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Experiences that Inspired a psychiatrist to create a 'wordless' book

Sheila Hollins - The Tablet - Tue, Oct 17th 2017

When he was young, my son struggled to acquire language but would happily watch silent movies and leaf through children’s picture books. I discovered that if I drew a cartoon strip and showed it to him, I could help him to understand and prepare for a family event or an outing to the park. When I didn’t take the time to do this, if something unexpected happened, it would lead to a tantrum or worse.

Years later, I moved from working as a psychiatrist with children and families to a long-stay hospital where I worked with adults with learning disabilities. Here I met a 40-year-old man who was refusing to eat or to get up. He didn’t use speech or seem to understand what was said to him. I discovered that his father had died months earlier, and guessed that he was missing his father’s weekly visits. But how could anyone explain this to him, and what was best practice in supporting someone who had been bereaved? I remembered my experiences with my son and tried to find a picture book about death. But almost nothing was available. There were children’s picture books, but they could not help him explain or understand adult feelings and experiences.

With the help of my then trainee, Dr Lester Sireling, and an artist friend, Beth Webb, we created a book in pictures, which we called When Dad Died. Published in 1989, it is still going strong. The number of “Books Beyond Words” continues to grow. There are now nearly 60 in the series. So, how do wordless books work? And do they have a real impact in people’s lives? There is no right or wrong story in the pictures. The responses of each reader to what they see in each picture, and how he or she relates it to their own life experiences and relationships, are equally valid.

Rather sneakily, the books model better ways to support people and include a plain English introduction to the topic of the book in the final 10 pages or so. Translations of some of this text into a number of other languages are available, too. I found that When Dad Died worked equally well in an Indian village with a bereaved Hindu man who was unable to understand my words but who could relate to my tone of voice and patience as he responded to the pictures.

Some years ago, after an adult man was mugged and seriously injured, the investigating police officer took the view that the Criminal Prosecution Service would not be able to take the case forward. This was because the victim would not understand the court processes and would therefore be unable to give evidence. However, when he heard the police officer use the words “Going to Court”, the victim retrieved the book of that name from his collection of “Books Beyond Words” and read the picture story to the policeman. The police officer was sufficiently convinced that he decided the case could go to court. It resulted in the conviction of two men for grievous bodily harm.

There are numerous similar accounts of how the Beyond Words series has empowered people to take more control of their own lives. Initially, the books focused on health conditions and services and on ordinary situations and events, such as leaving home or falling in love. Criminal justice followed. There are some lighter reads, too. The emotional and relational aspects of life are central; the books are never just about imparting information.

The primary focus is on training people in public services and others to use picture books to empower people. The books are designed primarily for people with learning disabilities, but others who find pictures easier than words also read them – being wordless, they are not language dependent. They are helpful also for immigrants and others who are learning English as a second language and want to learn about our services and traditions, for prisoners with literacy difficulties, for some homeless people and for others on the margins of society. Some of the books are useful in my current work with people who have been abused.

Although Beyond Words is a secular organisation, its values put the common good and the needs of marginalised people at its centre. With our latest title, Going to Church, we launch a new faith series. If the funds can be found, Going to Mosque and Going to Synagogue will follow. Shortly before he died, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor wrote: “Sometimes we forget people with learning disabilities and our need to connect to them in ways that help them to belong. Going to Church is a marvellous reminder to all of us and I hope that it will be very widely read.”

The co-authors are an Anglican, Katie Carpenter, who has Down syndrome, John Swinton, a Scottish Presbyterian and Professor of Theology, and myself. At the launch, the Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, suggested that the way in which we read our books in small groups lends itself to the practice of Lectio Divina in pictures – an idea that is quite appealing to me, as a lay Benedictine.

For many years, we have been developing book clubs or reading groups in libraries. We realise – of course! – that there are many more churches in the UK than libraries. It is time that our parishes began to host friendship reading groups to help draw in people who are currently notable by their absence from our churches.

If you would like to be involved in a book group, more information is available from or

Baroness (Sheila) Hollins is Emerita Professor of the Psychiatry of Disability at St George’s, University of London, and sits in the House of Lords as a crossbench peer.

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