By Hannah Brown
If I Could Tell You is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and iTunes, at Steimatzky’s in both Jerusalem and Tel
Aviv and at Sefer ve Sefel and Adraba in Jerusalem.
Reviewed by Carol Novis
Life with an autistic child
Hannah Brown is best known to English-speaking Israelis as the film critic of The Jerusalem Post, but in recent months readers have also come to learn something about her personal life. The mother of a 16-year-old son who is autistic, she has written movingly and honestly about parenting an autistic child, in articles on the Huffington Post internet site and in the New York Times. She has also written a novel, If I Could Tell You, an honest, moving, sad and funny fictionalized account of what life with an autistic child is like for a divorced woman. It's also a good “chick lit” read, with a plot that includes plenty of love interest and drama.
Hannah, 50, is slim and attractive in an unpretentious boho way. She lives in Jerusalem with her two sons, Rafi (12), and Danny (16), and is divorced from her psychiatrist husband, something which is not uncommon among women in her situation. In fact, perhaps the most eyebrow-raising revelation is how prevalent divorce is among parents of autistic children.
"Though you often hear the statistic that 80% of marriages break up, that's just an urban myth," she says. "We don't know what the percentage is although 80% makes sense to me."
Not only do marriages break up, Hannah maintains, but in the vast majority, the husband walks out. Whether dealing with the difficulties of autism places an unnatural burden on the family which exacerbates strains already there or whether men are less able to deal with the situation, is irrelevant. The fact is that many mothers are faced with bringing up the children alone, dealing with educational and therapy frameworks that are not easy to negotiate.
Hannah is from New York originally and she and her Israeli former husband moved here in 2000, so that she has had the opportunity to compare systems both in the US and Israel.
"Here, on paper, there are a lot of good laws about services for special needs, but in reality, there isn't so much. Many Israelis see people with disabilities as an embarrassment. In America, if you're entitled by law to a service, you get it and that is important because early diagnosis and treatment can be critical."
No one knows what causes autism. Some believe that the incidence is increasing, though much of this may be due to broadening diagnostic criteria and increased public awareness. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, one child in 88 has been diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder. The incidence is much higher among boys than girls.
Although dealing with a child on the autistic spectrum can be an uphill struggle, there are positive aspects that help. "Many teachers are wonderful even though they work at a difficult job with little money," she says.
Hannah has been particularly pleased with the methods and results of the Feuerstein Institute (International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential) in Jerusalem, which her son attends. "Their attitude is that anyone can learn, even those with brain injuries. I was taught to try to think like my son and see the world from his viewpoint. There is no miracle cure, but I have seen kids make enormous progress. My son has made real strides."
Support groups help too. In her article, "10 Things To Do After An Autism Diagnosis," she lists some other suggestions: ask your doctor for valium (for you, not your kid); put money aside; use common sense in dealing with quacks and charlatans who claim to be able to cure your child; practice saying the phrase, "How are you?"
Most people aren't aware of how difficult it is for many women to find a new partner. In her article, "Devoted but Dateless", in the New York Times Modern Love section, Hannah wrote about a little-known by-product of being a single mother of an autistic child: no one wants to date you. "At first I hoped someone would fix me up, but no one did. None of my friends with autistic kids ever get set up either, even the blond, skinny, gorgeous ones. So online dating becomes the only option."
Once you do go on a date, things don’t get better.
"After I said the A-word the first few times, the faces of my dates invariably took on one of two expressions: deep sympathy or deep horror, coupled, in either case, with an obvious end to any romantic interest. I shouldn’t have been surprised. As my friend likes to put it, 'If their own fathers walked out, why would any other man want to walk in?'"
Hannah's own experiences have found an outlet in her fascinating novel which she began to write when she realized that her story and that of her friends was full of dramatic material. It's all here: the condescending, know-it-all therapists who speak annoying jargon; charlatans peddling unproven and perhaps dangerous theories and cures to vulnerable parents looking for some hope; troubled siblings; insensitive acquaintances and family members.
The four main characters are women who are very different from one another, but who nevertheless have formed a support group and ultimately a bond as a result of their shared experiences with an autistic – or in one case, two autistic – children. (There is also an involved father.) One woman puts her faith in chelation therapy which claims to rid the body of dangerous mercury. Another touts a special diet with inedible food. As for the juicy parts (spoiler alert), one character has an affair with another's husband, while a third falls in love with a younger therapist.
In spite of its sober aspects, the book is basically upbeat and full of funny anecdotes. There is even a happy ending of sorts – children improve, marriages heal and some characters find new partners. The book illuminates the friendships, support and help that so many parents have found. Above all, the book is about the love for children that transcends their disabilities.
As Hannah puts it, "I am proud of Danny. I don’t love him any less because of his autism. And I am no less proud of his achievements, whatever they may be, than any parent is."