AS World Autism Awareness Day begins today, children’s author Peter Barron explains how he came to employ the remarkable talents of an autistic teenager to illustrate his latest book.

AS a little boy, Jonathan Raiseborough was different. He didn’t quite fit in and found it hard to make friends. There were times when he was bullied.
When he reached primary school, Jonathan was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Despite being confirmed as having a disability, the diagnosis came as a relief to his family in Darlington.

“It meant there was a reason for the challenges he was facing – at least we knew what we were dealing with,” explained his mum, Helen.
But, as is the case with so many autistic people, Jonathan wasn’t just different. He was special. He was born with a gift for art.

For as long as he can remember, Jonathan has been drawing. Inspired especially by the Roald Dahl books, he wanted to be a children’s illustrator, like Quentin Blake, the artist who created characters such as The Big Friendly Giant, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Matilda.

“I just loved the imagination behind the books and how the characters came to life through the pictures,” recalled Jonathan.
His love of drawing continued to grow and, now aged 18, he is busy with a foundation course in art at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington.

Snowdrop the Spikeshuffler book cover

I first met Jonathan a year ago when I compered the Vibe Awards for young people in Darlington. His artistic skills were recognised and the citation mentioned his ambition to be an illustrator for children’s books.

Coincidentally, I was looking for an illustrator for my latest book, Snowdrop, The Spikeshuffler at the time. It’s a story inspired by a cutting taken from The Northern Echo, telling how a baby albino hedgehog had been taken to an animal sanctuary amid fears it would be killed by other animals because of its colour. In the book, Snowdrop overcomes prejudice in Merlin’s Meadow and ends up a hero.

After the awards ceremony, Jonathan and I had a chat and I sent him the manuscript for the new book. A few weeks later, he sent back the most beautiful illustrations, some of which are reproduced on this page. His talent was clear to see and I immediately knew I had my perfect illustrator.
Around the same time, I’d been helping the North East Autism Society (NEAS) to publicise an appeal to employers to make more use of the skills of people on the autism spectrum. Jonathan was a case in point and, when the charity’s chief executive, John Phillipson, saw his illustrations, he was also hugely impressed.

Snowdrop the Spikeshuffler illustration

The result is that the North East Autism Society has agreed to fund publication of the book as a way of showcasing the talents of autistic people.

Jonathan is a great example of someone on the autism spectrum who has wonderful, natural ability. His ambition is to be a children’s illustrator and it is a joy for us to help make his dream come true and send out a message to employers everywhere to look beyond the label of autism.

Jonathan’s dad Mark, also a talented artist, added:

I don’t think people realise what an asset autistic people can be and it’s absolutely brilliant that the book is going to be published. Jonathan has worked so hard in life to overcome his challenges and this is the best opportunity he could have been given. We’re just incredibly proud of him.

Snowdrop the Spikeshuffler illustration

Jonathan is putting the final touches to the illustrations and the book is due to be published in the autumn. He said:

I really identified with the main character, Snowdrop, because people on the autistic spectrum can feel different. They don’t quite fit but don’t understand why. I think the story is very beautiful and I feel so lucky to have the chance to be involved. I just hope the illustrations will reflect that warmth and character and do the book justice. It’s a heart-warming story but it has a really powerful message – that it’s wrong to judge someone just because they’re different.

In my book, Jonathan Raiseborough isn’t different. He’s definitely special.