A boy made of blocks, Keith Stuart
Recommended by Abigail Jefferies. In a way, this entire project is Abi’s idea. As I was trying to explain to her a couple of years ago why I was at that stage training for an attempt at a hundred mile running event, I casually muttered that I didn’t know what sort of challenge I could set myself for my 40th. As quick as a flash she replied that I should not think about one big thing but instead think of 40 things I could do. I’ve mulled it over several times since, and this is the result.
Keith Stuart is the games editor at The Guardian, and after one of his sons was diagnosed with ASD, he discovered a way of communicating with him through playing Minecraft. Out of those experiences was born this novel, which although fictional, contains several episodes highly redolent of his own life. Over the years I have taught a number of children confirmed to be on the spectrum, and have also known and worked with several adults that show traits of the condition, so I was very eager to know how a parent with first hand daily experience would write about it.
The book tells the tale of a father, Alex, finding a way to understand his son, Sam, whilst simultaneously fix his extremely shaky marriage, get over a redundancy and deal with his own demons from a horrible incident in his own childhood. The plot is perhaps at times a little far-fetched, but the writing is beautiful, and he certainly knows how to tug on the heartstrings. The denouement of the book had me in tears – I have been accused of being over-sensitive before, but it normally requires pictures and music to get me sobbing!
Most of all though, it was the writing about ASD, and Alex’s and other people’s reactions that fascinated me most. It is clear from every word that Stuart himself found it hard to come to terms with his son’s diagnosis. He has written in his own paper:
“About the same time, …. , my wife and I were going through the tortuous dance of securing a diagnosis of autism for our six-year-old son, Zac. He’d always been behind on language development; he’d always had a problem in crowded environments. Noise terrified him, he was socially awkward and withdrawn. Some days I had to carry him to school as he wailed and fought. I was tired and angry and upset all the time. I didn’t know what to do for him. I didn’t know how to make him happy. That’s what you want as a parent, I gradually realised. On the hierarchy of parental needs, happiness is pretty high, higher than any academic ambitions. Way higher than anything you want for yourself.”
There is so much of this book that shows Stuart in this mode of thinking, as Alex desperately tries to help Sam, but gets frustrated with everything and everyone when things don’t seem to pan out. It is clear however that (only partially I am sure) through the medium of Minecraft, a channel of improving communication has opened. This is not a new or revolutionary idea (see here for instance: New Scientist) but the way that Stuart writes about it is warm, nurturing and informative. He has clearly lived through the experience of observing others observe his son, and his sharp observations make the reader wonder how they would react in similar situations. “Would I realise? Would I make the wrong assumptions? Is that just a naughty child? Are those parents really inadequate?” I’m sure many of us would recognise one or more of those questions…
Fundamentally of course, Stuart is right. The happiness of your child really should come pretty high.
If you feel you don’t know enough about ASD, read this book as an introduction. Then visit the excellent pages of the National Autistic Society. This condition affects more than 1 in 100 people in the UK – you probably know someone who is somewhere on the spectrum, and perhaps you might need to give their condition more thought. Also, spare a thought for those families whose struggle with ASD does not have such a hopeful journey ahead as the picture painted towards the end of this book.
Alternatively, just read it – it’s a beautiful story.
Thank you Abi, for the recommendation, and for the seed of the idea in the first place.