Book review – a friend like henry

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. 

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10 Responses to Book review – a friend like henry

  1. Jazzygal says:

    Great review Deb. I saw the film of this book before and it’s great. Amazing story. I found Luke Jackson’s Book ‘Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers Syndrome’ great also.
    We’ve often been advised to get a dog for WiiBoy, not neccessarily an assistance one but it is good fro calming them AND for teaching empathy…helping them realise there’s more than them in the world!! We did get a dog but it was quite hyper and didn’t have that calming effect!

    xx Jazzy

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Thankyou; will try and look out for the film. I guess the dogs temperament has to be right. I can’t get my husband to even consider getting a dog so I’m going to go back to having a couple of guinea pigs for our children. I know they are not the same but my son adores them. Watch this space; I may be posting pictures of some guinea pigs soon. Deb xx

  2. Steph says:

    have ordered this now, thanks for the tip! look forward to getting it x

  3. Galina V says:

    I think this book was made into a TV film. I wouldn’t be able to cope with my two guys and a dog as well, as my husband is away too often, and it would be my responsibility full-time.
    My fave books on children with autism is A Real Boy by Christopher Stevens (there’s another book with the same title if you google), and it is splendid. Written with humour and understanding, no patronising American crap like Jenny what’s her name, the girlfriend of Jim Carry, whose book I read and was left with a bad aftertaste. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a child with autism, it does not profess to have any miracle cures, it is just an account and insight of what it is like, and it is very well written.

    • Aspie in the family says:

      I don’t think we can cope with a dog either but its still a great read as it shows people what some families have to go through to get their kids diagnosed and supported. Its an honest account of family life with autism, I think. Thanks for the other book recommendation; I’ll take a look. I much prefer books that tell it as it is without promising miracles. Deb

  4. Bronwyn says:

    Wow … that sounds like a interesting book. I am always interested to read books by parents with children on the Autism Spectrum. I will have to add it to my reading list.

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Yes, its definitely an interesting read but its not just about a pet dog and an autistic boy. It really shows the struggles many families have to go through to get a diagnnosis and support. Deb

  5. Blue sky says:

    Very timely as I have just put my son’s name on a couple of waiting lists for assistance dogs for children with autism in the hope that that might help him to calm down without medication xx

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Funnily enough I’ve been thinking of an autism dog but my husband refuses to have one. I thought having a dog might help my son focus on something else and help my son out of the house more, besides having a pet to love. But then someone told that because I’ve got two autistic children, Im unlikely to be given one. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on. Deb x

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