Author Randa Habelrih is the mother of Richard, a young man with autism. But Richard is a lot more than that, and Randa and her husband, Elias, and their daughter, Emily, knew that from the very beginning. Today, Richard is a confident young man who graduated from high school and has a job, but the road to that level of success was not easy. In her new book, Dealing with Autism, Randa chronicles her family’s journey through the maze of finding schools, aides, therapies, and acceptance for Richard while overcoming their own obstacles of fear and frustration. While the book contains plenty about autism, it’s more a story about how to cope with a child on the autism spectrum when the rest of the world would prefer not to cope with it.
Unfortunately, autism is something we all must cope with today. Randa makes that fact clear by citing studies that show that 1 in 100 Australians have autism. While Randa’s family lives in Sydney, Australia, the facts are even more startling here in the United States – 1 in 68 people have autism and boys are five times more likely to have it. In other words, we all know someone with autism so we should all know at least the basics about it.
While I am not the parent of an autistic child, I do know people with autism. Reading this book helped me better understand how to communicate with them. It also gave me insight into the difficulties of dealing with the initial shock of the autism diagnosis, and perhaps even worse, the rejection felt by the family because of their child (rejection that operates on multiple levels from family and friends to schools and organizations), and the fight the parents must engage in to get their child the necessary help. It’s not an easy fight, and it is wearing on the family dynamics-as Randa points out, half of marriages in which a child is diagnosed with autism end in divorce.
Randa’s story, as shared in this book, is of a true pioneer mother who raised awareness of autism so her child could receive fair and equal treatment to the greatest extent possible. Today, there is more awareness than when her son was first diagnosed, but when Richard was first diagnosed, the Internet was in its infancy and apps didn’t even exist. Today, parents have far more resources at their fingertips than Randa did, and in the appendices, she gives a list of books, websites, and apps as resources-there’s even an app to help a child who can’t speak to communicate what he or she needs.
Despite greater visibility for autism today, acceptance is still difficult. Parents in the same situation will find inspiration in reading Randa and Richard’s story. Randa describes how difficult it was to get a school to accept Richard as a student. Before the battle was over, she had contacted not just the principal, but even the State Minister of Education’s office, until she found acceptance for Richard. She devotes a whole chapter to “If I Ran the School System,” describing how schools need to do a better job of making sure autistic children are not socially isolated or bullied. She gave a paper at the Inaugural ASPECT Autism in Education Conference, created with her daughter an educational video about autism, and is currently preparing to launch The School M.A.T.E.S. Autism Programme in schools, which will assist teachers in helping autistic children and pair up students with the autistic children so they are “mates,” thus providing help for the autistic child and leadership opportunities for the other students. All of these efforts are commendable and speak to Randa’s dedication to raising awareness about autism, as well as the love she bears for her son.
I also appreciated that Randa provided different perspectives in the book besides her own. The Foreword is written by David McInnes, the principal at the high school Richard attended. He discusses how knowing Richard made him a better principal and father and how schools can help autistic children. Chapter 6 is written by Richard’s sister, Emily, who was five when he was born. Emily describes how she blamed herself for her little brother’s situation; how she was loyal to him, refusing to play with children who rejected him; and ultimately, how the experience of having a sibling with autism has inspired her to study for her Master’s in Clinical Psychology and specialize in autism spectrum disorder with a focus on building social skills and communication.
Additional chapters discuss survival tips for marriage, the importance of developing a success mindset, and finally, there are appendices that include sample letters to write to teachers to help them understand your child’s specific needs, facts about autism, and descriptions of several types of therapy, including applied behavioral analysis, which uses a system of tasks and rewards to educate the autistic child on social behavior skills, as well as occupational, speech, social skills, physical, play, and other therapies.
Dealing with Autism won’t have every answer in it for parents faced with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, but reading it will make them feel understood and give them a roadmap of where to go. I imagine such a diagnosis can cause a parent to feel trapped in a dark cave of despair, but this book is like having Randa take your hand and guide you out of the cave with a shining light that will bring you back into the daylight and restore your hope. Read it for your child, for yourself, and for the betterment of the world.