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by Linda Andron (editor)
Jessica Kingsley, 2001
Review by Jodi Forschmiedt, M.Ed. on Jan 31st 2003

Our Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome

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 regular basis. 

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 Seattle, Washington.