Food Allergy Friend, Jackie Nevard
Allergy awareness advocate, super mum and author of the educational series My Food Allergy Friends
It’s great to think that we can all be food allergy friends for children with serious allergies. You’ve shown us the way with your wonderful allergy education resources.
As we know allergies are on the rise; hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) have doubled over the last decade in Australia, USA and the UK. And allergic reactions frequently occur away from home.
Many people may not be aware that anaphylaxis can also occur in children not known as being at risk of anaphylaxis. One recent study of WA schools found 55% of adrenaline auto-injectors were administered to individuals not previously identified as being at risk of anaphylaxis.
Your books feature the lovable character Thai, who helps children with allergies learn how to be safe and also feel included. The series is such a valuable resource for food allergy parents. I know with my child we read your first book many times over. I think it’s such a scary condition to come to terms with, for a child reading books can really help emotionally. Now he is a little older he reads the books to me!
How does “My Food Allergy Friends” series of educational books help children navigate living with allergies?
The books follow Thai & Rabbie, and their adventures discovering a life with food allergies.
Each book covers various teaching points without overwhelming children with too many concepts, or too much information. They cover multiple allergens and young children can use the images to begin learning about foods they must avoid.
We also teach the saying 'No, Danger food!' a term that a toddler can understand. A bit like saying 'No, Hot Oven!’ Text is also colour coded: red meaning Danger and green is safe or a positive teaching point.
We tackle a birthday party, being away from home, starting kindy and then school. The books cover normal everyday situations children face. Thai’s positive attitude shows other children food allergies don’t have to stop you from joining in.
Your beautifully illustrated series is not just for kids with allergies, it’s also for our “food allergy friends”. Such as fabulous title for the series that really points out the need for food allergy friends… What is the aim of the series? How do your educational resources raise allergy awareness?
The original aim of the series was to educate young children who have allergies, teaching them simple ways to stay safe. However, as Thai grew older I realised the importance of educating those around him. Food Allergy is the only medical condition that actually relies on others to keep a child well. If another child eats Nutella and then plays with toys or uses the same drinking cup at kindy,quickly an allergen can come into contact with a child with allergies. That child can end up experiencing an allergic reaction due to the actions of another. This is why it is vital that all children understand allergies.
You have been running allergy awareness workshops in early child care settings, and in schools, using the teaching resources of your book series.
What has been the response?
I’m overwhelmed by the response and how much such young children actually understand, more than most adults! Most sessions are for 3 - 5 year olds but I have plenty of two year olds sit through the stories and join in, teachers are amazed.
Over allergy week many of the centres had already read the books to the kids and I was taken aback by children becoming really excited when I pull out my banner of Thai and Rabbie. Children started telling me all about Thai, his allergies and some even knew the name of his medicine, his EpiPen. What is fantastic is most of these children don’t have allergies, but they now know how they can keep their friends safe that do have allergies at their centre. Using Thai and Rabbie also means any child with allergies is never singled out.
School sessions are really enjoyable. Some of the questions I get asked are brilliant. A grade 3 student asked what would happen if a student with allergies was asked to pick up rubbish. They realised that this would be potentially dangerous for someone with allergies. My own son with a milk allergy has been asked to pick up a yoghurt container at school, so it was a brilliant question. I think it is also an eye opener for students and staff when I read off some of the ingredients in everyday foods.
What are the some of the challenges you face as an allergy mum? Or that you find is a challenge for your son, whom the character Thai is based on?
As Thai has reached each developmental stage we have faced different challenges. When kids are little you teach them not to put food they pick up off the floor in their mouths and not to share food. For Thai, I think he is affected most by the social impact allergies have on him. He just wants to do and have what all his friends are doing or eating. Having safe cake means he can join in, but he is still aware that this makes him different and he can’t be as carefree as his peers.
For me, the biggest challenge is school. Even with a school that has 20 kids with EpiPens, the first year was very hard. I don’t believe parents should have to battle to keep life-saving medicine in the classroom or justify why a 4 year old shouldn’t carry a medical device. Why being excluded in the classroom is wrong and the list goes on and on. Year 1 has been fantastic and the real Thai has an amazing teacher. Every state should have guidelines for staff and schools to follow to avoid these daily battles.
What would be one piece of advice you have for other allergy parents?
Don’t treat your child differently. Allergies mean we have to pre-plan everything but never let allergies define your child. Over come problems together and give them the skills and confidence to manage their allergies as they grow.
How can an education program help raise awareness of allergies? What is the potential?
Education is the key to safe management of severe food allergies. It is not practical to ban all foods that children are allergic to, so minimisation strategies are put in place for younger years and allergy awareness can be promoted as below.
Ø Promoting no sharing of food
Ø Promoting hand washing after eating
Ø Telling a teacher quickly if someone is having an allergic reaction
Ø Knowing the signs of an allergic reaction
By educating children on the following areas the whole community at childcare or school becomes Food Allergy Smart, children with allergies are safer as the risk is minimised and managed.
We have come along way in terms of protecting children with serious allergies at school and childcare, with changes to legislation in early child care centres, and some worthwhile changes in some states. For instance, in Victoria we have mandated for all teachers to receive Anaphylaxis training, and this is also the case nationally in early childhood education.
What legislative changes or reforms would you like to see in all schools in order to build allergy awareness and allergy safety for children?
Allergy education should be part of every childcare centre and school. If everyone in the classroom is Food Allergy Smart the child with allergies is safer and the risk of an allergic reaction is minimised.
Teaching kids what happens to our bodies if someone has an allergic reaction in turn means they take allergies seriously and most kids will only want to protect and keep their friends safe. Teaching no sharing of food and washing hands after eating is so simple but can make such a difference to a child with allergies. Although many kids with allergies are well educated, they still need guidance. It would be hard as a 3 year old to refuse a delicious looking biscuit, which may look safe or even like something they have eaten before. Many kids are shocked when I tell them that some potato chips contain milk, most of us that don’t have to read labels would have no idea what is actually in our food.
Allergy education also normalises allergies and helps children with the social impact and anxiety they may feel at school or kindy being around their allergens. Teaching children about inclusiveness and empathy is surely a good thing. Children with allergies are also a target for bullies, and with education and a greater understanding this may also be reduced.
Jackie, your character Thai which is based on your son, is such an approachable and likeable character that kids can relate to. I know many food allergy parents are very grateful and appreciative of the children series, which has become such a valuable resource in many homes.
What can we as parents do to advocate for change, and to continue to build allergy awareness in the community?
Speak out, just because a school or centre has policies, they may not be the best policies for keeping your child safe.
One centre had their EpiPens under lock and key, they thought they were doing the right thing keeping medicine locked away. What would happen if that key got misplaced??? This is an example of an out-of-date policy that needed to be changed.
I’m currently trying to get a change happening in schools and childcare centres.
Your books are such a welcome and wonderful resource to our community, and your tireless dedication is inspiring. What inspires you?
Thank you Kylie. Thai is my inspiration, like any mother I will do anything to keep my child safe. When I realised that nobody was actually educating kids and there was very limited resources out for young children,I set about changing this. I wanted a book about a real person, not an animal and I wanted to talk about real medicine so Thai grew up knowing what to ask for.
My family are amazing, both my boys always want to join me at events and other children love this. My husband, also the book illustrator, also keeps me going, this year he was also diagnosed with a fish allergy. I couldn’t do what I do without their support.
I also love hearing from parents that tell me how the books or Thai & Rabbie have made a difference, this really keeps me going and pushes me to create more resources. I would love to produce a video and an app. but sadly lacking the resources at the moment to complete this. No doubt as we face different challenges, Thai & Rabbie will be seen in chapter books and dealing with life as a teenager!!!
Thank you again Jackie for being such a great food allergy (community) friend
My Food Allergy Friends workshops
Or to show your support for an education allergy program contact Jackie
If you would like to see a national allergy education program nationally feel free to contact your local federal member of parliament, and let them you support such a program.
Purchase My Food Allergy Friends