During my search for something to read I came across A Friend Like Henry on my mother’s night stand. The front cover depicted a sweet looking boy and his dog, and was covered in a plethora of positive reviews that described an autistic boy (Dale) and the heart-warming story of Henry, the dog that unlocked Dale’s world. At a glance, the style looked simplistic and easy to read. I was a little disappointed that this autobiography was written from Dale’s mother’s view point rather than Dale himself, but the simple fact that it was an autobiography kept me interested. Perhaps I had finally found a realistic depiction of autism? I settled down on the sofa and poured myself a big glass of wine for what I hoped would be a relaxing evening of reading.
An hour later I was rigid with anger, tears running down my face. The battles Gardner had to go through to procure the right support for her autistic son really resonated with me. I recall my own parents going through similarly fruitless telephone calls, emails and assessments during my childhood (this process is still continuing, although I take a more active role in it). Gardner’s depiction of her own struggle helped me to see things from my parent’s perspective. While I was impressed by the level of support she provided for Dale, I was offended by her depiction of autism as the source of all Dale’s problems. When Gardner described Dale’s melt-down’s, self -injury and episodes of sensory overload she did so in a manner that focused entirely on their impact on her. At times, she seemed more concerned by strangers thinking she was a bad Mum than by the fact that her son was upset and hurt.
Here are just some of the comments on living with autism that I found so offensive:
‘I locked all the doors and cried- deep, racking sobs, wishing I 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.’
‘there was still no denying Dale’s lack of empathy or love for me’
‘it just felt sensible to end this hell of a life I had to bear’
‘All I knew was that life at home for both of us was intolerable’
‘I had lost my child- not perhaps in the same way as the woman with the stillborn baby, but I had nonetheless still lost him, to severe autism.’
‘I couldn’t bear the thought of being at home.’
I realise life can be difficult for the Carers of people on the autism spectrum. But they are not the ones with the disability. We are. No matter how hard caring for someone with autism is, life is ten times harder for those of us on the spectrum. Furthermore, I believe the majority of the problems autistic people face are caused not by autism itself, but by a lack of tolerance, patience and understanding within society. I’m no doctor, but I suspect that Dale’s head banging and attempts at self-injury were connected with the fact that Gardner viewed his autism as a burden. How could any child know they are seen as a burden and not want to hurt themselves?
The worst, most offensive depiction of autism was in the earlier chapters, with Gardner stating that ‘it felt as though Jean had told me my son had cancer’ and ‘something inside me died’ upon receiving her sons diagnosis. She actually compared autism to a terminal illness! About half way through the book I put it down, dried my eyes and had a shot of brandy to soothe. It wasn’t just that I felt awful for Dale, who was at one point held down and sedated against his will because the appropriate respite services could not be provided. It was that I am autistic, and feel terribly guilty when I think of all the problems I’ve caused for my kind, loving parents. I was disgusted with myself. I wondered if, like Gardner, my own parents viewed autism as some kind of terminal disease that had destroyed their lives.
Of course, this is not the case. My parents have always been incredibly supportive and understanding regarding my autism. My Mum has even implied that she wouldn’t want it gone, as she believes autism is responsible for my creativity and concentration. Autism also means I see the world differently to others, which comes across in my writing. But I digress. What I really want to emphasise is that autism is not an illness and not a burden. Nor is it a loss. I understand that some parents do go through the grieving process when their child is diagnosed with autism. It would be wrong to compare a social awareness and communications disability to death. However, grieving and letting go of the idea of a perfect, healthy child might be an important part of accepting autism. There is no need to ‘break down’ or ‘break through’ autism as Gardner suggests. All an autistic child needs is patience, love and understanding.
Furthermore, the very idea that autistic children are incapable of love is ridiculous. We love just as fiercely and passionately as anyone else. I don’t doubt for one second that Dale loved his Mum, and I’m sure he didn’t see her as an ‘object’. It’s just that autism is a social awareness and communications disability, and saying ‘I love you’ is a form of communication.
It was difficult for me to go back to A Friend Like Henry, but I have to say that it gets a lot better. From “Chapter Ten” onwards I found myself enjoying the book considerably and rooting for Dale as Gardner described the effort it took to get him into a mainstream school. At last- here was the hopeful, heart-warming story I had been expecting when I read the reviews.
I did take issue with the fact that according to Gardner, Dale’s improved communication and self-awareness was ‘all because of Henry’- a dog. It seems that Henry did play an important part in opening up Dale’s world by being patient, loving and affectionate in the way that only a Golden Retriever can. But from reading the whole book, it’s clear that speech therapy, school, support workers and a lot of hard work from Dale and his family is what helped open up his world.By presenting Henry Dale’s saviour, wasn’t Gardner undermining her own hard work? I imagine Gardner presented Henry as a kind of super hero that rushed in and changed everything overnight because that made for a stronger selling pitch. A lonely boy and his dog…. It already sounds like a Disney film.
Despite Gardner’s negative portrayal of autism, I did enjoy reading A Friend Like Henry. It was a moving, heart-warming story written in a clear, direct manner that was easy to follow. Gardner’s depiction of her struggle to find the right support for Dale and help him make friends really resonated with me as a young person with Asperger’s, and encouraged me to be a little more patient with my own parents. However, her repeated cries of ‘why me?’ caused me to wish I could slap her around the face with a copy of her own book. After all, it’s not Gardner that was born with a lifelong disability. It’s her son.
Now that I’ve addressed the issues I had with this book, I can say that I would recommend it to anyone who wants insight into living with autism (or living with someone who’s living with autism). However, I must urge you not to read the first nine chapters! Start from “Chapter Ten, Henry: A Really Useful Dog” and you’ll get a book that’s as insightful, well written and heart-warming as the reviews promise. Start from “Chapter One, Words” and you’ll get a horrifically condemning, negative depiction of autism that could be detrimental to your self-esteem. I hope that by dismissing the first nine chapters I don’t come across as dismissing Gardner and her son’s pain. I have no problem whatsoever with the portrayal of pain. But portraying someone else’s autism as the source of all your pain- that is unacceptable.