I happened to pick this up in the local library. 'Daniel Isn't Talking' by Marti Leimbach, is a mother's story. It features the typical account of the mum, this time an American in England, sensing something about her child just isn't quite right, followed by the quest to gain a diagnosis and explanation from a cold and unfeeling medical profession. Even worse, her husband and her hostile mother-in-law are adamant there is nothing amiss with the child saying the mum is worrying unnecessarily.
So anyway, I'm just going to go ahead and reveal the plot of the book, because to be honest, it's not exactly a page turner, and I wasn't enamoured of the whiny Melanie, nor convinced by the astonishing, no, miraculous intervention of the handsome rascal, Oirish therapist, of whom she has to say, 'He makes me laugh and he fixes my kid.' This roll-up-smoking, sexy maverick falls for the mum; ethical qualms about sleeping with your client's mother be damned. Anyway, he's presented as a far better catch for her than the uptight, cheating Brit she's married. That's the gist of it anyway.
So what about the depictions of autism and disability in this novel? Well they pissed me right off. The author has every right to create her character and make her think and say what she wants, but I'm also entitled to react as I see fit, and I didn't like it...with one exception.
Chapter 5 starts, "Do everything you can in life to avoid ever visiting a developmental paediatrician, especially one in the NHS."
She then tells of the unattractive car park, the imperfect decor of the hospital, and even worse the "posters about various conditions - dyslexia, Down's syndrome, schizophrenia - until you enter playrooms full of badly damaged children. These children do not often smile, cannot easily speak, play not with each other but with objects that are not toys." (my emphasis)
In chapter 7, she visits "a supposed centre of excellence for autistic children" and is asked if she wants her son enrolled in their programme. The readers have just been given a precis of the flawed theories of Bruno Bettleheim, and the programme in question uses psychotherapy, so is obviously useless to her, and brave Melanie tells the smug shrinks just that. I wonder why she bothered meeting them in the first place. Later she writes a letter to Bettleheim; "I didn't know I could love so much as I have loved my son, my daughter. Why do you insist this isn't the case? Why do you openly despise me, despise all mothers of children with autism?
I would give my life publicly if I thought I could lift from my baby this appalling diagnosis. If it were that he could be normal - just ordinary like other children - I would climb the scaffold myself..." (my emphasis)
Not that Bruno will ever know her thoughts, him being dead and all.
There are many references to the role of vaccines in this novel. Melanie feels guilty for having vaccinated her son and is convinced it contributed to his autism. But, it's a work of fiction, and she can invent causes of autism if she wants. If I was the author, I'd have had my character worrying about eating grapes in pregnancy or some other random and non-related event. (I recently read online somewhere, some tool's theory that children who watch cartoons are made autistic!)
One of the silliest parts of the novel, if we are to think this is based on what might happen in a real life situation, is the meeting between Melanie and a speech therapist. The speech therapist says all sorts of daft things like, "If I were you, however, I'd be thinking about special school and about respite care. You really have no choice." (my emphasis)
I just couldn't imagine any SALT worth their salt (I know, that was pathetic, but I'm not a writer) even saying that. But it gets worse:
"I'm telling you for a fact this is a big one, autism. Regular speech therapists like me can't even touch it.
I'm not qualified to treat this kind of thing."
This speech therapist, we are led to believe, has no advice or recommendations to give the mum. Nothing.
This is just bollox.
I know it's a work of fiction, and set in a parallel world where it is likely that vaccinations cause autism, so it's just as likely in such a world that a SALT would have zero advice for the parent of a non-verbal 3 year-old beyond 'put him in a special school.'
But the speech therapist is really just a plot device to introduce us to the lovable Irish rogue and ABA therapist, Andy. He's going to draw Daniel out of his autistic state and fall for his mother. He's expensive, but he's worth it.
Melanie says, "Autism turns out to be an expensive condition. That is, if you treat it."
But what is it she's paying for; ABA therapist, a therapist for herself, a cleaner, bills for private doctors, homeopaths, kinesiologists craniosacral therapists, oh and gluten and casein are excluded from Daniel's diet. Obviously. The only thing in that list of any proven benefit, is a cleaner. Thankfully Melanie can raise cash to waste by selling some of their stuff and she happens to have a spare country cottage.
The book is set in England where the NHS provides free health care so why is she forking out for doctors? There are also free schools and nurseries for those who want them and disability benefits are available though the claims procedure is a nightmare.
At least Melanie did buy Daniel the 'girl's' buckle shoes he wanted, though the dragon-lady sales assistant was over-done.
So I didn't like this book, didn't like how autism is portrayed, the 'devastation rhetoric' used, the disablist language, the improbable love story, the way it's assumed that autism is not just an evil thief of innocent children, but an expensive one at that.
Wouldn't it be nice if there was a book where the child happened to be autistic, which caused challenges and meant that the family had to make choices they might not otherwise have made, but where there was fun and silliness, where education and parenting are deemed all that are necessary to ensure the autistic child's optimal development and where expensive unproven quack therapies are scoffed at, not embraced.
There's a line in the book; "Other people don't have children with autism. They're not entitled to have an opinion."
Well I do, and I am.