More and more autism and treatments for the condition are in the public eye, but when Dan Burns’ son Ben was born in the 1980s, little was known about autism or what to do for children who had it. Parents who had skills and resources acted as the best advocates for their children, but even then, much of what they were able to accomplish came through trial and error.
Parents now have more resources to help their children, including the personal stories of parents who have come before them. One of those is Burns’ book, Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism. Ben’s diagnosis when it came was doubly crippling: severe autism and mental retardation. The level of personal care he needed from others to function would tax the ability of most any parent, but for Dan and his wife Sue, who were struggling with issues of their own even before Ben was born, it was particularly difficult.
While I’m not qualified to say whether the treatments Burns tried with Ben over the years are recommended for those with autism, I can say that Saving Ben is foremost a love story of what lengths a father is willing to go to help his son. Burns had two other children when Ben was born, one who had already left home and one who had nearly finished high school. His professional career was well established, and by all outside views he had a good life.
But under the surface he was struggling with his own sexual orientation and his wife was struggling with past abuse. Caring for Ben added more stress to their household. Ultimately, they would divorce and Burns would downplay his own career to care for his son. He was fortunate to be highly educated, which meant he felt confident enough to question and challenge the medical and teaching professionals who recommended courses of action for his son. He was also fortunate to receive financial support from his mother, which meant that as a single father employed part-time he could still pay for extraordinary levels of treatment for Ben.
If members of a mother-daughter book club have been touched by autism, Saving Ben can definitely help other members see how severely this condition can affect every aspect of the whole family. I would have liked to know more about how Ben’s siblings dealt with his condition and the disintegration of their parents’ marriage, but ultimately, this is an honest portrayal of how profoundly parents’ lives can change when they care for a child with disabilities.
Burns’ frank discussion of his own personal struggles and mature language make this appropriate for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in high school.