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Father in New Tampa uses monkey Kookabuk to help young autism patients

The challenges or raising Seth Howard, shown here at home in childhood photos, inspired his father Ken Howard to create The Kooky Adventures of My Friend Kookabuk. The series helps special needs children and their parents respond to everyday social challenges. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES   |   Times]
The challenges or raising Seth Howard, shown here at home in childhood photos, inspired his father Ken Howard to create The Kooky Adventures of My Friend Kookabuk. The series helps special needs children and their parents respond to everyday social challenges. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 19, 2017

As a 7-year-old boy, Kevin Howard spent months in the hospital with a bone infection in his leg.

A stuffed monkey named Kookabuk helped him make it through the scary experience.

"I was told he had magical powers," Howard said of the monkey, a gift from his dad's friend. "We went on all these imaginary adventures while I was in that hospital and he provided courage."

Today, Howard, a 55-year-old New Tampa father of an autistic teenage son, is using Kookabuk to help others overcome the anxiety that comes with being, raising and befriending a child on the spectrum.

First, there was his children's book series launched a year ago about a "special needs" monkey he named and patterned after Kookabuk.

The stories teach special needs kids lessons like how to share and make eye contact. It encourages other children to accept friends on the spectrum, and it guides parents on how to handle these situations.

Now Howard, a teacher at Louis Benito Middle School and a former Hillsborough High School boys' basketball coach, has launched kookabuk.com. It's a "Best of Help Directory" akin to Angie's List but for autism.

Service providers ranging from autism-friendly pediatricians, dentists and baby sitters to even barbers and restaurants with employees who know how to work with such children apply to be listed. The site also includes a public review component.

When Howard's son Seth, now 16, was diagnosed 13 years ago, the family had to find the services that best fit his needs through trial and error.

The website can help eliminate that stressful process.

"They say once you meet one autistic child you've met one autistic child," Howard said. "Each is different. Maybe you like a physical therapist because he is touchy-feely but someone else's child doesn't like to be handled like that. The reviews will help people realize who will work for them."

Count Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera as a fan. Viera sits on the Autism-Friendly Tampa Advisory Committee that, among other things, wants city staff trained on how to work with those on the spectrum.

"This is a great idea," Viera said. "When raising a child who has special needs, simple things like getting a haircut, going out to the mall, are very difficult. This can organically make raising a special needs child here easier."

Still, while Howard expects early success with the locals who use the site, he hopes it gains international popularity so when parents are going on vacation, for instance, they have assistance.

"Some hotels have sensory friendly rooms — muted colors, lighting is done a certain way," Howard said. "The Cleveland Cavaliers have sensory friendly rooms in their arena. Wouldn't it be great if all this was compiled in one place?"

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It was a family trip to Howard's hometown of Manhattan a decade ago that piqued his interest in autism advocacy.

His son Seth is high functioning but struggles with social interaction.

To prepare Seth for what could be stressful experiences, Howard created picture books detailing step-by-step what is going to happen. He then reads the books to his son repeatedly before engaging in the activities.

It worked for trips to the grocery store and giving blood, but when Seth calmly made it through an airport, Howard realized how useful such books are.

It was then he decided to one day write a story with more mass appeal and use his old childhood friend Kookabuk as the main character.

"I have no idea why I was told his name was Kookabuk," Howard laughed. "But it is perfect for a book."

The series "The Kooky Adventures of My Friend Kookabuk" are told through the eyes of Emily the monkey, named for son Seth's first friend.

Autistic children relate to Kookabuk as he overcomes everyday obstacles and those not on the spectrum to Emily as she learns to understand her friend.

And for parents, sprinkled throughout the book are tips for dealing with certain situations that are provided by an illustrated version of Howard's real-life pet Trevor, a parrot born with one deformed foot.

"My parrot is disabled," Howard said. "But he doesn't realize it."

Howard said, he hopes the books and web site eventually help create a world in which autistic children can effortlessly fit in.

"How do we create awareness? Understanding and acceptance" Howard said. "But we have to show you how to do that through education."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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