It began as the typical nightmare of so many parents, but concluded with an unsettling twist: Danny, age 3, had made his way through the door, down to the building’s lobby and out onto the lively sidewalks of Manhattan. By the time Hannah Brown found her son, in a shop near her Upper West Side building, she was beside herself. But Danny? He registered no concern.
The experience served as one of several wakeup calls that Danny was different from other children, that Hannah’s first-born child — though he spoke some full sentences even at the age of 1, though he liked to cuddle, loved to hug — was, in fact, autistic. The experience also informs an introductory scene in Hannah’s debut novel, “If I Could Tell You,” just published last month by Vantage Point Books.
“In 1999, no one really knew what autism is,” says Hannah, who moved to Israel with her Israeli husband more than a decade ago. A former columnist for The New York Post and a current media critic for The Jerusalem Post, Hannah turned to fiction to write about what she calls “the most dramatic thing in my life — autism,” believing the genre would allow her to show “a whole broad range of what it’s like to raise a kid with autism.”
In her novel, Hannah (no relation) draws much from life. She really knows a little boy who compulsively draws accordions, but can’t tolerate their music. She really knew a little boy (her own) who referred to his bald baby brother as “Moon,” despite the commonly held conviction that autistic children lack imagination.
“If I Could Tell You” chronicles the experiences of four New York mothers (two of them Jewish) as they explore various treatments for their newly diagnosed sons, as their marriages and careers falter, and as their friendships with one another grow. Released to coincide with National Autism Month, when the media casts a spotlight on autism spectrum disorders, “If I Could Tell You” offers a rare glimpse into that disorienting first year that follows diagnosis.
But the novel is also a compelling read for any parent of young children; and perhaps especially so for New York City parents entrenched in a culture of early intervention, of worrying and wondering about a young child’s slightly awkward gait, apparent delay in reading skills or difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next without a tantrum.
Of course, for many readers, the book mirrors reality. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control released astonishing statistics: one in 88 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2008, compared to one in 150 in 2000. Among boys, the numbers are even more staggering, with one in 54 diagnosed in 2008.
Hannah, a petite woman with an understated demeanor and a warm smile, grew up in a secular household on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the daughter of two journalists. Now divorced, and raising Danny and his younger brother Rafi in Jerusalem, Hannah crafted her book over the last four years, her fingers flying over the laptop keys during Danny’s treatments, or while her boys played basketball. Hannah says that Danny, now 15, has a low tolerance for deviations in routine, but he’s affectionate and talkative, and possesses a quirky sense of humor.
It is just a few weeks before Passover when we talk, and I ask if the themes of the holiday — of bondage and liberation — might relate in some way to parenting an autistic child? “The four sons,” Hannah replies, “can be seen as a kind of model of inclusion. I don’t think of Danny as the simple son, but as the one who doesn’t know enough to ask (or who can’t ask).”
She speaks openly, respectfully, but I can’t help but imagine that she’d be much more at ease if she were the one asking the questions. With a no-nonsense tone, she notes that almost every friend with an autistic child is also a single mom. Dating can be a challenge. “If you say, ‘I have an autistic child,’” she says, smiling wryly, “it’s worse than saying, ‘I’m an HIV crack addict living with 30 cats.’ ”
Of course, for those whose lives aren’t directly touched by autism, conversations can be tricky to navigate. “If I Could Tell You” provides an entertaining — and welcome — entry to this rapidly growing world.
Many parents will relate to the novel’s depictions of self-righteous therapists, meddling grandparents and the inevitable rivalry between mothers — or, as the mother, Anne, a Barnard professor on leave, calls it, the “unbidden spurt of competitiveness.”
As Ruthie, the spirited Israeli character and mother of an autistic teen, reminds us, mothers of autistic kids care for their offspring as much as any mother loves her child. Autism, she reflects, can mean a life filled with love.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at email@example.com.