A frank memoir about raising an autistic son

by Janice Arnold

The heartbreak and strain of raising a child with autism are recounted with candour and humour in Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism (Viking Canada) by Montrealer Joel Yanofsky. For Yanofsky, best known as a book reviewer, and his wife, Cynthia Davis, their son Jonah’s diagnosis at almost age four was shattering.

The couple never expected to be parents, and in fact, weren’t married, when Cynthia, at 38, became pregnant. Joel was 42.

Their apprehension vanished when Jonah was born. The baby, to them, was blessed with a beauty they were at a loss to explain. They were besotted. Yanofsky couldn’t contain his pride. He worked his son into almost every column he wrote.

But their joy was soon shattered when the boy did not develop according to the norm. Yanofsky, who frankly admits to his own self-absorption, took it the hardest. His coping mechanism was to withdraw into a funk of self-pity, to lament how this could have happened – to him.

The author had a nagging sense that he had never really fitted in or become the kind of conventional job-holder society expected.

“I was, in my own low-key way, weird,” he writes of his youthful obsession with fiction and its creators.

Meanwhile, his wife took a pro-active approach, reading everything she could, seeking out professional help, networking with other parents of kids with special needs .

Bad Animals is a kind of memoir, written over the years. Yanofsky makes clear that this has not been easy, even though writing is his livelihood and his most fluent means of communication.

His voice slowly changes from one of despair to one with a degree of serenity.

The humour in Bad Animals is, as is typical of Yanofsky, of the self-deprecating kind.

As Jonah grew, his behaviour became a problem. His father knows it is not politically correct to say this, but the best word to describe his son’s behaviour is strange – temper tantrums, repetitive activity, lack of focus, no friends. Jonah is high-functioning and quite social, at least within the family, and witty. He attends a regular public school, with a shadow.

The autism spectrum, his parents learn, is a very broad one.

No matter how disturbing and, Yanofsky admits, embarrassing his son’s way of acting has been, his love for him shines through without having to be made explicit to the reader.

Yanofsky draws on his lifelong relationship with fiction to get inside Jonah’s mind. “Sometimes I try to imagine Jonah as a character in a novel. I know that if I can think of him that way, I’ll have a better chance to understand him, figure out how he thinks.”

Bad Animals ends as Jonah approaches his teen years. It’s not exactly a happy ending, and Yanofsky expresses his fears about a whole new set of concerns as Jonah ceases to be a cute child who can be protected.

The title is his son’s, taken from a Grade 4 story he wrote. Animals, the more exotic the better, are a mania with young Jonah. Yanofsky tried to engage his son’s attention by having them write a sequel book together.

Bad Animals offers a truthful portrait of the often bewildering and frustrating relationship between parents and the experts: psychologists, doctors, therapists, teachers, shadows.

Yanofsky does a fine job of surveying and digesting the plethora of books about autism, even a growing literary genre, and the movement among some parents to have autism recognized as just another way of being, about which he is dubious.

By book’s end, Jonah is nearing his 12th birthday and has made considerable progress. He is learning Hebrew, for which he shows an aptitude, and planning for his bar mitzvah.

But unlike “neurotypical” youngsters, Jonah must be taught to separate from his parents. And for his mother and father, letting go is much harder than it usually is for other parents.

“This is the paradox at the heart of raising Jonah – how much he depends on us to make him independent,” Yanofsky writes.

The original article from the Canadian Jewish News can be found here.


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