Ian Lee, ’23, hopes his children’s book will help others with autism

Through story, and by example, Lee tells a tale of self-acceptance, set in his beloved Albion.

May 22, 2023

By Jake Weber

Ian Lee will graduate this spring with Albion College Honors in English, a minor in psychological science and a concentration in secondary education. Lee is the son of Nikki and Bobby Lee of Albion and a graduate of Marshall High School.

For parents, having a child on the autism spectrum raises a lot of questions. For Ian Lee, ’23, his own diagnosis also provided some valuable answers.

“Growing up, I knew I was different, but I didn’t know why,” said Lee, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as a teenager. “My diagnosis was actually kind of helpful, because it showed me I was part of a community of people like me. I wasn’t quite as ‘different’ as I thought.”

The word “autism” doesn’t actually appear in the picture book written and illustrated by Lee as his Build Albion Fellows (BAF) senior capstone project — but it’s at the heart of his work. “It’s the book I wish someone had given me when I was younger,” Lee said. “On the last page, the grownup me is doing just that.”

A near-native of Albion (his family moved to town when he was nine months old), Lee traveled to France with Albion’s Sister City exchange, was a student leader and ambassador with Albion’s Big Read (he still volunteers with the program) and “basically grew up on campus” where parents Bobby and Nikki worked. He is an Eagle Scout as well, thanks to the Albion troop.

Nonetheless, childhood was rough, especially with the challenges he faced interacting with peers. Lee often had a hard time keeping up with social conversations and navigating relationships on the playground and after school. It’s part of what made Lee become an avid reader, and it’s also part of what inspired him to focus on education as a career path.

Lee will complete his student teaching this fall in Western School District, then plans to teach middle or high school English.

When it came to doing this capstone project, Lee surprised even himself. “I never really thought about writing a children’s book,” he said. “This seemed like a good way to merge my role as a community member with my role as a college student, which is what the BAF capstone project had to do.”

Lee’s first challenge was finding an illustrator who was also on the spectrum, a task he quickly realized would be difficult. Even with a looming deadline, Lee couldn’t ditch his determination to have the book illustrated by someone with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“Artists and writers with ASD have a reason to exist in this world,” Lee explained. “Especially with this book, I wanted to show this applies.”

So Lee — the kid with terrible handwriting who struggled with art in school — consulted with art professor Emmeline Solomon, then did the artwork himself.

“Honestly, this is the first art I’ve done that I felt good about,” he said. “Before, I would get frustrated when an eye didn’t look exactly like an eye. I learned that you could make button eyes and a mouth with no lips and that would be ok. It didn’t have to be complicated.”

The writing came more easily, but still, Lee was surprised at all the revising. His mentor, English professor Jess Roberts would say, “ ‘Ian, I’m not sure this says exactly what you want to say,’ and then she’d give me suggestions for how to fix it,” Lee recalled. “If I didn’t have Dr. Roberts to help me, I definitely wouldn’t have ended up with this book. She is a saint; she’s known me since middle school and still puts up with me.”

While Lee says he more or less wrote the book for his younger self, he’s starting to realize it might have a message for others, especially kids growing up with ASD. The book still needs a title and a cover, but Lee is considering options for publishing it.

“I want to show young people who may be struggling like I was,” he said. I want them to know ‘Hey, you’re valid. You have a reason for existence and you can do some really awesome things.’ ”

“If you told younger me that he would write a children’s book as a college student, and people would be interested in what he had to say in it, that would probably blow his little mind. I didn’t know this was going to happen, but it’s pretty awesome.”