All Because of Henry is an autobiography and sequel to critically acclaimed A Friend Like Henry by Nuala Gardner. I approached this text with mixed feelings, after being disappointed by the negative portrayal of autism in A Friend Like Henry. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only does All Because of Henry actually follow it’s tagline ‘my story of struggle and triumph with two autistic children and the dogs that unlocked their world’. It is far more informative than its prequel, and portrays autism positively. The book concerns Gardner’s struggle to procure the right services for her autistic children. It also touches on her work with families around the world, using dogs to encourage social interaction and develop empathy in autistic children. Despite it’s informative nature, I found All Because of Henry both entertaining and easy to read.
I was particularly touched by Gardner’s comments on autism and friendship towards the end of the book:
‘People on the spectrum, to differing degrees, want to fit in with our scary world, to be accepted. They have no agenda at all to cause deliberate hurt, to deceive or to cause upset. Instead, they offer unconditional friendship, and for that alone they deserve our unstinting respect.’ (Gardner, p. 215)
As an autistic adult who has struggled to maintain friendships, this comment gave me hope. The loyalty and support I (and others like me) can offer is often overlooked by friends when they are confronted by my social awkwardness. The word ‘Autism’ comes from the Greek word ‘auto’, meaning ‘self’ or ‘selfish’. That’s one example of how the difficulties autistic people experience can be misconstrued as selfishness. Indeed, the first ten chapters of A Friend Like Henry depicted an autistic child that sucked up all his parents’ life and energy, without expressing any love or affection for them. I am sure Dale loved his parents, but expressing love can sometimes be the hardest thing in the world. While I imagine it made family life difficult, there is nothing selfish about the levels of support Dale required. I imagine those early years of confusion, frustration and social isolation were far more difficult for him than they were for his parents. To see Gardner’s views of autism changing, to the extent where she no longer compares it to a terminal illness and can acknowledge the positive aspects of having a differently functioning brain was sheer bliss.
My copy of A Friend Like Henry must have at least half its pages folded down, scribbled on and highlighted- all moments where Gardner’s portrayal of autism was negative to the point of being offensive. The sequel, All Because of Henry only contained one of these instances. Here, she is discussing her realization that her young niece might be on the autism spectrum: ‘I was cradling an infant in my family… another ticking bomb. For me, it wasn’t a matter of if Katy’s autism would explode, just when.’ (Gardner, p. 104). This metaphor implies Katie’s autism would hurt, or even destroy the people close to her. Autism can appear suddenly. I have heard countless stories of children developing normally or even ahead of their peers, only to regress rapidly around two or three years old, their autistic behaviour seeming to appear overnight. Despite this, recent evidence shows that autism itself develops in the earliest stages of pregnancy and is a lifelong disability. Autistic children are not bombs. The do not ‘explode’ and most of them would never intentionally harm the people close to them. They are just children- brilliant, unique, intelligent children who can achieve anything if they are given the right support.
I was very impressed with the level of support Gardner provided for her son in A Friend Like Henry, and this support only seemed to increase during the sequel. It never would have occurred to me that a pet dog could do so much for an autistic child. But Gardner’s work with schools and families clearly made a difference. She writes about this work in a simple, direct manner that most readers should be able to understand, even if they have no prior experience of autism.
‘Keir [an autistic boy] was comfortable communicating with the dog because [it] gave him no verbal or social pressure. We witnessed how children with autism are able to understand and begin to verbalise using a dog because of the consistent, none threatening sharing the animal allows. The dog enables the child to engaging and interact without the human’s social baggage. There are no complex facial expressions or language to bombard and intimidate.’ (Gardner, 109)
Later, Gardner lists around five simple facial expressions that a dog is capable of producing. Given the multitude of complex expressions we see every day on a human face, I imagine it would be much easier for an autistic child to start learning basic facial expressions from a dog. Learning five different doggy emotions doesn’t seem nearly as daunting as the infinite number of emotions a human face is capable of expressing.
Indeed, Gardner’s work has made me wonder if I perhaps underestimated the positive impact canines have had on my own social development. My family doesn’t have a dog, but we know plenty of people who do, so I spent a great deal of my childhood cuddling up to my four legged friends. My first word was not ‘mummy’ or ‘dada’- it was ‘dog.’ My parents don’t seem to mind that my first attempt at communication wasn’t to tell them how much I love them, but to point out a furry animal. My mother’s eyes still glow with pride when she describes the day I said my first word. Perhaps I did learn a few basic facial expressions and social cues from all the time I spent around my auntie’s crossbreed. Perhaps not. All I know is that to this day, I still can’t walk past a dog without stopping to pet it.
In my earlier review of A Friend Like Henry I criticised Gardner’s choice for the sequel’s title, stating that ‘All Because of Henry’ gives all the credit to a dog, thus undermining the hard work Gardner herself has put into understanding autism and improving the lives of children on the spectrum. Now that I’ve read both books, it seems like a rather fitting title. However, I still feel Gardner deserves more credit for her contribution to the cause. She is an inspiring woman who has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of autism and improve the lives of her children. Gardner writes about this more direct manner than the previous book, rarely trying to elicit sympathy from the reader. She is also refreshingly honest and frank about her own struggles with mental illness and physical exhaustion. At times, I could not help wondering if Gardner pushed herself and her children too far, and this desperate struggle to achieve impossible goals is what caused her to sometimes view autism so negatively. In her own words:
‘We all love our children. Of course we do! Yet, somewhere in that exhausting, endless struggle to secure the basics when dealing with autism, it becomes hard to enjoy them and share that love. You don’t need me to tell you that is wrong.’ (Gardner, p. 49).
While I was impressed with the overall quality of the book, I felt the last couple of chapters could have benefited from more rigorous editing. In “Chapter Eighteen: New Horizons” Gardner describes hearing a knock at the door, and her thoughts on who could be. ‘What if it’s Dale, with that very lovely lass…or that secret, special man for me… or it could be a wee opporchancity’ (Gardner, p. 222). I understand what she was trying to convey- her life opening up and new opportunities arriving. But I felt the shift from literal description to daydreaming and more abstract thoughts was poorly executed and difficult to follow. Also (and this is more of a personal matter) I’ve always hated it when words are spelled phonetically to create an accent. It just looks weird, and distracts me from the meaning of the text.
The novel ends with a final evocative (and slightly confusing) farewell to the dogs that started it all:
‘To our own terrible but lovely Thomas, and most of all, the late, great Sir Henry, I raise a glass and the biggest, most succulent of bones.’ (Gardner, p. 229)
Once again, I understand that Gardner is trying to give thanks to her dogs. But the overuse of adjectives, plus the contrasting image of a glass and a bone makes this message difficult to decipher. All Because of Henry would have benefited from a direct, concise ending that matched the tone of the rest of the book.
To sum up, I found All Because of Henry both enjoyable and informative, although I was slightly disappointed by the ending and by the occasional negative portrayal of autism. It was better written, and more hopeful and heart-warming than the memoir that preceded it, and I hope Gardner continues to write. However, it would be nice to read this story from her children’s perspective. “Chapter 23: In Their Own Words” does not contain nearly enough input from Amy and Dale, and I would be interested to know if they agree with the content of both books. I was also disappointed that Gardner had asked Amy Barclay to write about her autistic son Noah, when by now he is probably old enough and high functioning enough to write about himself. Of course, autism is a communication disability- but this rarely stops people on the autism spectrum from writing. Many people with severe classical autism (including Carly Fleischman) might not be able to speak a word, but are capable of writing very eloquently and offering unique insight into life on the autism spectrum. Neurotypical mothers have their own story to tell, but they shouldn’t be representing their autistic children. We should be representing ourselves.