Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Diane Christiansen

Posted on: May 8, 2014

DianeChristiansenDespite her struggles with dyslexia, Diane Christiansen graduated with a Biology degree. She also went on to work at both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University doing genetic research for the department of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology.

Now Christiansen is a stay-at-home mom and a published author of middle school chapter books including SNUB Club. She draws on both her own childhood experiences and her journey with her son who has Autism to create fiction based around children with special needs.

Tomorrow I’ll post a guest post by Christiansen about Austism. Then on Saturday I’ll share my thoughts of SNUB Club. Save the dates: May 9-10!

ALLISON: How did your parents help you cope with dyslexia growing up?

DIANE: Growing up with dyslexia, in a time when no one really understood what the disorder was, was challenging at best. Many educators didn’t readily accept that a neurological difference like dyslexia could exist and so I was labeled lazy at a very early age. As one can imagine, lacking the ability to read caused all sorts of chaos in school. My grades were poor, I was unable to fully express the ideas resting in my head, and my self-esteem plummeted. I was lucky though. I had parents who were encouraging and never made me feel as if I weren’t living up to unspoken standards.

ALLISON: What were your favorite childhood past times?

DIANE: As a child, I loved animals. I would often seek out the stray cat or dog and offer them refuge in some old box in the back yard. I would spend my allowance on pet food. I was even known to take in injured animals and nurse them back to health. Even back then, I would spend hours making up exciting adventures as I flipped through the pages of books that I couldn’t read. In second grade, one teacher told my mother that one day I would be a writer.

ALLISON: Did you have a teacher who changed your reading life?

DIANE: I did. My High School science teacher made me a believer in myself. His name was Mr. Pitman and he was probably the scariest teacher in the school. He used to walk down the hallways grumbling, yelling at students to get to class. But the way he taught was perfect for a dyslexic. He would use a lot of visuals and go through the chapters in our text books so that I could read alone as he spoke. That’s when I realized that science was for me. It was the first time that I knew that I wasn’t stupid, that I could achieve academically. It was my first A.

ALLISON: How did dyslexia effect you as an adolescent?

DIANE: I guess when you are told over and over again that you are lazy and that you aren’t trying, you begin to believe it. I’m not sure that educators really understand the power of words. By the time I reached adolescents, there were all kinds of self-esteems issues to deal with. I found it difficult to make friends and I made poor choices. I was just looking for a place to fit in.

ALLISON: What strategies help you now in coping with dyslexia?

DIANE: Thankfully, my reading is better now. I have learned that I need to read things over and over again to remember them, so that’s what I do. Speaking can still be difficult. Many people don’t understand that dyslexia can effect speech and sight as well. I could have the most profound thoughts in my head and not be able to articulate them. That’s why writing works better for me. Still, my editors laugh because I can’t always remember what I write. I’ll go back and read a chapter and say, wow, did I really write that?

ALLISON: Why did you become a writer?

DIANE: I never thought I could write. Back before computers, it would have been impossible. My spelling is atrocious, really, really bad. But spell check saves me most of the time. I’ve had stories in my head since forever. When I had my son, Jackie, I left the lab and decided to take a stab at a book.

ALLISON: As a former laboratory manager you were involved in genetic research. Share the highlights of what a typical day might look like. Have your drawn upon this knowledge for writing novels?

DIANE: Becoming involved in research is like deciding to give up you like and to live in the lab. It’s a full-time thing. You become so invested in whatever project you are working on at the time. We were working with proteins involved in reproductive medicine and so I always felt like I was doing something meaningful. I might run a series of experiments in the morning, organize supplies and make sure that everyone else had what they needed, then come back in the middle of the night to end an experiment. It involved a lot of early mornings as well, not at all conducive to raising children. I have used some lab techniques in my books, especially the Sci-Fi series that I’m working on now.

ALLISON: Why did you choose to write about special needs through a mystery?

DIANE: Well, my son’s book, Jackie’s Journal, led the way for me. His book is a children’s autobiography about his journey with autism. I wanted to keep words like autism and ADHD out there so I decided to write Snub Club. I’m kind of a trickster. Mystery chapter books appeal to elementary school aged children, so why not write a fun mystery while also sneaking in two main characters that have autism and ADHD. My real goal is to desensitize children to these words early on and give them some information about special needs in a funny way.

ALLISON: Your son has autism. What strategies have helped you as a parent to handle this?

DIANE: When Jackie was diagnosed with autism, I didn’t panic. For me it was just another neurological difference, like dyslexia, that we had to deal with. I think that I have the ability to understand his frustrations better, having gone through my own. It takes patience to raise an ASD kid but I try to always remember where I came from and the support that I had from my own parents. One thing that I don’t do is allow a teacher to tell me what’s best for him. I am a true advocate for sure.

ALLISON: How can educators better support students who fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder?

DIANE: There is a new idea emerging with in the academic field. It’s called Social Emotional Learning and is based on kindness and understanding. Negative reinforcement has been proven unsuccessful. Now it’s time to get to the root of a problem rather than give out consequences every time a child makes a bad choice. It’s a great thing and will work wonders on ASD kids. We also push modeling appropriate behaviors though peer mentorship. Kids will listen to their peers much more readily that to a teacher most of the time.

ALLISON: Moms live busy lives. What do you like to do to relax?

DIANE: I love to write. It takes me out of my world into another. I can lose myself for hours, like watching a movie in my head. I also love to walk and travel when I have time. Opera, yes. Shakespeare, yes. Disney World, Big Yes!

ALLISON: What’s next?

DIANE: Along with Social Emotional Learning, I have created a campaign. It’s called RedDay and it is a campaign of kindness within schools across the nation. It’s sort of an anti-bullying presentation but it focuses on kindness and the power of words. I feel like I’ve come full circle with this. I can still remember overhearing a conversation between two of my teacher as they mocked dyslexia calling it the laziness disorder. Those words stayed with me for a long time. So now I can share that story with students and teacher alike, hoping for a kinder and accepting world. Oh, yeah, there’s also the new book. It’s all about one girl’s struggle to make the harder choice, the right choice, the choice that may even save her life.

6 Responses to "Interview with Diane Christiansen"

Dear Ms. Christiansen,
Are you the author of the story, “An Island to Ourselves” about a trip to an island off the coast of Australia.

No I am not. I publish under my full name, Diane Mayer Christiansen. Happy reading!

I have a young cousin who struggles with dyslexia and her teachers said the same thing about her. Many successful people who rely on reading have this disease e.g. the actress Alyssa Milano, so you are in good company.

Ms. Christiansen account of why she hesitated to be a writer is practically word for word for why I took so long to have my work read. Atrocious is a good word to describe my spelling but I am working on it.

Good Post.

As a teacher today in the field of special education, I know that there have been many advancements in the understanding of learning disabilities. If you have a family relation who is currently going to school but being labeled “lazy” this concerns me. 😦

Students who struggle with reading and writing often find spelling to also be an issue. This is where the use of technology is so critical, because computers can read aloud work as well as suggest corrections for words. Beyond that, one might just have to find a compassionate editor. 🙂

Her parents found help for her privately because unfortunately she could not get it at her school. Thanks.

I’m glad your cousin found private support, but am sad that had to happen. Students with disabilities are very capable, but just need the right strategies and extra help.

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