I’ve been living in a bubble. Never having come into close contact with a family whose child is autistic is surprising when you see the statistics. It’s the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States today with 1 out of every 150 American children affected by it, and 1 out of 94 boys. Just in case you’re in that bubble with me, let me tell you about this incredible story of Dale, born with autism, the journey he and his parents take and the role a golden retriever named Henry plays in changing their world.
It’s hard to say who touched me more. Was it Dale, the little boy born with autism, or his parents Jamie and Nuala Gardner, as my heart was torn by the gut-wrenching journey they were on, or was it the namesake of this book, a gentle, unassuming dog who came into their life with no way of knowing the impact he would have? It only took the prologue for this book to grab me.
Written from the mother’s perspective in raw, honest and sometimes strong language, Nuala gave me my first real glimpse of a family dealing with this disability, really any disability. There’s nothing ‘warm, fuzzy’ about this book. Rather, it allows us to spend time in their world, getting a close look not only at what day to day life was like, but also the depths of despair they reached, the anger and grieving, and the triumphs that came along now and then. Nuala flings the door to her heart wide open, letting us all see what life with a severely autistic child is like. Most of the book is written from her perspective, but I was also given a glimpse of what Dale was feeling, especially as he got older. The end of the book has snippets written by Dale himself.
Early in the book Nuala shared a scene of attempting to help Dale cross a busy street. Reaching the middle he began to scream, kick, pull her hair and all she could do was sit down astride him, trying to keep him from smashing his head against the concrete. If that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, the real lesson for me was in the responses of those trying to drive down the street. Horns honking, and people yelling out their windows, “That kid needs a da*n good spanking.” “Disgusting behavior.” Autism isn’t usually obvious to the casual eye. As a matter of fact, in spite of being diagnosed as ‘severe classic autism’ none of Dale’s friends ever knew of his disability, even though he eventually was placed in the mainstream high school. It’s easy to miss and misunderstand.
Almost accidentally Dale is exposed to a family member’s dog, and the parents immediately see a connection. With some hesitation they bring home a golden retriever puppy, and amazingly he is the key that unlocks Dale’s world. As he learns to care about, care for Henry, to spend time with him, to bond with him, Dale is literally freed from his solitary world to one of relationships, communication, friends, school, to a functioning level of independence. Possibly the most moving story in the book is when Nuala shares Dale telling her for the very first time that he loves her. Interestingly at just the same time I was reading this book, my own daughter shared with me that her two year old son had spontaneously told her he loved her. “Love u momma.” Nuala waited years for the same expression.
A Friend Like Henry wasn’t written to educate the public. I have to think, after reading it, that it was just lying there down in Nuala’s soul, waiting to come out. She’d lived it and had to share it. Still, it was a tremendous lesson for me, not only to what a parent of a severely disabled child must deal with on a day to day basis, but what goes on within their heart, the reactions they receive, the grief they must journey through, the parenting skills they must conjure up in the midst of heartbreak, discouragement and exhaustion.
Reading this book I realized there are countless people out there, living the life handed to them, loving their child fiercely, doing what they have to do, all the while dealing with loneliness, discouragement, misunderstanding, and a lack of respect or compassion or empathy, sometimes on my part. One point Nuala shared over and over was the vital role friends played in supporting them, often in practical ways. If you know someone who has an autistic child, or one with other disabilities, I would highly recommend reading this book. It will change how you see the world and that’s almost always a good thing.
I’m confident Nuala isn’t asking to be anyone’s hero but I came away with tremendous respect for this family, the tough road they walked, never once loosening their fierce grip on each other’s hands. Here’s a link to a video of the family on You Tube, for an upclose look at this family. The video was made when Dale was a little boy and still deep in his own world.
Bev shares whatever’s on her heart at Scratchin’ the Surface, when she doesn’t have her nose in a book, or isn’t on the phone with someone in her family.
To win one of three copies of A Friend Like Henry Sourcebooks is giving away, leave a comment here. We’ll post the winners on Wednesday September 10.
Editor’s note: Whether or not you have a child with Special Needs, you can peek into the world of families who do. Our sister site 5 Minutes for Special Needs features thoughtful posts from fantastic writers each day.