Melissa Brady Petrillo ’14/M.A. ’18 has written a children’s book titled “Sometimes” on autism.
Melissa Brady Petrillo ’14/M.A. ’18 first started noticing that few children’s books had characters with disabilities when she was in her undergraduate children’s literature class taught by Dr. Trish Verrrone at Caldwell University. “Right away I wanted to do more research.” She did an evaluative study and realized there was a lack of books that “adequately present disability demographics.” Then, after graduation from Caldwell, Petrillo became a public high school English and special education teacher, working with students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and again she had trouble finding books that feature characters with different learning abilities. Petrillo longed to write such a book.
This year, Petrillo published that book, her first, on a topic that was born out of her undergraduate scholars project at Caldwell. “Sometimes,” published by Christian Faith Publishing, tells the story of Samantha, a biracial 8-year-old girl with autism, through the lens of her world and how she interacts with others and communicates her feelings. “In order to create an inclusive society, we have to preach those values for them to come to fruition,” says Petrillo. “We need to allow children to view books as mirrors to see themselves and people who are different than them and are represented as characters in literature.” Although her story is about a girl on the autism spectrum, Petrillo says there are few children’s books that feature characters with other challenges like ADHD, a hearing or visual impairment, or cerebral palsy.
Petrillo is pleased that the reaction to her book—aimed at children in pre-kindergarten through third grade—has been positive. Children can relate to the title “Sometimes,” a word repeated throughout the book “to show how no one with any disability is the same … we all feel differently sometimes. We all have different obstacles we are overcoming. And that is amazing,” explains Petrillo. “Sometimes” opens up opportunities for parents to talk with their children. “When they are out in the community or they meet someone, they understand what they learned in the book,” Petrillo says. She sees it as a book to help children and adults learn ways to understand and best support their peers, including people with ASD.
Petrillo’s interest in pursuing a career in teaching and special education was sparked during her experiences in college as a camp counselor at Camp Hope for The Arc of Essex County, an internship at the Caldwell University Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis, and her teaching field work. Caldwell prepared her to become an educator. “We were exposed to so many different settings in our field work. When you are in your first two years, you really are able to find your passion.”
Soon after completing her undergraduate degree, Petrillo started her studies in Caldwell’s Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program. “I had a wonderful experience at Caldwell University earning my graduate degree because I learned how to advocate and support my students as a school leader.” She appreciated the learning opportunities she had while completing her thesis project and shadowing administrators in her school.
Like many educators, Petrillo has found the past year during COVID to be challenging and yet there have been opportunities to stretch and grow professionally. In the fall she presented at a New Jersey Education Association forum during which educators discussed books featuring characters with disabilities. “We all put our brains together to create a list that we can easily access these books and share with one another.” The move between remote and in-person learning has taught her “that you have to really address the student’s needs and find a way to teach the curriculum that is engaging and academic.” She has learned about the book publishing process too—everything from “really being mindful of what you are putting on the paper” to making sure the illustrations correspond with what is on the page.
And the pandemic has made her think big picture. “As human beings we have learned to be so flexible and to value our time with one another.” She is thankful that she had the chance to start to do research in college so it could develop further in her professional life. She believes it is important for university students to find what they are passionate about, “to really develop how they can succeed, both academically and outside of college.” Because ultimately, she says, “It is the responsibility of young adults to determine how they can better serve their communities.”
Sharon Reeve, Ph.D., BCBA-D, director of the Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis, recalls working with Petrillo when she was an undergraduate, “I remember being impressed with Melissa when she did her internship at the Autism Center because she was very natural and comfortable with all of our learners. In turn, the learners responded very well to her. One child in particular still talks about her. It was clear that she indeed did find her passion! Her book is a wonderful depiction of how children with autism spectrum disorder are more similar to other children without disabilities than that they are different. I hope this book is the first of many for Melissa!”
View the trailer for “Sometimes” here: