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A Friend Like Henry
The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog That Unlocked His World
By Nuala Gardner
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Nuala Gardner
All rights reserved.
My husband, Jamie, never forgets a date. He has a head for figures, which explains why he is involved in microchip design for a living. Anything involving numbers just seems to stick. So when he reminded me that Henry came into our lives on February 18, 1994, a Friday, I knew it must be so. Our son, Dale, then five years and eight months old, was to have a puppy. Typically this is an exciting day for a child, but our son was anything but typical and completely different from any of his peers. This day was for us all the highest risk and biggest gamble we were ever to take with Dale in his short but challenging life to date.
We desperately hoped this innocent little puppy would at the very least be some sort of "living" companion for Dale and maybe give him some insight into successfully having a first friend. One could perhaps be forgiven for wondering why he had no friends, but the answer is simply that Dale didn't have the faintest inkling of what friendship was or a desire for it, let alone the ability to grasp the concept of how to maintain such a complex relationship. In his world, he had formed a bond with a pull-string, two-foot stuffed Mickey Mouse doll, which went everywhere Dale did. I used Mickey as a role model in any way I could to teach Dale. We also lived twenty-four seven with Dale's ultimate obsession, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, which was Dale's compromise with the real world.
We learned to "use this obsession" to teach Dale the most basic social rules and how to try to make friends. Jamie and I employed Thomas as a teaching aid, using the train's personality and facial expressions to help Dale understand feelings and emotions. We also used some poetic license from the stories such as Trust Thomas, who was the perfect friend and role model, Jealous James, Boring Bertie, and especially Helpful Henry, who was his favorite train. He also loved the whirring sound of Harold the helicopter, who was always happy. We didn't know it then, but some of these characters would open doors of opportunity for Dale in later life. To us, as the Fat Controller stated, "Thomas was indeed a very useful engine." For eighteen months, we were all involved with using this technique to help Dale, until we reached the saturation point using "Thomas" and eventually ran out of steam. Unbeknownst to us, this little pup, because of "Thomas," was to transform all our lives and future as a family forever.
For over two years, our days consisted of surviving tantrums of epic proportions. They were epic in terms of both duration and the ferocity of the frustration and anger that was being unleashed by Dale due to his inability to communicate with us on any level. Dale had no idea who we were, and we feared we would never be able to reach him.
Only by chance, at a children's Christmas party where Dale reacted as though Santa himself was a monster, could I put a name to the reasons for Dale's behavior. The party itself was an alien and petrifying environment, and Dale clung to me as though his very life depended on it. On witnessing my son's reaction, a nursing colleague, Jean, gave me a word that made sense of Dale to her, but it left me feeling as though she had just told me my son had cancer. She said Dale reminded her of a group of children she had worked with in the past, and they were autistic. When I researched the subject, I knew Dale was a severe case. Despite all my efforts to get him help and appropriate education, no one would listen to me for another two years, when finally, aged almost four, Dale was diagnosed with classical autism.
Autism is diagnosed when there are deficits in three main areas that are known as the triad of impairments. The first part of the triad is an inability to communicate both verbally and nonverbally. Some autistic people may not have any language whatsoever or little language, but all find nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, gestures, emotions, and tone of voice the most difficult. The second area is lack of imagination and flexibility of thought. This is often evident through lack of development in play. The third is an inability to socialize, make friends, and make sense of the world we live in. Autistic people compensate by developing strict routines and rituals, and they have problems coping with change.
The stress of fighting authorities, living day-to-day with Dale's condition, and intensively trying to educate him by breaking through the autism took its toll on my health. I was admitted to the hospital for tests due to unexplained secondary infertility, where it was discovered I was suffering from symptoms that indicated a possible pituitary adenoma, a form of brain tumor. I was due to have a brain scan in a couple of weeks. Thankfully it later transpired that the symptoms were entirely the result of stress and exhaustion, which had caused my pituitary gland hormones to malfunction.
During the period of uncertainty and anxiety, the best advice to alleviate this condition was to try and reduce stress as much as possible, and to this end Jamie suggested it would be good to get me away.
He called his cousin David who lived with his wife, Isobel, in the large Scottish village of Auchterarder, a journey of about one hour from our home in Greenock. There were stunning views from their house across to the rolling Perthshire hills.
This was a good idea but, as with most trips with Dale, it wouldn't be straightforward. Much planning would be needed to avoid Dale's unpredictable responses. We had to prepare ourselves for most eventualities. I got around this by Mickey being there, but I had also devised what I came to call my survival bag. This was a large shoulder bag that would contain all we would need to survive any outing with Dale. All my own personal items, such as my purse, would be in it along with diapers, a change of clothes, a Thomas cup, his current favorite five metal trains, and a couple of Thomas videos. Last but not least would be some food and some candy if there was a rare opportunity to reward him. This bag would allow me to go anywhere, but more importantly, it was practical when I had to deal with Dale's challenges that any situation could throw at me.
As soon as we arrived, Dale ran straight out to the back garden and as usual began what we came to call his Chariots of Fire relentless running routine. Locked into this ritual, he would give a droning noise as he ran and would do this for ages if you let him. We got this name from the eighties film of the same name about Olympic runners.
Isobel attempted to divert Dale's attention to a small soccer ball, but he resented the intrusion and continued with his run. Undeterred, she told him, "This is one of the balls the dogs play with. Shall we go and get them?" Dale ignored her completely. David nonetheless went into the house and liberated their two Scottie dogs, Barney, totally black, and Dougal, completely white, who came scampering out in full play mode, anxious for someone to throw their balls for them. To Jamie's and my surprise, Dale's face instantly lit up, and David and Isobel proceeded to show him the dogs' favorite game.
Dale seemed enchanted as he threw the ball, which Dougal promptly returned to him, dropping it at his feet. And so it went on with both dogs, until Barney retreated to the house for a nap. Dougal, however, was still up for fun, and Dale kept going, continually repeating the command Isobel had taught him: "Fetch!" Jamie and I stood by in amazement as, for the very first time, our son interacted and played happily and naturally with another living being, something we'd never witnessed before. I think the fact that one dog was black and the other white helped Dale recognize which dog was which and reduce his confusion. It enabled him to play appropriately, and the dogs put no social demands on him.
"I can't believe what I'm seeing," Jamie told David. "If we were visiting anyone else, he'd be tuned in to a video by now."
"Ever thought of getting a dog yourselves?" David asked innocently.
"We need a dog like we need a hole in our heads," was Jamie's subtle rejoinder.
On the journey home, I was happy and bubbling with excitement over what I had witnessed, so much so that Jamie eventually conceded that perhaps a dog was something we should think about for the future, once my health had improved. I think he just said this to shut me up, but as he should have known, once I decide to do something, the future is not an option. Jamie then pointed out that for the very first time visiting anyone, the survival pack had remained unopened, to the extent that Dale had been so happy he ate the same meal as the rest of us. Little did Jamie realize it then, but I was on a mission. The only question for me now was what type of dog!
A couple of days later, I had finished my shift at the hospital where I worked part-time as a nurse among the elderly. I worked predominantly with stroke patients with communication problems. I was then able to apply a lot of these skills to try to help Dale. I hurried to the library and took a pile of dog books home with me, desperately anxious to find exactly the right breed. I needed to be sure the dog would be able to cope with the extreme environment he would be exposed to in our home. I turned to a book that had a table scoring various breeds out of ten for temperament, intelligence, potential health problems, and, most importantly, suitability for young children.
As I studied each category, one breed shone through, scoring full marks and ticking all of the boxes. The more I read about the golden retriever, the more obvious it became that this was the dog for us. I also concluded that it would have to be a puppy that would grow and adapt to our household because an older dog may not have coped with the ferocity of Dale's tantrums and screaming and the extreme environment living with his autism caused.
The local vet gave me some numbers of breeders to call, but I became increasingly despondent as I worked my way down the list, only to be told by each breeder that they had no pups at this time, or if they did, the pups were all spoken for. Then the last person I called, a local woman named Val, announced she did indeed have pups available.
I could barely contain my excitement as I read up some more on golden retrievers, becoming so absorbed that I didn't hear Jamie come home. As he walked into the room, I quickly tried to hide the book under a cushion.
"What are you up to?" he inquired suspiciously.
"Nothing," I replied nervously, as you do when you have something to hide. Then, trying to sound legit, I added, "I've been to the library. Just enjoying a quiet read while Dale's at Mum's."
"There can't be any more books on autism, surely," said Jamie. "And even if there are, why are you hiding them?"
Conceding I'd been keeping a secret, I showed Jamie the book cover with a golden retriever on it. Then as his jaw dropped, I tried to plead my case. After seeing Dale come alive with Dougal and Barney, I didn't want to wait. I wanted him to have a dog right away.
Jamie's response was tactful, sensitive, and to the point: "Are you nuts?"
A skeptical husband, however, cannot stand in the way of a wife on a mission, and the day inevitably came when we went to see the pups in the nearby town of Gourock. We tried to explain the outing to Dale, but he clearly didn't understand.
As Val showed us into her living room, Dale was quiet and withdrawn, and he remained this way despite the deafening noise of dogs barking in the back room. Val left us for a moment, and we took in our surroundings. The living room was like "Retriever World," with every available space covered with photos and ornaments of golden retrievers, young and old alike.
Jamie panicked, saying, "Is this what happens to you when you get a dog?"
At that moment, Val reappeared with her mum, Sheena, both holding two of the cutest bundles of fur under each arm. When they set the pups down to run around, I was enchanted, but Dale ignored them completely. Worse, he started to rock and moan as if it were all too much for him.
Picking up on this, Jamie told me quietly, "This isn't going to work, Nuala."
Disappointed, but not about to lose hope, I replied, "Let him at least see the pups for a while."
"He is seconds away from a tantrum," hissed Jamie.
Then to our dismay, Dale suddenly pointed to the bookshelf beside the television, exclaimed with great excitement, "Thomas!" and proceeded to help himself to the solitary Thomas the Tank Engine video he'd spotted nestling among a host of other videos and books. He gave the video to Sheena to put on, promptly kicked off his shoes, and settled down to watch from the big armchair in front of the TV, now totally content.
I apologized to Val and then melted as a couple of the pups came over to me. "They're absolutely adorable," I told her.
"But can they play soccer?" piped up Jamie.
"You'd be surprised what a goldie can do," said Val.
Even though Dale only had eyes for Thomas, I wasn't yet ready to give up. I knelt down and began to play with one of the pups to try to catch Dale's attention but to no avail. I waved the pup's paw at Dale; he still ignored me. Jamie gestured to me that this was pointless, and I started to think he was right — nothing was going to distract Dale now that he had Thomas. I asked Val if it was all right to stay until the end of the tape, to avoid a tantrum but in a way also playing for time — I desperately didn't want to give up.
"Maybe when the video's finished ..." I added hopefully.
But Jamie was emphatic. "He doesn't want to know, Nuala."
Heavily disappointed, I had to concede. Then one of the pups wandered over to Dale's chair and tried valiantly to clamber up onto it. Sheena rewarded the little chap's efforts with a helpful push, whereupon the pup turned around and snuggled in beside Dale.
"Look at that," I told Jamie and Val, heartened. Dale was still engrossed in the video, but he was now also gently stroking the pup's back — though he hadn't so much as glanced at it.
Jamie replied, "He may be all right with him here, but lots of kids with autism are terrified of dogs."
"Does he look terrified to you?" I countered. "He needs company, Jamie, I know he does."
Sheena unwittingly broke into Dale's world by standing in front of the TV to speak to our son. "Have you got a new friend there, Dale? This little fellow needs a name. Can you think of a name for him, Dale?"
Dale simply leaned around her to see the TV, and at that very moment his favorite engine appeared on the screen. "Henry, Henry," Dale cried and excitedly pointed with delight to the screen.
"Henry?" said Sheena, surprised, mistakenly thinking he'd understood the question.
"He doesn't understand," explained Jamie.
"But why not?" I inquired. "It's a subject he knows and a name he loves."
Sheena observed, "Well, if he loves Henry the dog as much as Henry the train, we'll have no problems there!"
"Henry?" repeated Jamie, before muttering, "The poor thing's doomed from the start."
So it was that this little pup was named after a cartoon engine, and with Jamie conceding defeat, at long last we had a new addition to our family, although not the one we'd planned or hoped for.
After the video had ended, in order to confirm that the pup was indeed to be Dale's dog, Val lifted up a floppy ear and wrote a big H in black felt tip pen, much to the delight of Dale, who found this hilarious. While Jamie wrote out the check, I asked Val if she'd be prepared to take Henry back if his welfare started to suffer at Dale's hands, and she confirmed she would.
Much as I would have loved to, we couldn't take the pup right away. We needed time to prepare Dale for this big change in his life. Val was happy to look after Henry for another two weeks while we set about trying to help Dale understand what was about to happen.
I involved Dale throughout this whole process, taking him on a few shopping trips to buy all we would need for our dog, and then I put our purchases in a large black trash bag. Jamie made a very professional countdown calendar, showing a picture of a specific dog item for each day, and Dale would tick off the appropriate item on a daily basis to give him a concept of time going by. I would then put that item in the dog bed that now occupied a corner of our lounge. I involved Dale as much as possible during the shopping process, so he chose, for example, the color of Henry's bed, a special quacking duck chew toy, and a small blue collar. We were really happy during this process, and I remember it felt as though we were preparing for the arrival of a new baby.
Jamie also spent time with Dale, using facial expressions to show how the dog would be feeling — happy, angry, sad, and so forth. He drew simple line drawings of a dog's face to illustrate each expression, though Dale seemed to prefer his dad's own physical attempts to replicate these. He found Jamie's impression of a happy dog, involving bright eyes, panting, and a waggy tail, particularly entertaining.
Excerpted from A Friend Like Henry by Nuala Gardner. Copyright © 2008 Nuala Gardner. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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