Meet MIMI HONG: A Remarkable Illustrator’s Journey through Autism

This article delves into the journey of our illustrator, Mimi Hong, whose characteristics closely resonate with the definition of Kanner’s syndrome within the spectrum of autism.

Children with Kanner’s syndrome will appear attractive, alert, and intelligent, with underlying characteristics such as:

  • Lack of emotional attachment with others
  • Communication and interaction challenges
  • Uncontrolled speech
  • Obsession with handling objects
  • A high degree of rote memory and visuospatial skills, with major difficulties learning in other areas

There’s a compelling backstory to my encounter with Mimi and the poignant motivation behind publishing long-envisioned stories, but that’s a tale for our next article. Without any more delay, allow me to introduce you to Mimi through an insightful interview with her mom, Dal-Ju Hong.

Cindy: Dal-Ju, can you provide some background on Mimi’s autism?

Dal-Ju: When I went back to work, she (Mimi) was 7 months old. She had difficulty coping with the change and would hold onto Grandpa’s hand for hours for comfort until I came back home. When she was diagnosed with autism, she was about to start school. When Mimi was first assessed for school, she picked up the toy the assessor had “forced” into her field of play and threw it as far away as she could. She was very self-determined and was used to “calling the shots.” She was able to play with a teacher one on one and learn from them. She was not interested in playing or interacting with peers. When at home, she preferred to watch familiar videos and line up her preferred toys. When we read books, she liked the repetition of her favourite stories.

Cindy: Are there effective treatments for autism?

Dal-Ju: I learned about biogenetics and the effect of the environment, including diet, on autism. We started both Mimi and her brother Nathaniel on a diet free from milk (casein) and wheat, barley, oat, rye protein (gluten). We also started applied behaviour analysis, a behaviour modification therapy that seeks to elicit more “normal” responses to individual stimuli. We adjusted the way we got her attention and how we spoke to her. We also did speech therapy, occupational therapy, HANDLE (which deals with a Holistic Approach to Neurodevelopmental Efficiencies), Dr. Amy Yasko’s protocol for Enviro Genomics of autism; we did the GAPS diet for a period of time; we’ve eliminated neurotoxic foods from her diet. We tried Relationship Development Activities (RDA) to help build play and shared learning skills.

Cindy: Has there been improvement?

Dal-Ju: Each new therapy and change in diet and supplements led to a new level of awareness for Mimi. We felt as though we needed to break through her fortress. I remember the first time she looked me in the eye – so breathtaking! And I remember the first sentence that she said to me, “Mommy, lie down.” In other words, stop yammering at me and just comfort me. I remember how happy she was when we started calling her Mimi, which she could pronounce as opposed to Megan, her official name. She finally had a name for herself! She loved movement games like Ring around the Rosie. We’d play for an hour after I got home from work.

Cindy: As Mimi got older, what are the behaviors from her disability that may be perceived as problematic and how has your community responded?

Dal-ju: Teachers always found Mimi to be delightful to have in the classroom as long as behaviours didn’t get in the way. When she was in a Life Skills classroom, the outbursts and cries of other students would set Mimi off. A simple sneeze could get her going. Once behaviours set in, it takes time for her to work through them. Often she needed to be removed from the scene until she calmed down. In terms of community, our local drugstore welcomed Mimi to complete her volunteer hours helping shelve front store items. She was also responsible for making sure that all the front labels were facing forward. Our church community is very accepting of Mimi’s presence in that often she arrives late, walks with heavy footsteps, sometimes is verbally active during worship and at times joins the Sunday school children downstairs. Dad, who is the preacher, just preaches through her noise and keeps going. Several of our church members will invite Mimi out for lunch and a visit with a special pet, for example. Mimi loves animals and it is her delight to pet every friendly cat and dog that we meet on our daily walks. Most people in our community are very accommodating. She knows all the animals’ names.

Cindy: What’s happening in her life today at age 27?

Dal-Ju: Presently, Mimi does not attend any community-based program. When she finished high school, she informed us that she was “done with school.” Mimi is calmer these days. She does not have any friends who are her peers. She has her daily activities and some chores at home. She prepares simple meals for herself. Dad and her brothers are often home with her. She will spend her days at her computer either drawing, writing stories, watching favourite videos on YouTube or playing arcade games. She borrows books from the library and reads for pleasure. Mimi has wonderful visual art skills. She is able to take an illustrated character and start drawing that character doing whatever she determines, with whatever expression she wants. For example, she can manipulate Snoopy into any mood, character or action. She did take some art courses in high school; however, while she complied with the assignments, her strengths were not highlighted. She always needed an Education Assistant to be close to her to redirect her to listen, take down the assignment and to complete it so now that task falls on me.

Cindy: Can you share the opportunity you and I have created to help Mimi?

Dal-Ju: Mimi desires to earn sufficient income in order to live in her “own place” and have a pet of her own. Goals are a powerful motivator, and while she may not be able to live on her own, to create employment for her would be incredible. This is when you stepped in with a children’s book idea and needed an illustrator.

Thanks to you creating a storyboard manuscript supported with inspirational examples of photos and images, Mimi was quickly able to get an idea of what illustrations you had in mind. Then she developed the characters from Smelly Rogers to fit the stories. Real life photographs, situational scenarios and descriptive phrases all helped achieve the illustrations. Having a conversation with Mimi about what’s happening in the story is another positive way to get her involved. Brainstorming about a scenario helps her feel that she’s contributing to the creative evolution of the images. Now she’s completed the illustrations for the first anthology of the Smelly Rogers series.

During the process, we spent a few Saturdays around the dining room table acting out emotions or actions. Mimi is comfortable at home with her music, and we’re mindful of her risk of overstimulation. Ongoing challenges include self-regulation issues. When I’m not home working through the storyboard with her, she sometimes takes too long of a break away from the tasks. Productivity suffers as a result. Another challenge is in editing illustrations that, in her mind, are already done. She has exhibited some reluctance to change some of her “completed” illustrations.

Other challenges I anticipate may be participating in Book Fairs or Artisan Fairs. With large crowds, Mimi may find it difficult to stay for very long in a noisy, chaotic environment. She has sensory issues such as oversensitive hearing, which may make it difficult for her to have conversations with people/customers in a market environment. She may be able to handle short periods of time quietly drawing on her iPadPro with her noise reducing headset over her ears. She may be able to sign copies of her book along with  . We’ll have to arrange for accommodation for her needs, like an early exit. Hopefully she is able to increase her ability to stay longer at the fairs with experience.

Cindy: What does the future hold for Mimi?

With recent work animating the Smelly Rogers book and working with you, Mimi has found a new purpose and desires to illustrate more books in the future. She’s also expressed interest in contributing to the stories themselves with respect to content. She’s learning to draw more original artwork.

I’m certain that library events and other quieter venues may provide a more tolerable environment for Mimi. She’s looking forward to a road trip or two in order to showcase the book.

Equally exciting is expanding her exposure online with the help of Tellwell Publishing. The Adventures of Smelly Rogers Vol 1 – Smelly Begins, is launching in “print on demand” format with Indigo, Chapters, Coles, Amazon and 44,000 retailers globally.   But what we’re even more excited about is organizing the Global Book Launch party inviting family, friends, and we are hopeful to engage with the Autism community so we can share with many whom have autism and other disabilities in what is possible

Cindy: Thank you, Dal-Ju. I’m truly honored to work with you and Mimi to focus on all things possible and if readers are interested you can learn more about Mimi’s journey, see her artwork and more on Instagram Adventures of Smelly Rogers or purchase our book on Amazon Smelly Begins