In her book, To Explore Strange New Worlds, Understanding Autism Through a Star Trek Lens, Elizabeth Barnes provides us all with a glimpse of autism spectrum disorder from the inside out.

As Ms. Barnes journeys with the reader through the challenges of autism from her life experience with her child, she utilizes the Star Trek stories to teach her son about humanity. Far stretch?  Not at all. “For years I enjoyed watching Star Trek with my son. After his diagnosis, as I was learning about autism and re-learning my son through that lens, I began to see ways that Star Trek could help him better understand what autism meant for him. Not only were there characters that exhibited autism-like characteristics – Spock, Data, Lt. Barclay – but I saw that there were examples within the episodes, including elements of the stories, character development, and acting, that could help to explain his autism to him, and could be used as ways of explaining social and behavioral concepts that he sometimes struggled with.”

This book is a pick up now. A must read. Easy. Happy. It is insightful and enjoyable to all that are interested in the nuts and bolts of helping a child on the autism spectrum make the contributions to the world that all of us are capable of.

Barnes is a non-autistic parent of an autistic child. The overarching theme of her book is the concept of acceptance. “It was my hope that my son would learn and eventually know how to accept himself and all his characteristics of autism, and by doing so help change the attitude of the world to one of acceptance as well.”

Chapter one speaks strongly to the loving parent. In “How to Learn”  Barnes demonstrates what all parents know, an incredible in-depth awareness of her son’s needs. She gives you a clear description of how to avoid becoming “tripped up” in the process. Six points are illustrated to set up the learning activity successfully. To me, as an occupational therapist, this section was the most powerful. Each parent I’ve met has a profound awareness of what works and when it works in their child. They are also actively aware of what doesn’t work.

Using a television series to teach human interaction skills allows for preparation and staging of concepts that real life cannot offer. As Barnes states “each series tackled complicated issues which were cutting-edge social explorations in their time.”

To Explore Strange New Worlds acts as a brilliantly organized reference book. Barnes provides instructions for parents on the best use of her material. Chapter one of her book has excellent insights that I have also become aware of through my clinic and school work with the autistic individual. How you set up and introduce the task is key to its success.

It is helpful to have a little background in the Star Trek stories to begin reading Ms. Barnes’ book. Follow her advice that is very clearly depicted at the beginning of the book. She outlines in Chapter 2, “Why Star Trek?”  By the time you have moved through these first dozen pages, you are engaged and keen to follow the blend of this medium with our scientific understanding of autism spectrum disorder.

Each chapter highlights a characteristic of autism that can be socially challenging for some individuals.

“The one time he mentioned that he thought he was being bullied, we realized what he thought was bullying was his own growing awareness of facial and body language among the children around him. He knew there was some kind of communication that he did not understand, it alarmed him, and he concluded that since he was feeling fear, and the fear came from the other children’s behavior, it was therefore bullying.”

“My son, however, had a hard time listening to others talk about things that he was not interested in and responding to what was said. Instead he would turn the conversation to what he wanted to talk about, sometimes with a clever logic leap, other times just jumping topics without consideration as to whether his change of tack confused others.”

“Helping him be flexible also meant giving him a safe space to be comfortable making and talking about mistakes. Fear of mistakes can lead to a great deal of inflexibility and learning to be OK with making mistakes and talking about them was a very important lesson.”

As you read, “To Explore Strange New Worlds“, you learn, as the Star Trek characters learn, how essential our social nature is in problem‑solving small events (nanites) and large events (universes colliding). To push the edge is certainly what the individual with autism spectrum disorder does every day. To boldly go where no man has gone before is true each time an individual with autism rides public transportation, attends a county fair, or travels through large airports. These incredibly unpredictable social experiences can be arresting to the individual with autism spectrum disorder. Yet, they go, they achieve, and they help us all with their ideas, inventions, and contributions. Because of what she has learned from her son, Ms. Barnes’ book, “To Explore Strange New Worlds, Understanding Autism Through a Star Trek Lens” is just such a contribution. I highly recommend that you know about the contents of this book. Her information continues to help me with my work in clinical and school‑based occupational therapy.

You can read more of Elizabeth Barnes’ work at her blog Autism-Mom.com.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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