I came across this book shortly after my son’s diagnosis of ASD in 2008 when we were coming to terms with having an autistic child. Reading this book proved massively reassuring as I identified with a lot that was written. It also relieved some of the isolation that I was experiencing at the time. Even though this book was published in 2007, having a blog now provides me with an opportunity to record my thoughts on this wonderful book.
This is my review of the book which I have revisited for the purpose of this post.
A Friend like Henry is an account of one family’s journey with their autistic son and their determination to find a quality of life for him. Written by Nuala Gardner, the mother of Dale who has a severe form of autism, the book starts off by describing her struggles to get her son diagnosed. With breathtaking honesty, she describes her desperation and exhaustion as she deals with her son’s difficulties to communicate, his extreme behaviours and obsessions.
Then when Dale was five, the family adopted a golden retriever puppy that was named Henry after Dale’s favourite train in Thomas the Tank Engine. Almost immediately the family’s life was transformed. Henry’s relationship with Dale was so special that Henry became more than a beloved family pet. Through the routine tasks that were required to look after Henry, the Gardners were able to break into Dale’s world, improve his communication skills, teach him emotions and social rules. As a result life started to improve and Dale was able to develop the confidence and independence needed to help him lead a normal life today.
But this book is not just about the special relationship between an autistic boy and a dog. It is also an account of the extraordinary determination and stamina of a family as they fought against incredible odds to help their son access a normal life in the form of mainstream education and social activities. It also captures the additional challenges of having another child, their younger daughter, diagnosed with a less severe form of autism after a period of regression following a normal infancy.
Another part of the book which really deserves a mention is the section at the end which is devoted to Dale’s own thoughts. Here the older Dale reflects on his difficulties when he was younger, in particular his difficulty in understanding facial expressions and how much easier it was for him to understand Henry who he describes as “gentle and friendly”. This provides an interesting insight into how dogs can be therapeutic for some autistic children though it is worth pointing out that not all autistic children benefit from dogs or indeed any animal therapy.
Overall, this book is an account of a mother’s observations and experiences with her autistic son interspersed with some personal photography. It is an emotional read at times but also one that offers inspiration to others in a similar position. In this regard it is not theoretical and will not suit those looking for a more scientific analysis of autism. Nevertheless, this book is still of educational value as it places autism in a real life context of family life and the social world around them. It therefore provides valuable insight into autism and the challenges that many families face in seeking a diagnosis and support. But it also offers a great deal of hope as it illustrates what can be done to help our autistic children towards a more fulfilling life.
A compelling read.
Additional note – 19/09/11
It is through this book that I learnt about the idea of communicating with my son via something else. I have to add that my son is verbal most of the time but will loose his ability to speak or communicate when overloaded or in meltdown. It is during these moments, that I sometimes communicate with him through a pet or even someone or something else (I used to use the guinea pigs – click here). It has worked quite well.