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The World of Special Needs and Disabilities in Fiction by Carol Coffey

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Article by Carol Coffey ©.
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Carol Coffey has used her extensive background in disabilities to bring the world of special needs to the wider population through her writing.  Here she talks about her novel The Pact:

I am always keen to introduce my readers to new worlds and new themes.  My debut, The Butterfly State, centers on a young girl whose communication difficulties caused by autism result in her incarceration in a psychiatric institution for disturbed children.  The Butterfly State provides readers with an authentic portrayal of young children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder; how they think and how their literal view of the world and their difficulties understanding the expressions and idioms used in everyday language make it difficult for children with autism to navigate through and understand the social world.

The Penance Room is set in outback Australia, and provides an insight into the impact of deafness and its resultant isolation on the emotional well-being of a child.  The book also examines the impact of immigration and assimilation into a culture very different from the origins of some of the book’s main characters. It also explores the impact of war, displacement and age-old racial conflict in the melting pot that is the wonderful continent of Australia; a country I was lucky enough to call home for over ten years.

Winter Flowers, which is set in Dublin, explores the impact of generational dysfunction on the development of children, and The Incredible Life of Jonathan Doe, set in America, delves into our perception of identity, about finding out who we are and where we truly belong.

The thread of identity and belonging also runs through my latest novel The Pact. From birth, children develop a perception of who they are through their relationships with their family, friends and the people in their communities. Having a strong sense of identity assists children to develop a sense of belonging and also, of security.  I have a Master’s Degree in Education and for many years I worked with children with so-called “emotional disturbance.” I have always been fascinated by the function of behaviour, in understanding what purpose the behaviour served for a child and what can be done to assist that child to develop trust and security in their world.

Without the right input, the negative views a child might have of himself may perpetuate in adulthood. Children who experienced a disrupted childhood or a childhood which lacked secure attachments to caregivers often present with emotional or social problems in adulthood including addiction.

The Pact’s main character, Locklear, is a case in point. The nomadic life his mother subjected him to and the absence of family members with whom he could identify, learn from and imitate, stunted his emotional development and led to a life absent of any true emotional connections and all too typically, to substance abuse. As a result of his upbringing, Locklear knows nothing of his Native American background and his unease, when surrounded by people who have a strong sense of place, of race, religion, family, etc., is palpable throughout the novel.

As a detective novel, this book is however a departure from the themes in my first four novels which were all informed by my thirty or so years working in the field of special education in Ireland and Australia.

I believe that this departure is a natural progression for many writers as he or she develops the confidence to write about broader themes than the world they currently inhabit or have had past experience of. Maturity also enables the writer to delve into other worlds and other places with confidence. My advice to new writers however is something they have most likely heard before but it is as true a statement now as it ever was- write about what you know. Prose comes more easily when an author is already acquainted with the people and places within their novels. Also, if the writer has to put too many hours into research, if they subject matter is unfamiliar to them; this will slow down the flow of their novel and will ultimately impact its authenticity.

Finally, writers should write about issues that are close to their heart, issues that they care about. They should write about people and places with such passion that their readers can imagine themselves there.  The writer should write about characters that they want to get up to in the morning or that they miss then they have to spend too many hours doing all the other things life throws at us.

For me, Sergeant Locklear is waiting for me to revive him and tell the next part of his story. I hope to do just that very soon.

(c) Carol Coffey

About The Pact:

When Richmond homicide detective Locklear is called in to investigate the attempted murder of a young Mennonite in a Virginian farming town, he is instantly drawn into a web of secrecy and lies spanning back to the American Civil War.

Frustrated by the refusal of locals to co-operate with the investigation, Locklear realises that to find the perpetrator he must first solve a 150-year-old mystery. With his leads restricted to historical records, the Native American is running out of time to save the orphaned boy’s siblings from a similar fate. As the body count in a seeming local feud rises, Locklear is no nearer to solving the most complex case of his career.

Flanked by his trusted colleague Jo Mendoza and local cop Carter, Locklear finds himself embroiled in a silent religious community where nothing is as it seems and everyone has something to hide

Order your copy online here.


Carol was born in Dublin but now lives in Wicklow. A teacher by profession, she has worked in the area of special education for over thirty years in a variety of settings including psychiatric institutions, residential homes for people with challenging behaviour and special schools for children with emotional disturbance. The Pact is her latest novel and is due for release in October 2018.
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