31 Jan 2008

Daniel Isn't Talking

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.


Anonymous said...

Think I'll give that one a miss. Unfortunately I have met professionals like the SALT in the book; both from that profession & others. I've heard of a social worker who said to a parent that her son was "like an animal" and that the only thing to do was "put him in residential school". I can almost understand uninformed opinions like these from professionals who have never met a child with ASD (like some GPs) but not from those working in the field of ASD or LD

Sharon McDaid said...

That's horrible! I know there are doctors, health visitors etc who say stupid, rude, ill informed and just plain wrong things. I just found the depiction of the SALT in the book to be way over the top. I just can't imagine one saying they can't do anything for an autistic child, not even to refer them to a colleague with more experience.

There's a bit later in the book when the boy has some words and the mum takes him back to the SALT, Then she bombards him with questions and when he can't answer, says again she can't help him.

I have met about 5 different SALTs via nursery, school and the health centre. They all had good knowledge of how to help autistic children with communication. Was I just exceptionally lucky?

I credit the 1st SALT I met with giving me the most useful advice I ever had; use much less language, 1 or 2 words at a time, slow right down, and give Duncan loads of time to process information.

Anonymous said...

He he he, Sharon, you should work as book critic... That was a great post.

I read this book right after my son got diagnosed. So I didn't notice all those problems you're pointing out, even though I cringed at many of her ideas. In hindsight, I totally agree with your criticism. However I'm a chick-lit fan, so in that regard it was kinda satisfying as a Summer read.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I'm an aspie who's read the book and totally agree, as does my aspie boyfriend. I actually enjoy a few chick-lit books as a sort of guilty pleasure, but this book certainly was not among the best that the genre has to offer. Good chick-lit heroines are funny, assertive, and take matters into their own hands no matter how bad things get. This protagonist was just a self-pitying whiner who couldn't get over not having a "perfect" child.

kristina said...

I agree very much with you----wrote my thoughts about the novel here---and don't get me started on Andy the Irish play therapist!

VAB said...

"Obviously. The only thing in that list of any proven benefit, is a cleaner."

You made me laugh so hard -- and I never actually laugh when reading online. Brilliant review!

Usethebrains Godgiveyou said...

I was my son's ABA therapist...we ONLY did the language part, not the behavioral part, at a savings of $60,000. Other than some early workups...MRI and EEG, and some trips to the health food store for trial stuff, that is about it.

Oh, and the dolphin therapy...(tongue in cheek@)

Niksmom said...

Loved your review. I read this over the summer and thought it was good as a romatic novel goes but sucked as far as anything having to do with her autistic son. I never bothered to even review it I thought it was that mediocre.

Club 166 said...

Thanks for the review.

It's obviously not my kind of book, on oh so many levels.


Neurodivergent K said...

Sounds ghastly.

Thanks for the review, now I don't feel compelled to read it and do one. The library doesn't like it when their books piss me off as much as this one seems likely too...

Anonymous said...

Hey, enjoyed your review Sharon! But I reckon, after spending a few days with you and your wonderful family that you could easily write a book about the realities, and the absolute joys of having an autistic child. Duncan's cuddles are the best!
Miche xx

darkman said...

Keep up the reviews.

Sharon McDaid said...

I like a bit of chick-lit stuff too, but Sarah was right, the good ones have heroines who are smart and capable.

Kristina, oh yes, Andy the Irish therapist was awful! That characterisation bugged me badly!

RB, you say you've done dolphin therapy (yeah right!). Well we've gone one better, we've done, oh let's think, tiger therapy.

Niksmom, mediocre sums it up, but I thought it'd make for a fun review anyway.

Joe, are you sue it's not the book for you, ah go on!

Kassiane, you'd hate it, but I think I'd enjoy a review from you. Now that would be harsh!

Thanks Darkman.

Miche, that's one of the nicest things I've heard in ages. I just love to know that others enjoy my wee man too. And he does give fabulous hugs, it has to be said.

Heidirific said...

Sharon, you may want to check out the book "Running with Walker." It is written by a father of a boy with autism. While it talks about the challenges of having a child with autism, it is clear that the father loves his son very much, and that there is not a "cure." Nor do they want one.

mjsuperfan said...

I read this book quite a while ago, and found it very frustrating...to me it was another one of those "with the right therapist, my son suddenly started pointing, talking, interacting, etc" books. Where are the books about the kids who make very gradual progress, and are still wonderful and loveable? Maybe I'll write one.

Loved your Bettelheim comments (maybe no one told her he was dead)

Sharon McDaid said...

Thanks for the recommendation Heidirific, I'll look it up.

You make another great point about what was frustrating in that book, Mom to JBG. In these sorts of stories it is presented as some sort of miracle when the child starts to develop.

Let me know when you've written that book ;-)

Anonymous said...

"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."

Thank you! You have just described the life we live! I have given up reading books by mothers of autistics. Other than the book by Temple Grandin's mother, they are almost all a bunch of whiny, fanatical, unrealistic, quack curabies who spew their uninformed and baseless opinions.

Like I always say, it's not autism that's hard to live with, it is all the other people I have had to deal with who can make it difficult. They are either really great and get that we aren't in mourning, just trying to give my son an education and the skills to deal with the world, the same as my NT son, or they are clueless, absolutely worthless and actually get in the way. And the quackery I see perpetrated on autistics is just astounding.

My favorite line of your review is, "Obviously. The only thing in that list of any proven benefit, is a cleaner." Thank you, I haven't laughed so hard in a long time! I keep telling my husband this!

Please keep writing the reviews!

Anonymous said...

Hello from Texas, Sharon, Your review was excellent (a la Harry Potter). I'm reading a newly published non-fiction book, The Elephant in the Playroom by Denise Brodey. My quick review: easy to read, includes both humor and realism, and includes stories of children with a variety of diagnoses, but many with autism and Asperger's Syndrome.

I look forward to reading more of your blog. I hope you will visit my blog for parents of children with disabilities. www.therextras.com

Kim Alexis said...

I just found this blog and I feel inspired by this to use my blog to send a message! I think its brilliant and I will be back!
Really. life is a voyage in itself and living with autism, just like any impalement, makes it that much more trying. Not worse or better, just trying!
Great blog!

Lindsay said...

Hi, Sharon!

I just read this book myself (yes, in 2010/2011 --- I didn't notice when it first came out, but spotted it at a library book sale and was like, "Oh, hey, autism fiction. I'd better review it for my blog"), and I also loathed (LOATHED!) its disability politics.

I'm writing a post about metaphor in the book now --- will definitely have some words about how other disabled characters are represented, too, though!

I actually kinda liked Melanie; practically stood up and cheered when she bought the girls' shoes for Daniel, but I think my happiness at her finally deciding to advocate for her son instead of mourn him says more about how much mourning, and how little advocacy, she's done throughout the novel than about any overall feistiness the character possesses.

Your wry words about the Romantic Irish Play Therapist made me laugh, too. Nice review!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I'm trying to find a good book discussion book for April (Autism Awareness Month. I'm having no luck - Daniel Isn't Talking got such great reviews I was so hopeful that this would be the one. So many things bothered me about the book, but the worst is Leimbach's anti-vaccine bent. Now I have to go back to the drawing board and hope I find a good book soon.
Anyone have a suggestion?