Looking at someone when they walk in the room. Saying “hi” for the first time.
Seemingly mundane or ordinary things are actually triumphs and successes in Keeley Shaw’s world. She works as a teacher at the Suzanne Vitale Clinical Education Complex. Her weekdays are filled with children who are on the autism spectrum, and no day is quite the same.
“I like talking to kids more than adults,” Shaw said with a giggle. She twirled her wavy brown hair as she sat in Spencer’s Coffee on a warm Wednesday morning. Her iPad, the one on which she creates many of her illustrations, sat next to her.
“She’s sure about what she cares about,” Audrey McDole, who has been friends with Shaw since high school, said. “She cares about people who might not be seen or heard.”
Shaw earned her undergraduate degree in early childhood development and her master’s degree in special education, both at WKU. She said working in special education can be difficult when “you feel like you’ve hit a wall,” but the seemingly small victories made by the kids make it worthwhile.
“It’s cool to see other WKU alumni doing good things,” Allison Millet, a WKU alumna and the mother of one of Shaw’s students, said.
When Shaw was still student teaching in her undergraduate years, she was able to see one of her students take his first steps. She said that is one of her favorite victories of working in special education.
Shaw is a teacher on weekdays, but much of her free time is spent creating things. She has her own art website as well as a Facebook page and Instagram account.
Her sister dropped off some prints of her latest illustrations as she sipped coffee and talked. One illustration was an iPad drawing of a family with a quote written underneath.
“It’s a new thing,” Shaw said of the popularity of drawn family portraits and houses.
One of McDole’s favorite creations of Shaw’s, besides the wedding cake Shaw and her mom made and painted for McDole, is the iPad drawing she did of the house they shared in college. They called it “The Giggle Box,” a house with a blue exterior, yellow front door and uninsulated floor.
Shaw recently created a family portrait for one of the families with which she closely works. The picture of the Millet family is featured on her Instagram and her website.
Millet, whose younger son is on the autism spectrum and is nonverbal, said she’d be happy “talking about one of [her] most favorite people.”
“She’s done far more than therapy for him,” Millet said of Shaw’s work with her son. She was looking at some of Shaw’s sketches that sat on her bookshelf. “They’ve got a special bond.”
Millet’s son influenced and inspired parts of Shaw’s children’s book, which is going to be published and released at the end of this month.
“It’s been kind of natural,” Shaw said of illustrating the book, which is about a turtle who has autism. Millet’s son’s favorite animal is a turtle. “That’s just how my mind works.”
Shaw said the book, titled “Tully and Me,” never says the turtle has autism, but the turtle has behaviors and qualities that reflect the spectrum. The book, she said, is very much about how “we’re more alike than we are different.”
Shaw said she hopes it can educate typical children about those who are not typical and how to interact with them as well as speak and relate to families who have children and other relatives with special needs.
“They’re just like you,” Shaw said of children with special needs and disabilities. Most of them are willing and able to talk and want to be happy just like anyone else, she said.
Millet said she wasn’t surprised by Shaw’s decision to write, illustrate and publish a book because of how talented Shaw is.
“She’s so gifted at it. It makes a lot of sense,” McDole said.
Millet and McDole both said they cried the first time they read one of Shaw’s drafts of the book.
“The book shows a combination of God’s faithfulness in her life,” McDole said of Shaw’s different gifts and talents coming together in the one project. “Her heart of justice comes through in the book.”
Shaw is self-publishing through IngramSpark, and the book will be released on April 30. It can be found on Amazon and through other companies that partner with IngramSpark.
“[It felt] really natural to write about that,” Shaw said with a smile. “I want everyone to see it.”
Features reporter Katelyn Latture can be reached at 270-745-6291 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on her on social media at @katelynlatture.