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A Friend Like Henry: solicited book review

Posted May 20 2009 1:24pm
A Friend Like Henry, by Nuala Gardner, is billed on the cover as "The remarkable true story of an autistic boy and the dog that unlocked his world." While I definitely think that the book is worth reading, I don't think the dog unlocked the boy's world.

Nuala Gardner is the mother in this story, so we're reading her version of events. The book is, thankfully, neither overly emotional nor overly descriptive of things that aren't directly applicable to the story (both problems I've noted in parent-books over the years). At the end of the book, just before Nuala's Afterword and the book club discussion questions, Dale (the autistic boy) gives a few explanations for his behaviour.

Nuala is impressive in her ability to recognize that Dale was autistic from the beginning (would that more parents could see this in their children). The struggle she and her husband went through to get their son properly diagnosed is amazing, and I am honestly rather amazed that they stuck with it. In fact, they pushed throughout Dale's childhood to make sure he was in the right school placements and had all the opportunities they felt he should have for socializing, so that he could learn from his same-age peers.

This isn't really a story about a dog who unlocks an autistic boy's world, though. Rather, it's the story of a family that rallied around their autistic child and found ways to harness his interests so that he could learn and participate in activities outside of his home. Dale's perseverative interest in Thomas the Tank Engine got the whole family through a lot, including the death of Nuala's mother; meanwhile, Dale's interest in and ability to relate to the dog (Henry) allowed his parents to teach him hygeine and conversational skills, and even got him eating a varied diet.

Dale's little sister, Amy, was born after much trial and tribulation; she also is autistic, but regressed after a seemingly normal infancy. The siblings are very different in their autistic traits, something which Nuala stresses.

I had difficulty understanding how upset Nuala and her husband, James, were when faced with Amy's diagnosis, but I'm sure that's just my own "Theory of Mind" coming into play. I also had some difficulty with the emphasis Nuala and James placed on Dale stopping things like running in the garden; in Dale's section at the end of the book, he explains that there were some things that he did to feel calm and more himself, but that he stopped doing them to make his parents happy. This is a problem, in my mind, because there could be repercussions later on in Dale's life if he doesn't find other ways to feel calm.

Those two concerns aside, I applaud this book for its honesty and straightforward account of life with Dale. I very much enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it as an account of how a severely autistic child was helped to manage his life without any special programming besides a bit of speech therapy - all else was done by family members, friends, and teachers at school.

One small warning, though: Henry does eventually die (he's old by then), and that whole part of the tale is definitely tear-inducing.

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