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Raising Autism: Jerusalem Post article

Raising autism

“The Jerusalem Post” film critic on parenting and her return to short-story writing.

‘Jerusalem Post’ film critic on parenting and her return to short-story writing

‘Jerusalem Post’ film critic on parenting and her return to short-story writing Photo: Iris Nesher
When novelist Hannah Brown learned that her son Danny, then about three and a half, had autism, she says she didn’t know where to turn first.“At the time I didn’t know a lot about it,” says Brown, who also writes short stories and has been The Jerusalem Post’s film critic since 2001.“I’d seen Rain Man. I knew in this very general way what it was supposed to be but I didn’t really understand what it meant for him and for us.”The mother of two, who along with her Israeli husband lived in New York City at the time, immediately started reading as much as she could on the subject and tried to figure out where she should take her son for therapy and special education.

But it was the other mothers who also had children diagnosed with autism that she met early on who were the most helpful in directing her. She befriended the parents at her son’s special needs preschool and later, when she moved to Israel, she joined a support group at Alut, Israel’s society for families of kids with autism. Today she swaps stories and advice with parents via a very active Facebook group for single mothers with children who have autism (Brown has since divorced) and has grown close to other parents who send their autistic children to the Feuerstein Center in Jerusalem where her son, now 16, goes a few times a week for therapy.

Being part of a community of parents, she says, and “how much we’re able to help each other get through things” inspired her to write her first novel, If I Could Tell You, about four very different mothers in New York City raising young children with autism. Vantage Point Books published the novel in May 2012.

The book’s characters try out different types of therapy for autism – which is diagnosed in one out of 88 children, according to the Center for Disease Control – including floor time, applied behavior analysis and chelation therapy (a procedure to remove heavy metals from the body), and compare notes with each other on the successes and frustrations. Some are sure one method is better than any other because they’ve been convinced of the research or by experts that this is the cure they’ve been searching for.

“It’s really irresponsible to make that claim to someone, even if it’s a remote possibility,” says Brown, who has tried all the methods except for chelation, which can be very dangerous.

She has found that focusing on steady progress with her son, who has medium- functioning autism, has been the most helpful.

Brown wants for her son what any mother does.

“I just feel like I really, really want my son to get to a point where he can make his own choices and decisions in life,” says Brown.

The book is both a terrific resource guide on autism and an insightful novel on the day-to-day triumphs and setbacks of raising a child with the disorder. It is not without humorous and touching moments of friendship and parent-child bonding, but it does not sugarcoat the challenges or the parents’ pain when their child can’t make eye contact or doesn’t even acknowledge them.

“I really didn’t see any books like this,” says Brown, who seems very familiar with the literature on the subject. “I didn’t see anything about the experience of the parents.”

The dynamic in the support group in the novel is also interesting, as friendships shift and new relationships are formed. The therapist’s calming and supportive voice is also an important one, in contrast with other doctors and experts in the book who talk down to the parents, and with tremendous authority. The women share their anxiety over listening to the experts while trying to do what feels right for their children.

The female characters are relatable and yet all speak with distinct voices and have different backgrounds.

One is career-focused and balancing work with an increasingly demanding home life, another is Israeli and vivacious and raising two autistic sons, a third is a former model and single mom struggling to date and the last, Anne, is a former literature professor turned stay at home mother of two with an uninvolved husband.

“That character of Anne is the one that’s most based on me and my family,” says Brown.

Many of the scenes in the novel Brown took from her experiences with Danny when he was very young and they were living in New York City. For example, Anne bumps into a mother she knows in the park. The mother proceeds to complain about her daughter’s preschool testing scores not being high enough. Anne doesn’t quite know how to respond, feeling overwhelmed by her basic struggles with her son, but is polite and casual. Brown says she wrote this scene from life, but adds that she wasn’t as polite as the character in the book.

“You’re constantly coming up against that stuff, where people are really competitive and evaluating their kids,” she says. “Maybe that’s just normal or part of life, but you feel like you’ve fallen into this different world, this Alice in Wonderland parallel universe and the only people who can understand you are parents who are gong through the same thing.”

In Israel, she says, the stigma of having children with issues seems even stronger than it is the US. However, it’s getting better, as parents of children with autism are becoming more proactive about their kids’ options, and talking about it more openly.

Many parents who identified with Brown’s work reached out to her, to tell her “this is my story,” or to compare notes and give or receive advice. One woman with whom Brown corresponds regularly, an African- American cosmetologist and single mother in Atlanta, Georgia, has an autistic son who is afraid of hand dryers in public bathrooms.

Brown says Danny used to have the same phobia.

“We each have developed our strategies so we email about it,” she says. “We have a lot of common ground, where we can really help each other with all these little things.”

Brown hopes eventually If I Could Tell You, which is soon being released as an audio book on audible.com, could transition to the big screen.

Brown also contributed three short stories to Ang-Lit Press’s fourth collection, Love in Israel, which includes 65 short stories by English-speaking writers in Israel and was published in January. Brown’s stories feature strong female protagonists faced with emotionally complex obstacles. In one story most closely based on her life – though she won’t confirm or deny any details – a single mother of two, one of whom has autism, is raising her children and dealing with the fact that her ex-husband’s girlfriend is giving birth.

In another, a young ultra-Orthodox woman finds out that her husband is cheating on her, but the rabbi has given him permission to continue the affair, and in the last, an Orthodox woman in her late 20s is deeply frustrated that she is not married yet.

Though Brown is herself not Orthodox, she says she has been inspired by living in Jerusalem and by the different types of parents she’s met who are also raising autistic children.

Brown, who participated in a reading with other Anglo writers at the International Book Fair last month, says she stopped writing short stories soon after her son’s diagnosis because she became completely absorbed with reading about autism and stopped reading anything else. Fiction seemed silly to her.

“I just couldn’t focus on anything else,” she says. “All the things that were part of who I was, I gave them up, and focused on Danny… Then I came up for air.”

It was a year and a half before Brown began writing short stories again, and when she did, she wrote “A Hard Day’s Life,” featured in Love in Israel, the story about the mother with the two children. One of the sons in the story, who is autistic, is excitedly awaiting the snow to fall in Jerusalem.

“I have a lot of experience consoling my younger son about [snow] not falling,” she says. Often times it’s predicted but it doesn’t end up snowing, she adds. “I always try to manage his expectations… to deal with the crushing, soul-tearing disappointment [if it doesn’t],” she says half-jokingly.

For her next book, Brown says she’s not writing on autism, and hoping it will be on the lighter, more Nora Ephron side. Set in Vermont, her novel follows a couple as they go through a messy divorce.

“I’m kind of at this stage now where I can’t decide if it’s the best thing I’ve ever written or the worst,” she says, laughing.

Still, even a book about autism doesn’t have to be humorless, she notes.

“I get this sense that people feel so sorry for me because I have this son,” she says. “[But] everyone [in my situation] isn’t sort of miserable and depressed and having a horrible life.”

Life for parents raising kids with autism may be more difficult at times, but it can also bring out the best in people, she says, depending on how one adapts.

“Basically all the things that help with autistic kids are good parenting tips in general. I call it ‘extreme parenting.’”

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