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26 Mar, Sunday
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Montreal Families

A father’s no-holds-barred book about autism

Whenever I hear about a family who has a child with autism, I always think about how difficult life must be and wonder how the parents cope with the challenges on a daily basis. But after reading Bad Animals: a Father’s Accidental Education in Autism (Penguin Canada, $34) by Montreal author Joel Yanofsky, I don’t have to imagine anymore.

Yanofsky takes the reader on a journey inside his life and that of his wife Cynthia Davis and their 11-year-old son Jonah. He talks with candour about the unplanned pregnancy, his excitement about becoming a dad and the reaction when a doctor’s second opinion confirmed that Jonah (who was 4 at the time) had autism — albeit high functioning.

When they got home from the appointment, his wife wanted to share an article entitled Welcome to Holland, sometimes given to parents when they learn their child has a disability. The essay employs a metaphor of excitement for a vacation to Italy that becomes a disappointment when the plane lands in Holland instead.

Yanofsky was so enraged he couldn’t read the full article, saying: “Don’t you see how much this analogy sucks? Holland? Holland would be fine…(expletive) fabulous. Holland has tulips…wooden shoes…windmills….this is not Holland we’re in. Not even close. This is like thinking you are going to Italy and you find out you’re in..in…hell.” The ensuing emotional conversation between husband and wife is heart wrenching and the desperation and fear about what lies ahead palpable.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help think about how Yanofsky reminds me a bit of Simon Cowell, the former American Idol judge. He was the one who often would criticize contestants and say things the rest of us were thinking but wouldn’t dare verbalize. Yanofsky talks so bluntly about what life is like having a child with autism that sometimes I found myself wide-eyed and shocked by what he was saying. It doesn’t make what he was saying untrue; it is just so brutally honest. However, Yanofsky is never unnecessarily harsh; it’s just that the hand he and his family have been dealt feels at times excessively cruel.

He mentions the problem he has with similar books written by parents of children with autism, who almost always seem to leave out what he calls ‘crucial information’ like the day-to day challenges that begin first thing in the morning.

“My first task of the day is to get my complaining, occasionally inconsolable son dressed and still remain unaffected by whatever he may say or do, no matter how odd or unsettling it might be. As I’ve learned over the years, a great deal will depend on me — on modifying my behaviour. This can sometimes feel like I’m walking on a balance beam. Even if I don’t fall, the possibility of falling is always on my mind. This is why it is essential that I keep all those negative feelings — self-pity, doubt, disappointment, resentment, just the exasperation that I normally harbour on mornings like this — from showing up on my too-easy-to-read face.”

He says that memoirs, news reports and documentaries skip the details about the struggles associated with parenting a child with autism. He adds that “there is no behavioural therapy for what autism takes out of you as a parent, for the flaws it reveals in your character on a daily basis. All of that has proven to be either not worth conveying or, more likely, impossible to convey.”

But Yanofsky sure makes the effort — explaining that this journey is fraught with self-pity, fear, self-doubt, frustration and catastrophic feelings. But the memoir is far from all doom and gloom. There are several lighthearted moments because Yanofsky doesn’t shy away from self-deprecating humour. He talks about having been to four “shrinks” in 18 months and that he worries it has become a hobby that has gotten out of hand.

Joel Yanofsky author of Bad Animals: a Father's Accidental Education in AutismIn the last couple of chapters, we hear from his wife, as readers are privy to a conversation where she describes how she feels about the book. She wants her husband to include some advice for parents of ‘neurotypical’ kids, such as DO ask children with disabilities over for playdates and invite them to your child’s birthday party. But DON’T “suggest methods of interventions well into the diagnosis as if you know better, as if I haven’t been reading and researching since the moment I got the news.”

One of the last chapters celebrates Jonah’s breakthroughs, such as the first time he understood that his father was being sarcastic, the fact that he is going into Grade 6 and will no longer have a shadow, and how he is beginning to make appropriate comments in social situations.

I love books where the author has the ability to make me laugh out loud one minute and fill up with tears the next. This book does all that, and more. It is reflective, touching, humorous and heart breaking… it is a memoir about life, written by an extremely talented author.

Joel Yanofsky is the author of the essay collection Homo Erectus…And Other Popular Tales of True Romance and the novel Jacob’s Ladder. His previous book, Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind won the Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Mavis Gallant Prize for non-fiction. He has won two National Magazine Awards and is a regular book reviewer for the Montreal Gazette.

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