In spite of the roadmap in the title, this is not a
systematic examination of the lives of people with high functioning autism and
Asperger Syndrome, but a collection of memoirs written by parents of children
with those disorders. Members of a
close-knit support group, the writers and their children know one another and
refer to each other in their narratives.
Six deeply personal essays comprise the bulk of the book, plus two
forwards by professionals in the field, and a chapter on the difficulty of
teaching or even defining social skills, by the editor and group leader.
In "Humor, Imagination, and Empathy in
Autism" Jeannette Darlington disputes the oft-repeated claim that children
with autism lack these qualities. She
describes in some detail methods she used to help her two autistic sons develop
a "theory of mind," the notion that other people are separate
individuals who do not see, feel, or think exactly as you do. A series of wonderful cartoons drawn by
Darlington when the boys were young illustrate small concepts that gradually
built their understanding.
Ruth Mandernach makes a case for the overwhelming
importance of peers in "One Best Friend." She refuses to buy into the politically correct assumption that
children with disabilities should have neurologically-typical friends. Mandernach spent a great deal of energy
helping her son develop a close, lifelong friendship with one of Darlington's
sons. She argues that their similar
impairments give them a crucial point of commonality, and that they tolerate
one another's idiosyncrasies better than a typical peer could. Mandernach also points out that both sets of
parents carefully nurtured the relationship between the boys, whereas the
family of a typical child would not be motivated to put out the effort
required, or to have a child with autism play and eat at their home on a
Editor Linda Andron's chapter "The Myth of
Social Skills" reveals some of the mishaps that occur when children with
autism are taught lists of rules to follow in social situations. For example, children who have been taught
to tell the truth may be unable to determine when they should be falsely
complimentary, or when they should just say nothing. Andron concludes that for a child with autism or Asperger
syndrome, learning to value oneself may be more important in the long run than
memorizing rules and skills.
In the most touching chapter, "Making Friends
with Aliens," Jennifer Westbay presents an autobiography written (with
help) by her son Max, to introduce himself to his new second grade classmates
at an inclusive school. Max teaches the
children (as well as the teachers) about Asperger Syndrome and how it affects
his behavior. He mentions his talents
as well as his weaknesses, and asks for patience, understanding, and
friendship. Max's book could be used as
a template for other kids with disabilities who want to give some information
about themselves to their classmates.
The remaining chapters contain additional insights
by parents, including a father who realizes that he shares his son's
disorder. Not surprisingly, he writes
his story in a vague and wandering manner.
In general the book would have benefited from a more heavy-handed editor
to improve the flow of some of the essays.
Our Journey Through High Functioning Autism and
Asperger Syndrome will appeal to parents of young children diagnosed with the
disorders. The musings of the writers,
and especially some passages written by Darlington's now grown sons, should
give frightened parents hope, and a vision of the future for their
children. In that respect, perhaps it
is a roadmap.
2003 Jodi Forschmiedt
Jodi Forschmiedt reads, writes, and teaches in