It took me a long time to read this book by Nuala Gardner. It's short and simple, but it's the opposite of compelling.
I found the writing dull, flat and pedestrian and the only person whose characterisation felt real and alive, was Nuala herself. The book consists in the main, of an account of the autistic child's birth and childhood and closely follows my how-to-write-a-parental-autism-book template.
I had hoped to find some inspiration from this story, especially since we have recently had a canine addition to the family. There is surprisingly little about the dog Henry, named after a Thomas & Friends engine, a strategy I wholly approve of.
Yes, it's nice that Dale (the autistic boy) and the dog had a good human-animal relationship, but it wasn't anything all that astonishing. It just seemed to me that when the Gardners brought Henry into Dale's life, they happened upon something that interested and engaged him. They had the great idea of giving Henry a voice, as Dale was more inclined to heed them when they spoke through Henry. They used Henry as a teaching aid, maximising all those little teaching moments as they arose, and so helping Dale to develop and learn.
There were no miracles. It's likely that even without Henry, they could have found another way to reach out to Dale and find a way to engage him and support his education.
The story proceeds to describe all the struggles Nuala faced, first to understand just why her son was so different, and then to have her worries for him taken seriously. There's a lovely account of how her mother helped Dale learn to say his first word-tree-by patting a tree and labelling it with a single word. She then encouraged him to finish the sentence "it's a ..." giving him time and space to say the word, and he did. This is hailed as a miracle, which I suppose is fair enough when your child's first word comes at 26 months.
(Duncan's first word-train, emerged when he was nearly 3 years old. We played lots of ending the sentence games, a favourite was to sing the Winnie the Pooh song, letting him sing the very last word -bear, which he loved to do.)
I felt for Nuala when she described an incident at a playgroup when Dale didn't want to give up a plastic spoon when they were tidying up the toys, leading to a tantrum and condemnation from the other mums. I remember such things myself.
The moment a professional gave voice to the word "that petrified" her, autism, she says that "something inside me died," but her mum, an eminently sensible person from the sound of things, reminds her that "he's still our Dale, and we'll do whatever it takes to help him."
Unfortunately, Nuala struggles with this and describes how she cried and wished she "could find a way out of this hell...wishing I was dead. I loved Dale so much, but while I respected his disability, I hated his autism," a sentiment that makes no sense to me. Shockingly, to her, he laughed as she cried because, apparently, of his "lack of empathy and low comprehension of emotions."
Just as in part 8 of my template, Nuala explains how awful things were, "despite all our efforts to break into his world, autism was now engulfing him-and I was losing him to it."
I wonder, do parents of children with other disabilities ever speak about their children in that way?
For a book ostensibly starring Henry, we don't hear much of him until quarter of the way through the story and he's barely mentioned in the second half. As a pup, he approaches Dale, Dale strokes him and so the bond begins. Whereas Dale (like Duncan) learned lots via Thomas & Friends, Henry is a living companion, so there's lots of talk and play which both enjoy.
But bad things are a-stirring, and we enter the chapter corresponding to point 9 on my template. Dale kicks the dog one day, and everyone is shocked, and it's a turning point because Dale is desperately sorry for what he did, apologises to the dog and is devastated when his mum pretends that she's calling the breeder to return Henry. But most amazingly, the child who was said to lack empathy, tells his dog that he loves him, and, stop the press, tells his parents he loves them too. Wow, they can do that?
(Just so people know, Duncan's been telling us that he loves us for years, without any of these miraculous interventions.)
Time passes and things happen and we're told about almost all of them in this book. There's a huge cast of characters and schools mentioned and I was losing track of who was who before long. There's a lot less about Henry than I expected, and more about their struggles to have a second child and various family traumas. Much emphasis is given to their efforts to have Dale attend mainstream school as he was "regressing, in that he was picking up autistic mannerisms and copying inappropriate behaviour from the other children" who were also autistic. We couldn't have those awful children contaminate him now, could we.
The Gardners were not fully immune to the autism-biomed quack theories and Nuala tells of a conference with the Grandaddy of autism-vaccine nonsense himself, Andrew Wakefield. She knows that his notion of a link between MMR and autism is bunk as Dale was clearly affected from birth but she believes in his invented disease of autistic-colitis. Later, she spoke with the star attraction who recommended that they get Dale checked out, which led to an appointment at a private hospital for some unnamed medications which soon resolved his unmentioned problems.
Moreover, by now Nuala has a second child, who is not exposed to the MMR, as they "took the informed decision to give her single vaccines at six-month intervals (my emphasis)."
The Gardeners did their best to help Dale learn and progress academically and socially, enrolling him in drama classes and extra maths lessons. Dale was eventually able to attend mainstream secondary school, where he "passed" (my word) as non-autistic. He didn't even know he was autistic until he was around 12, when he is said to have asked his mum why he was struggling so much with his school work, "Why did I get born with problems? Do these problems have a name?" They had hidden the truth about his neurological condition from him for so long, it was a terrible shock to him when he was finally told the truth.
It can't have helped that his mum was even then depicting autism as some sort of troublesome add-on. She told him "if you didn't have such a strong desire to be like everyone else, you'd never be where you are now."
Way to go at bolstering his self esteem there. Let the boy know that the aim is to pass, to hide the autism.
Dale was concerned that his sister "had it" and Nuala assured him she was "all right and doing well." But no, it turned out that her "worse nightmare unfolded as I watched Amy [Dale's sister] slowly slipping away from me."
What is it with these changeling metaphors and autism-parent authors?
But never fear, for Henry is brought back into the story at last to save Amy as well as Dale, and when he's old and ill, Nuala's thoughts were, "How do you let go and say good-bye to someone who has helped give you back your children?"
It's clear that Henry was a wonderful pet, gentle, loyal and well trained, but it's an exaggeration to say that he gave her back her children, who after all, hadn't gone anywhere, but just had some growing up to do.