You know an excellent book when it generously delivers on both the title and the subtitle’s promises. A Parent’s Guide to High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive, by Sally Ozonoff, Geraldine Dawson, and James McPartland, is one that truly follows through.
The book is outstanding when it comes to helping parents in turn help their child on the spectrum. The authors present a powerfully humanistic perspective on the cognitive, behavioral, and social idiosyncrasies of high-functioning autism — and they manage to reframe these symptoms as characteristics. This allows the reader to see these aspects as strengths that are ripe for utilization.
But let me rein in my enthusiasm for this book and backtrack a bit so that I can share a few of my reading notes.
The book is subdivided into two parts: understanding high-functioning autism (Part I) and living with high-functioning autism (Part II). This division of content makes good sense: To live well with high-functioning autism, you have to understand it well.
In the first half, the authors do an excellent job of differentiating between autism in general and high-functioning autism. While the two disorders are on the same continuum, quantitative differences become qualitative differences. The authors explain the diagnostic process, review the causes of autism spectrum disorders, and review the range of available treatment options.
But Ozonoff, Dawson, and McPartland, while meticulous in their review, are not at all overwhelming. They consistently strike a nice balance between depth and breadth in all of the areas they cover.
And they waste no time putting a personal face on their subject. From the first pages they introduce several representative vignettes. This is done with the vividness of a pop-up book. The writers — unlike many clinical authors — do not then abandon these characters but follow up with them throughout the assessment and treatment process, giving the reader a sense of “felt” continuity.
The second part of the book offers an invaluable discussion of how to “channel your child’s strengths.” The authors engage parents in a nuanced conversation about how to help their child navigate the social challenges of high-functioning autism in a variety of settings. They also offer a meditation on long-term prognosis that transcends the clinical and delves into the existential.
Chapter five — on “channeling your child’s strengths” — is profoundly humanizing. The authors do not just pay lip service to the idea of seeing the good in a difficult diagnosis. Instead, they offer a very specific discussion of six strengths associated with ASD — and ways in which these can be harnessed and sublimated in both social and professional settings.
Another highlight is the book’s reassuring tone and highly humanistic narrative. Despite the wealth of information it contains, the text feels both accessible and realistically optimistic.
Then there is the so-called disclosure issue: how to share the diagnosis with the autistic child himself. Ozonoff, Dawson, and McPartland succeed in offering parents very clear guidance as to the timing and manner of sharing it. They write about how to tell the child himself, how to tell any siblings, and how to share it with the larger social community.
The book positions parents to become part of the decision-making process about their child’s treatment. It also teaches them to become effective advocates for their kids.
Lastly, the guide doubles as a clarion call for self-care. The authors write: “ASD is recognized as one of the most difficult diagnoses for parents to come to terms with. Depression in parents after receiving the diagnosis is not uncommon.”
And that’s not all. “Marital relationships,” they continue, “are strained, resulting in higher than average rates of divorce among families of children with special needs.”
So it is quite important for parents to consider their own needs alongside those of their children, the book concludes. After all, the authors write, “the healthier you are, the better support you will be able to provide.”
You could say this book has two audiences: children with high-functioning autism, and their parents. Ozonoff, Dawson, and McPartland take great care of both communities.
Pavel Somov, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the author of Present Perfect and Mindful Emotional Eating.
A Parent’s Guide to High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive
The Guildford Press, November 2014
Paperback, 308 pages