. As a proud Black mom, I couldn’t figure out why she would say such a thing. When I asked her why she was suddenly unhappy being a beautiful brown skinned girl, Cameron said it was because all the characters in all the books she checks out at her school library are white.

That led me to talk to the librarian, to ask why the early reader books on their shelves lacked diversity. She revealed a harsh reality, telling me that it would be easy for Cameron to select books about trucks, dinosaurs or teddy bears but impossible to find a single one featuring a little Black girl with autism. I decided then and there that I would write such a book, not just for Cameron but for all little Black girls with autism who need to be inspired and empowered by seeing themselves on the page.

Being a first-time author, I didn’t have a clue where to begin. I prayed and God led me to Beaver’s Pond Press in St. Paul, Minnesota, a small boutique publishing company with a commitment to spotlighting under-served voices. They held my hand and guided me through the process of writing, printing, publishing and promoting Cameron Goes to School.

What does Cameron think about her book?

Being the protagonist of a book has given my spirited Cameron new confidence and self-esteem. She walks taller, her smile is wider, her speech is clearer. She went from wanting white skin to seeing her beauty as a brown girl. In addition, having her experience played out in this book has helped her to see how her own challenges are relevant to other children.

When Cameron started school at five, she couldn’t communicate with her teachers and classmates. Just two years later, she’s talking, and even better, talking back. She went from being severely autistic to testing off the spectrum. Now in second grade, Cameron learns in a regular classroom with no special interventions.

How does the rest of your family – and members of your community – feel about appearing in the book?

The old African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes two villages to raise a child with autism spectrum disorders. My husband and I are Cameron’s first and most faithful teachers, but we need a community to support her—and us!

Cameron’s three brothers are her protectors and are proud to be part of her journey. Our neighbors look out for her and keep her from wandering away; they were honored to see themselves in her story. Cameron’s therapists prepared a unique treatment plan to guide her and have worked tirelessly to execute it. Cameron’s grandparents demonstrate their unconditional love.

The everyday tasks of childhood—going to school, making friends—are complicated for a child with autism. Cameron is lucky to have a network that has built her courage to face obstacles in her life. Knowing that she is an example to other little girls with autism has also been meaningful to her.

The book’s illustrations are so dynamic and colorful. How did you select the illustrator? Did you provide them with photographs for reference?

I saw a gap that needed to be filled. When I went to Beaver’s Pond Press, I had an idea and a vision. Publisher Lily Coyle bought into it and had the expertise to lead me through the process. She provided a list of illustrators she’s worked with. As I studied the samples, I was immediately taken with the work of Darcy Bell-Myers. Incredibly, I learned that, like me, she has a daughter with autism, so this was a passion project for her, too.

I think a children’s book – or any form of art/film/literature that is geared towards kids – is so powerful when it also has a profound effect on the adults who may be reading the book aloud. How were you able to craft your language so that “Cameron Goes to School” is a helpful tool for both kids and adults?

My research showed me there are very few books in mass production about little Black girls with autism spectrum disorder. As a mother who loves sharing books with my own kids, I know that children resist books that are heavy with a message. I wanted to create a story that would be fun and interesting to young readers but also opened their eyes to a deeper understanding of children with autism.

I thought about the parents, teachers, therapist and caregivers of children with autism who would like to see their experience in a book. And I thought about Cameron’s classmates who are not on the spectrum, who could learn a few things about students like my daughter to understand them better.On the last page, the book features a page of facts about autism, written in language that early readers can understand. It may also provide important information for grown up readers.

Similarly, I see this book as such a useful resource for libraries – in the community, at school, and in homes – not only in terms of its content, but also because representation matters. What does the future of this book and its reach look like to you?

Representation matters! In order for my daughter and children who look like her to see themselves as important, they actually have to see themselves—whether on the cover of a book, inside a magazine or on a television show. In addition to empowering little Black girls with autism, this book gently demonstrates to white children how they can be allies and anti-racists. Cameron’s story shows the strength and determination of not only a Black girl but also of a Black family.

With all the back and forth and inconsistencies across the country over which schools will be open or partially open, could you speak a little to what the fall 2020 school year looks like for your family.

Out of an abundance of caution, our family will be doing virtual school at home, relying on the curriculum provided by our school district to educate Cameron and her three brothers. They will offer special education resources that we need for Cameron as well as her two brothers Brandon and Daniel, who are also on the spectrum and require special services. My husband’s 83-year-old father lives with us and so it is important that we keep Poppa B safe and healthy until a vaccine is found for this deadly virus.

2020 has been such a difficult, heavy-hearted and downright frightening year with dual pandemics: COIVD 19 and the reckoning with deeply ingrained and longstanding systems of racism, inequality and injustice. As a mother of young children growing up in America – as well as living in Minneapolis, the site of George Floyd’s murder – how are you doing? What gives you strength in this incredibly trying times?

My husband and I are parents to four children — Andrew, Brandon, Cameron, and Daniel. The three youngest children have all been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

2020 has been a difficult year for all of us, but I am a woman of faith and I believe that amid all these trials, God has an even greater and better plan for our lives. I pray and look for daily blessings that let me know that He is still in control.

Our family motto is, “Happiness is a choice.” So, no matter what happens in our lives or our country, we have the power to choose happiness and spread joy, which comes from God.

Do you have hope for the future of America?

One of my favorite scriptures reminds me that God has a plan to give us hope and a future. I know that the future, no matter how dark today looks, will be bright because better days are ahead.

I understand you wear many hats – as a broadcaster, author and more. Can you talk a little bit about your other pursuits?

I’ve loved to talk all my life and I have found a way to get paid for it!

Today, I am fortunate that I can talk about things that are important to me. I share my views while hosting my own radio show for CBS Radio in Minneapolis and on my three podcasts on my digital media platform, SHElettaMakesMeLaugh.com.

Now I’m using the written word to share my experience, and I’m communicating with the next generation, not just adults.

The consistent through line in all my work is to use love and laughter to communicate and share stories. I feel blessed to be able to use my gift of gab.

I heard your family may be embarking on an exciting adventure. Tell me more about that.

My family won a Class A Thor Motor Coach in an online Twitter contest from Marcus Lemonis’ company Camping World. We will be the face of the company in new advertising campaigns. I hope to encourage families who have children with special needs to see that this might be their best opportunity to travel the country and make rich family memories together.

Do you have plans to write another book?

Cameron’s book was the first in what I envision as a series of books about my four children. Each of them has a unique and inspiring story to tell that will highlight the experiences of children who have autism. In April 2021, my son Daniel’s book will be out. It’s about our family’s RV road trips. The book is almost done and the illustrations are being completed as we speak.

I was moved by Cameron’s own reading of the book. Can you talk a little more about that day? I imagine you must have felt a lot of emotions, especially pride.

It was watching a real-life miracle. When Cameron was diagnosed with autism at age two, she couldn’t talk, wouldn’t make eye contact and didn’t understand how to follow simple commands. Experts warned us that she wouldn’t be able to learn or read and would likely be institutionalized.

My husband and I didn’t believe it. We saw the light in our child and knew there had to be a way to amplify it. With prayer, faith, hard work and excellent therapy, Cameron proved the initial dire prognosis to be all wrong. Seeing her read her own story might remind other parents who have kids with autism that they should never give up.

Can you recommend any other resources that helped you in understanding autism and best practices for parenting a child with autism?

Everything I learned that was helpful to my children I learned from other parents. If your child has autism, find a mentor parent who is willing to share their knowledge with you. And if you’re a parent who has gone through the struggle of raising a child with autism, look for someone who is trying to get where you are.

Life is a journey and I believe it’s so important to help as many people as we can along the way. Sharing our hard lessons redeems the pain of the struggle.

Cameron coloring page (PDF)

A Few Good Things to Know about Autism (PDF)