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New children's book stresses importance of inclusion

Beth Leipholtz became inspired to write her newest book, "The ABCs of Inclusion" after hearing many stories of parents like herself who have children with disabilities and diagnoses.

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ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Beth Leipholtz wrote an illustrated children's book that tells the real stories of 26 real children dealing with different diagnoses. Each child's name represents a letter of the alphabet.

C is for her son Cooper.

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Beth Leipholtz's son, Cooper Carlson, represents C in her book "The ABCs of Inclusion."
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When Cooper was born, there was no inkling of any underlying issues. He did have a streak of white hair, but Leiphotz and her husband Brandon Carlson assumed it was a "birthmark type thing." Cooper did not pass his newborn screening, but the doctor only casually mentioned it in passing.

"It's also not super abnormal for babies to not pass it just because, you know, fluid in the ears and that kind of stuff," said Leipholtz, who lives in Alexandria, Minnesota. "So it was kind of in the back of our heads. We didn't think a ton of it."

Leipholtz was curious about the white streak, though.

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Beth Leipholtz feeds her son, Cooper, at the hospital during a check-up.
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A few weeks after coming home from the hospital, she began researching to see if anyone else's children had something similar. What she found is that the streak could be an indicator of Waardenburg Syndrome — a group of genetic conditions that can produce sensorineural hearing loss, changes in pigmentation of the hair, skin, and eyes, craniofacial alterations, musculoskeletal limb abnormalities, and Hirschsprung disease.

According to the Mayo Clinic, it accounts for 1% to 3% of all cases of congenital deafness.

"We got his official diagnosis when he was 6 weeks old — that he was profoundly deaf," she said.

"At first you go through those five stages of grief to an extent," Leipholtz said. "It was hard for me to realize that because you don't want to feel like you're grieving your child who is otherwise healthy, but you're still grieving the normalcy that you thought was going to be parenting. I can talk about that now and understand that it's a beautiful thing in a way. There are still days where it's a little bit harder to wrap my head around, or I see him with his peers, and it's hard not to play that comparison game. But early on, those first couple of days were hard. It was more just out of fear."

They discovered he was a candidate for a cochlear implant and they started using sign language right away.

"It just really opened up our world to the modes of communication that are available when it's not a typical linear path," Leipholtz said. "It's just part of who Cooper is now. And as far as how it affects his daily life. I mean, honestly, I've had so many people telling me that you wouldn't even know he was deaf if you couldn't see his implants, he talks a mile a minute, and he never stops talking. He repeats everything. He was just obsessed with sound. It's cool. It's amazing."

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Cooper Carlson with his hearing aid.
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The feelings that came over her as a parent led her to write her first book, " Hello, Holland: The path to embracing your child’s hearing loss ," which tells her family's story and the emotions that overcame them after finding out about Cooper's hearing loss. She also began telling the story through social media like Tiktok and Instagram . She soon earned a significant following.

Through social media, Leipholtz said people from all over started sharing their stories with her. Stories of parents with children dealing with disabilities and diagnoses. It inspired her to write her second, "The ABCs of Inclusion." It follows the stories of 26 real children of different genders and ethnicities all with different diagnoses and how it affects their lives with the purpose of educating others to create a more accepting and knowledgeable world for kids.

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She said it was important to represent the diversity of children and various diagnoses. "But, you know, each child had to have that first letter of the name. So it was easy filling in the first 10 or so. Then it was like, 'oh boy,' like kind of a puzzle."

Leipholtz works fast, though, when she sets her mind on something. She said the whole process of finding the children took about a month. She said finding a child to represent X was surprisingly easy. U was the hardest. But, harder than that was the actual writing.

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From left, Beth Leipholtz, Cooper Carlson and Brandon Carlson share a loving moment during a family photo session.
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"You think kids' books and you're like 'Oh, those are probably really easy to write.' It's just different," she said. "You have to be very succinct when you do it. Taking these complex medical diagnoses and trying to bring that down to a kid level and also keep it short, that was really challenging."

The book covers a wide range of diagnoses from autism, anxiety, blindness, cerebral palsy, deafness and diabetes to epilepsy, fragile X syndrome and Goldenhar syndrome.

"I think for me, as a parent, or any parent, just wants their kids to be accepted and loved for who they are," Leipholtz said on why she wrote the book. "Watching Cooper grow up, he has no idea that he's different. He doesn't know if other kids have implants or not. And honestly, kids have been much more accepting of it than I would think. They just don't notice it half the time. But when they do, they're really curious. And so I know there are so many other kids out there who have maybe more obvious things ... And I want younger kids to have that reference point to be able to be like, 'Oh, that's like you so and so in the book,' and take a little bit of that fear out of it. And also be able to relate and be like, 'Oh, I know what those are. Those are implants. This is how you hear because you can't hear without them.' So I think that that's my main driver. To create a more accepting, but also knowledgeable, world for kids."

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Cooper Carlson rests after receiving his cochlear implants.
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Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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