Autistic local artist, pens first in series of 4 books for preschoolers

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GATESVILLE, Texas (KWTX) A young Gatesville man launched his career as a children’s author recently when he published the first in a series of four planned books designed for preschoolers that help teach letters, numbers, shapes and colors.

Duncan Edward Clay has published the first of four planned books. (Photos by Paul J. Gately)

Duncan Edward Clay, at the age of just 23, is holding down three part-time jobs, still lives at home with his parents at Hay Valley, north of Gatesville, where he cares for the family livestock and does the heavy lifting around the farm, is developing, writing, illustrating and publishing his own four-part series of children’s books and is planning to develop even more.

Oh, he also is autistic.

Duncan’s mom, Dr. Nancy Jill Clay, a physician, and his dad Dr. Britt Clay, a veterinarian, began to notice special things about their oldest child when he still was young.

“I saw things very early on about the way he viewed the world,” Britt said, after he’d read a book by Dr. Temple Grandin, autistic, herself, on the way cows view the world.

Grandin’s book, which eventually led to the development of new types of livestock handling equipment, points out that cattle view their world in pictures, and when livestock handlers recognized that, it made handling livestock much easier and more productive.

“Duncan is the same way,” Britt said,

“He sees his world in pictures and that’s how he defines his experiences.”

Specifically Duncan experiences Asperger syndrome (AS), which is a developmental disorder, part of the autism spectrum of disorders, “a distinct group of neurological conditions characterized by a greater or lesser degree of impairment in language and communication skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior,” the National Institutes of Health says.

Although Asperger's syndrome cannot be cured, therapy can help and most affected children can be successful at school and in their adult lives.

Jill said she began to notice Duncan’s special abilities around age 3 when he learned to use the family’s VCR machine so he could watch recorded cartoons.

“He knew them all and knew their stories and had memorized parts of cartoons,” she said.

“Then an old college roommate sent me a note one day, her son has autism, too, that explained Asperger’s and she said the symptoms seemed to fit Duncan.”

She said she paid only little attention for a while, but as she began more study, she realized the behavior her son was exhibiting and the Asperger’s symptoms were an exact fit.

“It was classic,” she said, noting Duncan back then had trouble communicating with others, especially people he didn’t know, was reticent to join into groups and spent a lot of time withdrawn, into himself.

“And he loves cows,” Britt said.

“I’d come home from work and he’d be out in the pasture talking to the cows.

“When I walked out there the cattle could scatter, but when Duncan went to see them, they gathered around him,” Britt said, “and they still do today.”

Jill said she and Britt had realized the issue by the time Duncan was about 8, somewhat young for Asperger’s intervention because most affected aren’t diagnosed until age 11 or so.

That early intervention, a very stable home life, lots of extended family close by and, of all things, those cows, put Duncan on a path to sustainability as an adult, his parents say.

Growing up he experienced the same kind of pressure any other kid does and he has two younger sisters; “everybody knows how brutal two sisters can be,” Jill said.

But by the time he graduated from Gatesville High School he’d been voted the friendliest boy in his class.

“There was a friendliest girl, too, but I was the friendliest boy,” he said.

It was Duncan, himself, though, who identified and chose is own path in life.

“I just decided I wanted to draw and write books so I thought I’d start with kids, I call them ‘pre-scholars’,” Duncan said.

The budding author shortened his middle name Edward to Ed and modified the word cartoonist to “Toonist” and that became his nom-de-plume, “Ed the Toonist,” which is how he likes to be referred to now.

“That’s me. I made it up myself.”

Ed said he thought about illustrating and writing books beginning years ago and more recently developed the four-part series he’s working on now.

From when he decided “Ed’s Fun With Letters” would be the first to publish and began work on the art that graces its pages until it was ready to print was about 30 days.

“It took about a month to get all the artwork done and decide on how the project would look after completion, select colors and things like that,” Ed said.

The paperback book is an alphabetical listing of letters, each page illustrated with objects whose names begin with the highlighted letter and each one includes that letter expressed through a shape-shifting stick figure that is Ed, himself.

It will be available April 8 on Barnes and Noble, Amazon and BookBaby on line, or anyone who wants a copy can run Ed down, hand him $16 and he’ll hand over a copy of his first book.

Orange is Ed’s favorite color and that’s what he’s wearing, head to toe, in his artwork, and when he and his parents showed up recently at the KWTX studio for an interview, he was wearing a bright orange shirt, pants, socks and tennis shoes.

Ed might have a bit of trouble communicating with others on general topics, but if the conversation is about cartoons or art, he’s got lots to say.

NIH says the most distinguishing symptom of AS is “a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other.

“Children with AS want to know everything about their topic of interest and their conversations with others will be about little else.

“Their expertise, high level of vocabulary, and formal speech patterns make them seem like little professors,” NIH says.

The odd happenstance here is the connection between AS and livestock associated with the Grandin book on cattle.

Grandin did not speak until she was three and a half years old but was fortunate enough to get early speech therapy and soon learned simple things, like how to wait and take turns when playing board games.

Today she is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and consults on both livestock handling equipment design and animal welfare, referred to on NPR (National Public Radio) in a BBC Special – "The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow".

It’s likely worth noting that Grandin’s success, now international, began with the publication of her first book, too.