This month we’re featuring Michelle Nel, a #FoodAllergyChampion in our community, who has combined her passion for writing with spreading food allergy awareness.
Check out our interview with Michelle to learn more about her motivation for becoming a food allergy book author and the lessons she aims to teach.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How are you impacted by food allergy?
I have two children, Avery (21) and Nolan (soon to be 13). Nolan has multiple food allergies, environmental allergies, asthma, eczema as well as autism. Navigating life with Nolan inspired my journey as an author, and it also continues to influence the ‘stories’ of my books. Author is a title I’ve yearned for since childhood, and my son’s food allergy diagnosis brought forth my passion to write and a topic to focus on. In addition to being an author, I am a personal support worker, with much of my career being focused in the area of Alzheimer’s and dementia care.
With Avery having no allergies or health issues, it took us by surprise when Nolan had his first anaphylactic reaction at six-months-old. In the months that followed, Nolan experienced subsequent allergic reactions, and we learned of his multiple food allergens including peanuts, tree nuts, legumes and soy. Fortunately, Nolan outgrew his allergies to egg and shellfish, and recently passed his oral challenge to gelatin. With now over a decade of allergy life behind us, we have adjusted, adapted and accepted the new norm of cooking (a.k.a allergy kitchen concocting), planning, and preparedness.
I’ve found that the allergy community is like no other in connectivity and creativeness. Support groups, including the Ottawa Anaphylaxis Support Group, have been incredible from their kids events and activities to parenting support. Be it a shoulder to lean on, assistance in creating allergy-friendly recipes, the shared excitement of finding new safe snacks, or our unified frustrations with all things food, this global teal (the colour of support for those with food allergy) village amazes me with its spirit and support.
What motivates and empowers you to write informational and fun books for children with food allergy?
In 2010, I began writing stories as a fun and informative way to spread allergy awareness. I wrote all six books in 2010 when Nolan was three-years-old. With a decade of determination, my “Allergy Books for Kids” series is now complete with all six books published.
I have aspired to write books that will engage children who have food allergy and serve as resources to aid with allergy education for schools, caregivers, friends or family. Seeing my books embraced by so many and from all corners of the world has been incredible, yet as ‘mom’ the greatest reward has been watching my son Nolan as he reads ‘his’ books.
Did the books help Nolan understand and manage his food allergy better?
Nolan has definitely benefited from the information held in the books. Plus, he has learned priceless lessons while assisting in allergy and autism advocacy.
What impact does autism have on managing food allergy? Are some things easier or harder?
At 3 years of age, Nolan was beginning junior kindergarten with multiple food allergies and he was almost completely incoherent (non-verbal) due to a severe language delay. The seriousness of his allergies and inability to vocalize any personal needs left me in an emotional frenzy.
During Nolan’s first few years of school, I worked very closely with his teachers, principal, resource teacher, and school custodian as I began volunteering almost daily in the school library. Having rules, protocol and procedures not only in place but adhered to, allowed me to feel comfortable that Nolan was in a safe environment at school.
Through the support of a language program, Nolan’s speech flourished and so did his ability and sureness to self-advocate. The language program allowed Nolan to have the same teacher through grades 1 to 3, as well as a class size of just ten. Having a teacher who knew Nolan so well allowed him to have an exceptionally comfortable and safe environment to manage his learning and allergies.
To help with Nolan’s first few years at school, I also looked to writing and wrote my book School Rules, which is fittingly dedicated to his incredible teacher, Madame Seguin.
Autism has made managing food allergy not easier but rather unique for Nolan. He is less concerned by his exceptionalities and/or differences like learning challenges or carrying an auto-injector. Being fact driven has allowed Nolan to understand the need for certain allergy ‘rules’ in more of a cause and effect manner, so he tends to see things as they ‘are’ rather than how he wishes them to be.
His autism has also aided in the creativeness required when it comes to managing food allergy. Overall, Nolan’s ability to always see the good in everything has motivated me to overcome the challenges that come with managing food allergy and autism.
What do you want kids with food allergy to know? What lessons will they learn by reading your books?
My goal through my book series was to share allergy information in a positive, fun and age appropriate manner, each book sharing its own allergy lesson unique in characters and setting.
For example, you can learn more about tree nuts, including what they look like and how they differ from peanut, in one of my books. This is important to understand whether you’re allergic to tree nuts, peanut, or both.
Another one of my books gives a lesson of inclusion, and shares that all food allergens, even the less common ones, should be taken seriously. This book was inspired by the fact that not all of my son’s food allergies involve the priority food allergens.
I wrote my school-related book the week before my son began junior kindergarten, when I was overwhelmed by emotions. This book is narrated by the child, who talks about how they might not always practice what they’ve learned in daily lessons but recounts the important allergy rules which they always plan to follow.
How else do you raise food allergy awareness? Do you have any tips for parents of children who are managing food allergy along with another health condition?
I am an avid volunteer for food allergy events and organizations, and I have held book readings at local libraries, anaphylaxis support groups and child care centres.
My advice to parents dealing with children who have one or multiple health conditions is simple: focus on the ‘now’ and do what you need to do to keep your child safe and fed. Allow yourself to ask and accept help and support; understand there is no singular or certain path, and enjoy celebrating each success whatever it may be for you or your child in that moment. Know you are not alone, and don’t forget to look up and around, or you will miss the amazing and unexpected gifts to be found upon your journey.
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your story with us and being a #FoodAllergyChampion! You are helping to educate children with food allergy with your fun and informative books. You can find Michelle’s books at allergybooksforkids.ca.
Tags: #FoodAllergyChampions, from the community