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Matt Dunford: Speak My Language (comics, autism)


Being an autistic adult I am often faced with questions from parents about raising their children who are on the spectrum. They will ask me about programs, schooling, special services and other options for their kids. Then I turn around and ask them a more important question. “Have you tried talking to them about the things they enjoy?” As many of you may know, people with Asperger’s syndrome and those on the spectrum have very intense yet narrow interests. And I can attest that there is nothing better than finding someone who shares those interests. Meeting someone who shares common ground with one of your passions is like discovering someone who speaks your language. For me, one of my strongest passions has always been comic books.


I learned to read using comics, I have collected them from when I was a six-year-old boy and I continue to enjoy them as a 34-year-old man. From the time that I could read I became an encyclopedia on all things Marvel comics, in particular Spider-Man. When I met someone who also liked Spidey I was overjoyed. The first thing I would always do is just spout out every bit of knowledge that I have acquired over the years. This may seem like a bit much to neurotypical people but you have no idea how liberating it feels for those on the autism spectrum. You will probably encounter a similar experience when you talk with spectrum children about their favorite topics and you should encourage it. Through comics, I learned about so many different topics and more importantly made friends. It gives common ground for others to discuss these stories. Comics aren’t always going to be about superheroes saving the world. There will be other subject matter inserted into the writing which will help educate and inform the reader. I am a huge advocate when it comes to comics in the classroom, I often give big stacks of comics and graphic novels to kids. Every once in a while a parent will push back at me and say “I don’t want my child reading this filth.” But whenever I encounter someone with that attitude, I like to remind them the keyword here is “reading.” Comics are a gateway drug to a lifetime of literacy. But the other cool thing about comics is that it begins to expose them to new things, which may help them edge out of their comfort zones. I can attest that being on the spectrum sometimes we can get stuck in our ways and it is hard to branch out to new things. You would do well to help nurture spectrum children by taking them into a comic book store or local bookstore to check out comics and graphic novels. From there your child can find stories that they find interesting and you can help cultivate a new reader. When parents tell me their child is on the spectrum, I will ask “What is your favorite thing in the world?” These days the answers will vary with everything from Minecraft, Star Wars, Animal Crossing, Harry Potter, Pokemon (just about every spectrum kid loves Pokemon, myself included) and if I’m lucky, superheroes. Focusing on those narrow interests will help them branch out to new topics. And no matter what they are into, it’s always possible to find it in comic form. I think that comics are the best form of entertainment around because the reader gets to control the pace of the story. Comics create a universal bond for fans because there is an endless reach of stories and subject matter which can appeal to those on the spectrum. One of the difficult things that autistic people face is reaching out to others, so we have that tendency to look inward. It is very nice when others reach out to us and can share a conversation. Kids have seen me wearing Batman shirts and suddenly want to talk to the grown-up who knows about their favorite character. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few autistic kids who love comics and they love to fanboy out with me. There is one young man who I only get to see once a year but he will pick up the conversation from the last point I talked with him and chat with me until I see him again. As I grew older, so did my passion for the comic medium. I became involved in crafting stories as an editor and later involved with teaching students at Little Fish Comic Book Studio here in San Diego. As I continued my advocacy of comics I eventually fell into the role of Chairman for the convention San Diego Comic Fest. My lifetime of comics grew into a role where I could structure an event in a way that I wanted. But I don't do things that serve my desires as a fanboy but rather ones that serve best to unite a community. The event is always a lot of fun for everyone but we’re taking a little hiatus until convention gatherings are safe again. But San Diego Comic Fest will return.


I always have such a great time bringing together so many people who share a love of comics. To see fans, artists, writers, librarians, dealers and creators of all kinds united under one roof enjoying what they love. Those kids on the spectrum want to share their passions with someone. You would do well to talk about their favorite things and indulge in them too. If your child reads a comic or graphic novel, take some time to read it to and have a conversation with them. They took the time to speak your language, it would be great if you took the time to speak theirs.




Matt Dunford started his love of comics before he could even read and has attended every San Diego Comic-Con since 1994. This inspired him to pursue a career in comics, leading him to be an editor at Semantink Publishing, Senior Editor of Keyleaf Comics, and the President of Little Fish Comic Book Studio. In 2017, he was unanimously elected as Chairman of San Diego Comic Fest and continues to spearhead the convention. He has taken up an active role in the community with a focus on WWII history, serving as the PR & Marketing Director for the video game publisher Crytivo, and as a member of the Non-Profit organization, Creators Assemble! Matt’s passion for the comic book medium is only surpassed by his enthusiasm for sharing it with everyone. Find him at: https://www.facebook.com/mattdunford/ https://twitter.com/mattdunford https://www.sdcomicfest.org/ https://www.creatorsassemble.org/