A square-peg life in a round society


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Bad Animals

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/04/2011 (4328 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Bad Animals

A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism

By Joel Yanofsky

The witty an charming Jonah and his dad.

Viking Canada, 272 pages, $34

Books on autism are usually hard to start and harder to finish.

As a parent you read them mostly out of obligation. You hope to find something you can apply to your own situation: a single insight that might just mitigate a special challenge, or at the very least a lucid, well-researched writer whose child’s issues fall in line with some, preferably all, of yours.

Joel Yanofsky is a Montreal literary writer whose prose is clear, pointed and ripe with punchy attitude, not unlike that of one of his idols, the late Mordecai Richler.

He and his wife, Cynthia, are parents of an autistic son, Jonah, who is 10 and in Grade 5, and who loves the quirkiness of animals (hence the title).

This is not only the story of Jonah’s transition year to Grade 6, but also the family’s coming to grips with his autism from Day 1, told in a focused, often prickly first person.

If you want a highly readable, informative and, dare say, entertaining telling of what a family, and a marriage especially, goes through when hit with autism spectrum disorders, look no further.

Bad Animals has a similarity with Toronto journalist Ian Brown’s 2009 bestseller The Boy in the Moon, about his mentally and physically disabled son.

Brown’s challenges spoke for themselves and we were drawn in. Yanofsky’s are a harder sell, since Jonah is a good-looking, charming boy with imagination, wit and a high functioning skill set. Jonah speaks, reads, asks questions and cracks jokes.

We learn of his developmental delay and obsessions, yet there seems to be plenty of upside.

But autism is a spectrum, a vast line whose disorders range from non-verbal, self-injurious tantrums through Rain Man-type savants. Autism is a seller’s market for treatments, and there are many with documented success, if often only on a tiny portion of “the spectrum,” as Yanofsky calls it.

We meet “The Consultant,” in charge of the family’s ABA (applied behavioural analysis) sessions. We meet Jonah’s extended family, teachers, caseworkers and others Yanofsky and Cynthia encounter, question and frequently butt heads with.

Treatments, famous people with autism, its history, possibilities and hopes are dealt with honestly and openly in candid, fast-moving prose. Yanofsky isn’t afraid to describe the “practised impersonal compassion” in the mental-health profession. “No matter what they say, they’re only guessing.”

The real spin is Yanofsky’s literary background and how, as a literary journalist (he published a book-length appreciation of Richler in 2003), his professional wiring affects his parenting, marriage and relationships.

“I believe in variables, and complications, the absolutely reliable fallibility of human behaviour,” he says. “That is what literature provides and what behavioural science won’t, can’t.”

Maybe autism is something you don’t take away. Yanofsky cites Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, where author Paul Collins says that the risk in hammering a square peg into a round hole is that you destroy the peg. Better his boy be happy than to make him something he’s not.

But this is a story about active parenting, not blind faith, no matter how eloquently argued.

Yanofsky asks: “What’s wrong, for instance, with trying to smooth out the peg just a bit before you start hammering?”

James Manishen is artistic operations associate with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He and his wife, Joy, have an adult son with autism.

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