Book Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

“Maybe, if we bang our heads against a brick wall for long enough, it will crumble and fall. And maybe the rubble can be used to rebuild something better and more beautiful, enabling our own wildness. Imagine that”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, is a year long account of the fourteen year old author’s life. It offers an inspiring and uplifting view of nature focusing on flora and small fauna – the insects and birds essential for balance in the ecosystem of which humans are a part. More than this though, Dara’s musings and recollections provide an eye-opening window into the challenges faced by a teenager on the autism spectrum. He must find a way to survive an intensity of roller coaster emotions as he strives to navigate society and raise awareness of the issues he is passionate about.

Dara was born and raised in Northern Ireland where he still lives with his family. The book opens at the spring equinox – his dad’s birthday. The family home is in Fermanagh. Their best days are spent exploring the gardens, parks and wild places in their vicinity. Dara is often halted by the wonder of a bird or insect he spots, pausing to observe its beauty and activity. He writes with knowledge and appreciation, drawing the reader in and bringing alive the detail of each encounter.

These moments carry the author through the black periods that assail him, when the noise of the structured world he is forced to inhabit drowns out the good he finds in more natural wildernesses. He has been cruelly and violently bullied by his peers at school. Although eager to learn, the setup of modern classrooms and teaching methods – the way he is expected to behave – leave him exhausted. His family are tuned in to his predicament and offer strategies for coping. The constant vigilance required affects them all but is deeply appreciated by the author.

At home he has the understanding and unfailing support of his family. Still though, he must find ways to survive inside his own head. A crisis occurs later in the year when the family move to the other side of the country. The land that lies below the peaks of the Mourne Mountains offers Dara many new and exciting opportunities for exploration but such a radical change is anxiety inducing, especially the change of school.

Each diary entry recounts the birds and tiny beasts that entrance and calm the author. Described in wondrous detail – in language that captivates with its colour – creatures that many would try hard to avoid are made delightful as well as exciting. Alongside this positive energy is Dara’s despair at how modern farming practices denude vital habitats. Humans strive for efficiency and tidiness over more nature friendly practices.

As well as the wild places visited, Dara has an interest in conservation. His growing on-line presence has drawn attention and support from some well known names in this arena. Dara is invited to take part in bird ringing – I was interested that this form of human intervention sat well with him. Other invitations include participation in meetings and rallies. He recognises that, as a young naturalist with a popular following, certain opportunities – especially those attended by politicians – are about using him rather than taking notice of what he has to say.

The writing flows, the structure enabling both brief dips in and longer reading periods. The natural world presented is inspiring but what strengthens the message presented is its honesty – how Dara notices and is affected by his varied encounters. This is a book with the potential to change attitudes and behaviour. A vital read for both young people and adults.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

Book Review: Neurotribes

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“If normal is being selfish, being dishonest, having guns and waging war, I do not want any of it.”

Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman, is a wide ranging exploration of the history of autism and society’s attitude to those living with the diagnosis. It is a book about the condition but also about people, their fears and prejudices. Autistics have long been branded as diseased and inferior. They are not necessarily uncomfortable with themselves, it is others who are uncomfortable with them.

The book is divided into chapters which take the reader back to well before clinicians gave the condition a name. It introduces significant individuals from history whose discoveries and inventions shaped the world we know today but whose behaviours were deemed eccentric. The point is made that, should a cure for autism be found, scientific progress may be stymied. These people think differently, and it is that which could be regarded as their strength.

For centuries those who would not, or could not, behave as demanded by rigid, social rules were condemned to institutions. These individuals were damaged by the experience and had little chance of ever becoming contributing members of society. Those whose parents refused to bow to demands to give up on their misfits could work on finding a way to live in a world they struggled to make sense of.

“imagine the child’s reaction to the futility of living in an incomprehensible world run by what must appear to him to be demanding, ritualistic, arbitrary and inconsistent psychotics”

Parents of autistic children mourn the child they expected to have, desperate to have their beloved offspring fit in to a culture preoccupied with mass consumption and vacuous spectacle. They grasp at any straws which may offer a cure when what the autistic child wants is to find a way to communicate their needs and to be accepted as they are. There is much adult hand wringing over a child’s inability to make friends, even when the child appears happy with their solitary preoccupations. Little thought is given to why the child would wish to befriend those who mercilessly tease and bully them for being different.

“Left to his own devices, Robert might not have experienced himself as mentally ill at all, though he certainly could have developed an anxiety disorder from being perpetually grilled by men with clipboards.”

In the twentieth century psychiatry entered the mainstream of medicine and children labelled mentally retarded were studied. In Vienna, a pediatrician named Hans Asperger worked with a tight knit team of staff to find ways of engaging with unusual children. He dubbed these young people his little professors. His work was neglected until recently due to outside events. In America, the Eugenics Society was promoting the idea that those diagnosed as mentally deficient should be sterilized or even eliminated for the good of future humankind. Another Viennese, Adolf Hitler, took these ideas to extremes, but he was far from the only advocate of removing undesirables from the gene pool.

The cruelties inflicted on those deemed retarded make for depressing reading. From those autistics who are now adults and who, thanks to the advent of the internet, can be more widely heard, we learn that they view what would be regarded as normal behaviour as incomprehensible. One lady stated that she felt all her life like an anthropologist observing human interactions from a distance, straining to find meaning. She also pointed out that when autistics get together they can make sense of each other.

“the same behaviours that had been viewed for so long as inherently antisocial could become social in a group of autistic adults, particularly if there were no clinicians around to pronounce them pathological.”

The scope of the book and the detail offered make this a fascinating if sometimes challenging read. There is a great deal to take in but the central theme is constant – difference needs more acceptance. There has not been an autism epidemic, merely an expansion of the diagnosis. Autism is not a modern issue caused by vaccines, pollution or processed food, neither is it a fate worse than death. Autistics can lead full and happy lives if, just like the rest of society, they are welcomed in their community.

Difference is endemic yet so much effort is expended to promote a particular set of behaviours. By expounding on the damage this attitude has caused over centuries readers are encouraged to think differently themselves. Those raising neurodiverse children require and deserve more mainstream support. A varied society is scientifically and culturally richer, and this should be celebrated, not suppressed.

Book Review: Amulet

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Amulet, by Alison Thomas, is a fantasy adventure story aimed at pre-teen independent readers. Its protagonists are a brother and sister who climb down a well in their garden and discover an alternative land where men have been banished underground and the Land of Light is ruled by a family of unusually tall, pale skinned women. There are fierce flying wolves, a vegetarian dragon and a sunken city. Everyone speaks with a Welsh accent.

I didn’t fully tune into the book until I realised that the author was writing it as if written by the children themselves. Alternative chapters are penned by the girl, Megan, and her brother, Dion. The latter is autistic and his ‘corrections’ to the story that his sister is creating offer insight into the world from the perspective of a child on the spectrum.

Their story is of two journeys. Dion is taken through the air to the Land of Light where he explores a magical palace and is introduced to the ruling family who promise to explain why he too is pale skinned. His desire for information helps him to cope with the discomfort he feels at the change to his routine.

Megan enters the well separately and travels underground with her best friend Harriet, her grandfather and a band of small men. They are trying to reach Dion before his imminent birthday in order to rescue him from an unspecified danger.

Both journeys take the children through experiences which reflect the sorts of places parents take their offspring for holidays or days out. These are augmented with elements from stories they may have read or watched on TV. Transport involves vehicles of the sort found in theme parks; Megan’s group travel through a mine; refreshments are taken in a cafe that offers food the girls are unfamiliar with and therefore suspicious of; creatures emerge from wardrobes in strange bedrooms.

Within the palace doors lead to whichever room the person entering wishes to go, meaning they may only go somewhere they have already been and can therefore picture. This book seemed to be written in a similar way. The children wove their adventure around that which they knew.

Naturally both children wish to be the hero of the tale. There is bickering but also the admittance of care. I could picture them constructing the story together.

An unusual tale that gently explores family dynamics and the relationship between siblings when one has special needs. As an adult it is hard for me to know what a child would think of a story written as if by a child, whether this would help them to relate to the protagonists. The contributions by Dion could lead to useful discussions around how best to interact with an autistic peer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Shtum

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Shtum, by Jem Lester, tells the story of a family caring for a severely autistic ten year old boy, and their struggles to cope with him whilst their own lives fall apart. It is a searingly honest exploration of a marriage at breaking point, of problems with communication, and of generational resentments. It demonstrates love in action when the words cannot be found.

Life for the protagonist, Ben Jewell, is not going well. To further the case of an upcoming tribunal regarding his son Jonah’s ongoing care, Ben’s wife, Emma, suggests a temporary separation. Ben and Jonah move in with his father, Georg, who Ben has not spoken to for months. As if this were not enough, Ben’s business is suffering due to his neglect. He gets through each day by drinking. He drinks a lot.

Georg accepts that his assistance is required but makes it clear that he is not impressed with his son’s behaviour. When Ben overhears Georg chatting to Jonah about his past, something that he has always avoided doing with Ben, he feels anger towards the old man. Their relationship is filled with unspoken resentments stretching back to Ben’s childhood. Now Georg disapproves of Ben’s plans to send his son away.

Emma has all but vanished from their lives so Ben is forced to deal with the cost and organisation of Jonah’s case for the tribunal. He is perplexed by his wife’s behaviour and starts to suspect an affair.

Jonah’s days revolve around routine; when this is upset his reactions become unpredictable, sometimes violent. He is a strong, lively, hungry boy. He is also incontinent. Much of his care involves providing the foods he will eat and cleaning up the mess that is subsequently produced. He is mute and it is unclear how much he understands of what he is told. The vivid portrayal of such a child makes his parent’s actions understandable if not commendable.

This is an emotionally charged read yet is written with humour and frankness. The plot is compelling but it was the character development that particularly impressed. I especially enjoyed the way the author presented Georg, and then revealed why he acted as he did.

A remarkable, moving book that deserves to be read widely. Put this on your wish list for next year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion.