I thought I'd give reviews of the novels and memoirs related to autism which I've read. I hope this blog entry will help you find the diamonds among the coals the next time you're looking for a book which might help deepen your understanding of autism.
Daniel isn't talking by Marti Leimbach (2006) - Fiction
This is a novel written from the point of view of Melanie. She has a three-year-old named Daniel who, as the title suggests, doesn't talk. As the story unfolds, Melanie learns that Daniel is autistic. Through intense play therapy and a gluten-free, dairy-free diet, Daniel learns to speak, follow instructions and cope with difficult situations. The book ends a year after it begins, with Daniel's development being advanced enough for him to go into a mainstream school.
While I thought Daniel in the early part of the book was very realistic (having similarities to my boys), his progress and eventual cure was not. As one Amazon customer review puts it: at one stage in the book, Daniel's speech is more advanced than that of most 3-year-olds, and Melanie is still fretting about him being behind.
I didn't like the way Melanie was obsessed with not sending Daniel to special school. The special schools are her worst nightmare. Furthermore, all of the medical professionals in the book are made out to be bumbling quacks.
I liked the way the father in the story is portrayed as a pompous jerk. Much of the book revolves around the breakdown of Melanie's marriage as a result of the autism diagnosis and the ensuing paternal denial. I saw a bit of myself in this man, especially when I read my wife's one and only blog entry. Who knows? Maybe having read this book is part of what got my own marriage through these difficult times!
Why I read it: One of my wife's friends is a teacher and she leant us a bunch of books about the education of special needs kids. The book was in the pile for some reason (she must have read it and thought it might help). Reading a novel seemed easier than reading a bunch of textbooks so, due to laziness, I read it first (even though the book is pretty girly).
Louder than Words: A mother's journey in healing autism by Jenny McCarthy (2007) - Memoir
It is a memoir of the diagnosis of Ms McCarthy's son, Evan, with autism. The book suggests (but never explicitly states) that Evan's autism was caused by the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. A foreword, written by a paediatrician, also suggests (but never explicitly states) that his own son's autism was caused by the vaccine. The memoir also suggests that autism can be cured using the correct diet and behavioural therapies. The book ends on a happy note: Evan is quickly cured of autism.
The book is very popular because it fills the reader with hope that something can be done to make autism go away. Even though it's all bullshit.
Don't let this be the only book you've ever read: arm yourself with information by reading lots of other stuff, too (and not just the novels and memoirs). There is no magic cure for autism, and there are no easy answers to what causes autism. This book will tell you otherwise: don't believe it.
Why I read it: My mother sent me a copy of this book. Now, whenever somebody brings the book up in conversation, I get all wound up and make sure everyone within earshot knows exactly what I think of it (in case you need a bigger hint, check out my post Vaccination).
The curious incident of the dog in the night by Mark Haddon (2003) - Fiction
As autism literature evolves, I believe we'll find a trend from autism cures to autism acceptance. This book is a fine example of autism acceptance: life from the point of view of an autistic person. I can't judge whether this is an accurate portrayal of a teenager with Asperger's, but it's pretty convincing to me.
I have a couple of friends at work who are fascinated with my kids' autism. In response to their questions, I leant them this book and pointed out a couple of the bits which I see in common with my boys. I think it deepened their understanding of my life and what my kids are like.
This is a great book, and a quick read.
This is a great book, and a quick read.
A friend like Henry by Nuala Gardner (2007) - Memoir
Don't be put off by the subtitle: "The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog That Unlocked His World". The book is marketed as sappy trash, but it's actually quite good. Nuala tells her story from the birth of her son Dale (around 1990) through to his late adolescence (2007). The book is very much about Nuala, whose life revolves around Dale, even when life throws her such curve balls as the death of a parent or dealing with her own infertility.
The main thesis of the book is that hard work and perseverance made it possible for Dale to come out of his shell, and possibly set himself up for a good, happy life. The story pre-dates all of the 21st century quackery around autism cures. There were no easy answers in this book: the dog didn't cure autism. Henry the dog was just another tool which Nuala and company used to help Dale learn about the world around him. Henry only comes into the story about halfway through the book!
Nuala Gardner does mention Andrew Wakefield's so-called link between combining vaccines and autism, and how she separated the vaccines just to be safe. I'll forgive her because the book was written before the urban myth of autism-vaccination links was completely debunked. But a warning to all would-be authors out there: mentioning these urban myths is playing with fire, even if you only lightly mention them in passing (like Mrs Gardner did). Many parents of autistic kids out there will only read one or two books, and they might adhere to your book like it’s the Bible. And Lord knows the Bible gets misinterpreted all the time.
Why I read it: Another friend of my wife's. This friend read the book and loved it so much she thrust it upon us. I read it immediately. I'm still trying to get the wife to read it, but it just makes her cry because it's too familiar.
"Friend like Henry" is my favourite of the books I've read so far. It inspired me to work harder with my boys, and I feel as though the extra work is paying off. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has autistic kids and to anyone who works with them.
Other books worth mentioning:
Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (2010) - Fiction: Nothing to do with autism, but it does give an interesting perspective of the world: through the eyes of a five year old who doesn't get out much. I can't say more without giving anything away. Great book, though.
House Rules by Jodi Picoult (2010) - Fiction: It's a novel about a murder investigation which centres around an Asperger's kid, and the kid is obsessed with CSI style forensic investigation. Some of the book is written from his point of view. Has anyone read this one? It's sitting on my bookshelf and I haven't got around to reading it. Should I bother?
I would love to hear if there are any other books out there which are worth reading, or if there is any more celebrity-endorsed trash which will probably pop up in conversations.