Monday, June 27, 2005

George and Sam

I think I'm in love.

I've just finished Charlotte Moore's book George and Sam and have fallen hard for it's heroes. Moore gives an honest, no-nonsense account of life as a single mother of three sons - George and Sam, who have autism, and Jake, who does not. This book is moving, heartbreaking, and - as any parent who has lived with a child with autism will surely understand - laugh-out-loud funny.

Moore is in a unique position to be able to describe the "autism spectrum." George and Sam, though both deeply affected by autism, are very different from each other. And because she also has Jake - the youngest of the three - she has a standard by which to compare the boys' development. She guides us through each boy's early years, when things seemed normal... then confusing... then disconcerting... and straight through each diagnosis and the range of interventions she's tried. Moore does not pretend to have all the answers; to the contrary, her experience confirms that there is no right answer: interventions that worked wonders for Sam had no effect on George, and vice versa.

She is also somehow able to avoid wallowing in the negative without glossing over the mayhem that is daily life in her house: striking the right balance of keeping the bathroom door locked so that it is not so accessible that Sam is free to flush his belongings at will but not so inaccessible that he pees in any other receptacle-looking thing he can find; making food for George but pretending it's for Sam, because George insists that he does not eat; putting Sam to bed in his school clothes to avoid the two-hour getting-dressed battle in the morning; indulging George's need to wear only his huge leopard-shaped slippers on his feet - in the snow, out to school, everywhere. In the end, I get the sense that though life in their house will never be "normal," they have struck a normalcy that works for them.

It's always interesting to me to read memoirs about other children with autism so that I can compare them with Bud. Bud and Sam have little in common; Sam is clearly more profoundly affected by autism than Bud. George, however, was very familiar. His echolalic speech patterns, his mastery of using the scripts he's memorized from movies to approximate conversation, and his habit of clamping his hands over his ears in challenging social situations are eerily similar to Bud. And yet, there are significant differences, too. Moore talks about the challenge that Christmas presents to her boys:

Never is the difference between the autistic and the neurotypical child more pronounced than at Christmas...By four, all neurotypical children understand presents. They enjoy the expectation, the novelty, the surprise; the act of unwrapping is in itself a pleasure...They are just old enough to enjoy giving something in return, and they are gratified by the expressions of delight on the part of the recipients.

Autistic four-year-olds have very different reactions to presents...They won't like the element of surprise. They won't see the point of wrapping paper, unless they enjoy the physical sensation of tearing it off...And if they understand the connection between present and donor at all, they'll be bothered by the pressure of expectation. Some sort of social response is expected of them. They don't understand which response, or why. The whole business makes them agitated and confused.

This couldn't be more inaccurate when it comes to Bud. Bud delights in both receiving and giving presents. He loves the unwrapping and the element of surprise. He is downright effusive in his gratitude - even if the "present" is a tube of Little Bear toothpaste we've picked up at the pharmacy. "Oh, thank you, Mama! I love this toothpaste you give to me! You give me this - what? Toothpaste! I love my present of Bear Toothpaste you give to me. Look, Daddy - I have a present of Bear Toothpaste!" (And yes, this is an actual account of a recent event.) He's equally ebullient when giving a present - eyes shining and body wiggling with anticipation. What does this mean? How can two children on the spectrum be so startling similar and strikingly different all at the same time?

George and Sam may not provide the answers, but it is a wonderful book that is bursting with heart. Frustratingly, it is not currently published in the U.S., but can easily be ordered from and is well worth the overseas shipping costs. I've just discovered that it's now out in paperback as well, which brings down the cost considerably. To me, this is a book that belongs next to A Slant of Sun and Not Even Wrong on the must-read list.


Moi ;) said...

Is this a new book? I can't find it on in the US, just Amazon.UK....

Anonymous said...

thank you for the reading list! i'm off to the library this morning!

Marta said...

I think this book is out of print now in the UK as well - a pity. I started reading it recently, and it is a fascinating read!