I’m happy to review a new memoir by Laura Shumaker called A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism. Shumaker’s story will resonate with many parents, whether they are raising a child with autism or one of it’s related conditions, or even if they are raising a child with any special needs. Here is my review of the book followed by a question and answer with the author.
Laura Shumaker brings us inside the world of a parent who is raising a son with autism in her heartfelt memoir, A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism. When Matthew was born, Shumaker and her husband marveled over their perfect baby and looked forward to watching him grow. But as he grew into a toddler, the Shumakers became concerned about developmental delays they noticed, and they questioned his pediatrician.
It took many frustrating visits to many physicians before Matthew was diagnosed with autism, and even then the Shumakers were given conflicting advice on what to do for him. Any parent who has ever struggled to get an accurate diagnosis for a child will feel the frustration Shumaker feels of knowing something is not right, yet being unable to get helpful medical advice.
As Matthew grows up, Shumaker works to make sure he feels as normal as possible, while also raising her younger two sons as well. She and her husband, Peter, try different treatments and therapies, at great cost to their finances and their emotions. Through it all Shumaker never stops trying to do what’s best for the whole family.
Shumaker’s story is an inspiring tale of a mother who never gives up on her son. She tells it straightforward, not asking for sympathy, but for understanding. Anyone who is raising a child with autism or has a relative with autism should be able to relate to her quest to help her son eventually be an independent adult. Anyone who is touched by autism in any way, at school or church or another community gathering place, will be able to learn more about the condition and possibly be more understanding of people who have it.
I highly recommend A Regular Guy for mother-daughter book clubs that may want to explore autism as it relates to everyone in a family.
An Interview with Laura Shumaker
LS: I never thought about writing my story while I was raising Matthew—I was so overwhelmed with taking care of his needs AND the needs of my other two sons. I’m sure that all moms with special needs children can relate! But when Matthew was 15 his behavior in school and in our community took a dangerous turn—and my husband came to the heartbreaking conclusion that we needed to send him to a residential school.
Friends and family who had seen me struggle with him over the years thought I might be relieved, but instead I felt lost, like I was a failure of a mother, and I decided to write about it. A friend encouraged me to join her writing group and I was hooked!!
Getting a diagnosis of autism for Matthew was difficult; do you think it is easier for parents to have a child diagnosed today than it was in the 1980s?
LS: When Matthew was young, it was so obvious that he was autistic, but we didn’t even get a formal diagnosis until he was five or six! It is so much easier to get a diagnosis today! Pediatricians are screening infants starting at eight months old. Parents are also better informed with all of the information online. There are many more tried and true early intervention programs that help children on the autism spectrum learn and connect.
Do you think treatment is more effective now than it was then?
LS: Yes! With the treatment and therapies available these days, outcomes for autistic children are so much more helpful. There is a heightened awareness these days about autism and other developmental disabilities; people are so much more willing to be inclusive.
As quirky as Matthew is, he has so much to offer and watching him try to be a “regular guy” has moved us as a family to appreciate the differences in others. And we have also developed a great sense of humor! My sons Andy and John, now 20 and 16, have grown into compassionate and patient young men (with INCREDIBLE senses of humor). We are so lucky.
Can you share with us one overriding piece of advice about raising a child with autism you wish you would have had when Matthew was growing up?
LS: The best thing I did for myself (and I would have done it earlier if I’d known it would be so helpful) was find a great therapist. When Matthew was little, I tried to hide the anguish and hopelessness I felt from my parents (who were a great support, by the way) and my husband. I wanted everyone to think I had everything under control, but eventually I fell apart. I started getting sick all of the time, was anxious and wasn’t sleeping.
The therapist encouraged me to share my load—to find helpers and mentors who could work and play with Matthew so that I could get a break. She encouraged me to enjoy time with my other two sons and with my husband. Many moms enjoy group therapy, but I found a one on one therapist to be the best solution for me.
What advice do you have for siblings of a child with autism?
LS: What siblings really want and need is time with their parents. So much time and energy goes into the care of a sibling with a disability. I encourage kids to ask their parents for one-on-one outings with their parents–regularly. Siblings need to speak up when they are feeling overlooked! Sibling groups are also very helpful (they call them “sib groups”). It’s really great for siblings to get together with OTHER siblings to tell stories and VENT!!
Can you recommend resources on the Web where friends and extended family of someone with autism can learn more about ways they can be supportive?
LS: My Web site of course! www.laurashumaker.com. On the right side of my site there is a long list of autism information sites. One of the best links on my Web site is for autism speaks (www.autismspeaks.org).
That said, the best way that family and friends can be helpful and supportive is to ask questions. “What can I do to help? What is the best way I can communicate with your child? What does he/she like or dislike? How can I educate other family and friends about your child?” And of course the best question, “Can I take your child off your hands for a few hours?”