I’m convinced that everyone who has an autistic child – myself included – assumes that he or she will write a book about the experience some day. Writing, of course, offers the promise of catharsis, and autism, or autism spectrum disorders (ASD), means an endless supply of rich anecdotal material running the gamut from high comedy to dark-night-of-the-soul frustration.
Judging from the number of first-person accounts that appear every year, a lot of parents follow through on this impulse. And I’m not even thinking about the staggering volume of acronym-laden “intervention” guides. There’s ABA, IBI, RDI, SCERTS, DIR and CAPS, to name a few, each promising everything from “recovery” to “best possible outcomes.”
Despite complaining about his own overloaded night table, Montreal novelist and critic Joel Yanofsky, whose 11-year-old son, Jonah, received the slippery diagnosis of “high-functioning autism” when he was almost 4, ventures to add his voice to the choir.
Anyone looking for a shot of feel-good inspiration won’t find it here, however. Yanofsky isn’t about to boast about the outcome of seven years of cripplingly expensive, time-consuming applied behavioural analysis therapy. Those results aren’t in yet. He doesn’t ride a furry horse across the austere Mongolian landscape in search of a shaman to “heal” his son, as Rupert Isaacson did. And I’m guessing he didn’t get a seven-figure advance for his book along with a film deal, as Isaacson did.
That’s because, in a genre predicated on cups being half full, Bad Animals falls decidedly on the other side of the equation. So while his stoic art-therapist wife, Cynthia, soldiers on, arranging play dates and therapy sessions and charting Jonah’s daily progress (or lack of it), Yanofsky cultivates weltschmerz by wallowing in depression and despair. He butts heads with Jonah’s therapists and teachers and sulkily hides in his basement where – with irony as thick as butter – he works on his book about autism. “What I’ve written,” Yanofsky says of an essay that preceded Bad Animals, “my so-called triumphant, consoling tale of fatherhood, is a self-pitying rant, a primate chest-thumping. It is, essentially, a bummer.”
His own interactions with Jonah don’t always end well. Lacking his wife’s Job-like patience, he often loses it, swearing or resorting to sarcasm (teaching Jonah to be sarcastic is actually one of Yanofsky’s major breakthroughs). He endlessly procrastinates starting the project that he and Jonah are supposed to be working on: the sequel to Jonah’s story about three bad animals – a camel, a yak and a cow – who suffer a series of mishaps mirroring Jonah’s personal experiences.
Many of the personality traits/flaws for which Yanofsky was lauded, or criticized, in his 2003 quasi-biography of Mordecai Richler are in evidence here. Mordecai and Me focused on Yanofsky’s disappointment with his literary hero, who, despite sharing a profession, a faith and a city with his would-be biographer, showed him no warmth or interest.
Yanofsky, similarly, loves his son but is disappointed with the hand he has been dealt fatherhood-wise. In Mordecai and Me, he throws jealous darts at fellow writers who win prizes; in Bad Animals, those jealousies are aimed at the parents of so-called neurotypical children, and sometimes at those children themselves. Needless to say, both books are also more about Joel Yanofsky than their titles would otherwise suggest.
What Yanofsky needs is a swift kick in the pants, and he knows it. But despite its wet-blanket outlook, Bad Animals does offer a skeptical, darkly humorous take on autism lacking in most of the literature out there. Life immediately after an autism diagnosis is lived in a panicky fog, where weighing treatment options is clouded by dire warnings of a “race against time.” Yanofsky takes much-needed shots at the industry around autism, at the psychobabble and at schools with a “pedagogical version of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” I’d need a neck brace had I nodded every time Yanofsky described a situation I could relate to.
Yanofsky has an aversion to reading books about autism, even, or rather particularly, when they end in triumph. It’s an aversion I share. As parents of autistic kids, we tend to get lost in our struggles. Can we really afford the time to immerse ourselves in someone else’s? What’s more, many of these books depict the herculean efforts of parents determined to “save their child at any cost” – claims that can seem dubious, or simply impossible to emulate.
Joel Yanofsky must know that many parents will feel the same resistance to his book that he himself feels toward the ones crowding his night table. Given his default pessimism, this might be intentional; more likely, though, he’s looking for the catharsis so many of us hope our as-yet-unwritten autism memoirs will give us.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance book critic and editor. She has an 11-year-old son, Finn, who has ASD. He loves cats, construction cranes and colour theory.