Books: A Friend Like Henry

I don’t normally take an interest in a book about someone else’s pet. Of course that pet is wonderful to the people who know and love it, and its particular habits and quirks are endearing to them. But I suppose I’m not enough of an animal lover to want to read about the animal whose love is tied up with someone who is a complete stranger to me.

This book didn’t interest me until I notice the word autistic in the subtitle: “The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog That Unlocked His World.” We had just gotten our new puppy when I decided to buy the book, and I wondered how she might help Al, even if he is hardly “locked” in his own world the way Dale Gardner was.

Somehow the book got buried in a pile of books, and I just unearthed it recently. I read nearly the whole book Tuesday afternoon and evening, while Al was enjoying music and crafts and other activities at VBS (see my recent post Overnight with Noah). This afternoon I finished it – and managed to choke back some tears near the end.

Thinking of our experiences with Al, I can recognize in this account much of what we dealt with. As his autism is much milder, we never went through the total lack of communication that the Gardners had to deal with. I do remember, though, the terrible frustration both he and I felt when he couldn’t tell me what he wanted, the sense that he was sometimes looking through me instead of at me, his indifference as to what adult took care of him, his unwillingness to get near other children, extreme pickiness in eating, throwing up at will, running around in circles, arm flapping, and so on.

Fortunately for us, there were educational resources made available to us from the time the autism was first suspected, even before it was agreed on as a diagnosis. Special ed, speech therapy, and a lot of patience from teachers and staff, have helped him to be successful in school – though hardly without problems on a regular basis as he has trouble coping with change. Except for his first year in public school, when he was in a pre-K class for children with developmental issues (postponing for a year his starting kindergarten), with a teacher-student ratio of one to three, he has been able to learn in a mainstream classroom (with the help of a paraprofessional as needed).

I first learned about autism when I was in seventh grade, when we read a novel about a boy who, like Dale, was completely withdrawn and uncommunicative – until a special animal entered his life. I don’t remember the name of the book, or how he came in contact with the horse, but the horse helped him in much the same way Henry helped Dale. At the time much less was known about autism (which I didn’t realize when I read the book), so I don’t know how much was understood of how an animal could make such a difference.

As I’ve read more about autism, I realize how difficult it must be for people who can’t “read” body language, even facial expressions, to interact with other people. I’m somewhat shy myself, but if I do have to interact with strangers I prefer it to be in person because I can get some idea of the other person’s reaction from facial expressions, tone of voice, and other body language. I hate having to talk on the phone where much of that is unavailable (even tone of voice can be distorted by a poor connection).

I realize animals rely on body language even more than we do, but some of them seem to have a greater than usual ability to interact meaningfully with people, even though we don’t know how to speak their language. I don’t think just any dog would have worked for Dale; his mother made a great deal of effort to be sure she found one that would. Another dog might have captured his interest, as the friend’s dog did that gave his mother the idea of getting a dog. But not just any dog would be as patient with Dale and his terrible tantrums.

I was surprised, based on the title of the book, that Henry wasn’t even more central to the story. There are a few chapters that are all about Dale and Henry, but once the biggest breakthroughs are made, Henry fades into the background. I would have liked more focus on the boy-dog relationship. I was especially surprised at how much space was devoted to the Gardners’ efforts to conceive a second child – until it became clear how relevant this was to Dale’s story.

I was also surprised at the extreme amount of time and money that Dale’s parents, especially his mother, seemed willing to spend. Perhaps her husband’s job paid well enough that money was not an issue. I certainly couldn’t afford a lot of what they got for their kids. And while I understand and admire her devotion to her son and persistence in helping him, when she did that to the detriment of her own health I think that things were out of balance.

She says very little about her relationship with her husband, but she makes it sound as though she devoted nearly all her time and energy to her son, and I would have expected that there would be a severe strain on the marriage. Perhaps there was, and she chose not to share that. She is already sharing a great deal that is very personal, and I can understand her not wanting to go into an even more personal area of her life. But taking care of a special needs child does put extra strain on a marriage, and I think it would have been worth more mention.

I couldn’t help comparing the huge amount of work Nuala did with Dale with the time I have spent with Al. Certainly he had less extreme needs, and we had much more support from professional educators. I can hardly say that I have taken advantage of every opportunity to teach him words, ideas, and skills, and to make new opportunities for social interaction. I’m sure I could have done more. But I don’t think it’s in his best interest to push myself to the point of physical or emotional collapse.

Nuala does make it clear that she is not telling other parents how to care for autistic children, because every case is unique. As an account of how she dealt with it, it is fascinating and moving. And it does offer many ideas of how to take advantage of all kinds of situations, including those things that for whatever reason most interest an autistic child, to teach important skills and life lessons.

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