Shelley Marsden speaks to nurse-turned-author Nuala Gardner about the family pet that has transformed her autistic children’s lives
Nuala Gardner, from Gourock near Glasgow, turned her mission – to help her autistic children Dale, 24, and Amy, 12 be accepted in the outside world – into a full-time career. The book she wrote about their struggles in 2007, A Friend Like Henry, became an international bestseller.
Both children have a diagnosis at opposite ends of the Autistic Spectrum. For twenty five years, Nuala worked as a registered nurse and five years as a midwife; her medical knowledge has helped her educate her children and fight the system to ensure both receive exactly what they need. Speaking to her, it doesn’t take long to recognise the determination in her voice.
Translated into 17 languages, A Friend Like Henry told the moving story of the Gardner family and their golden retriever Henry, whose unquestioning empathy helped their severely autistic son, Dale communicate with the world. It was even made into an ITV drama After Thomas, starring Keeley Hawes.
All Because of Henry takes the story forward to the present day. Henry has died and ‘wee’ Henry, the next golden retriever to become head of the house, has arrived in the family home. Dale is now an increasingly independent young man, eager to make his way in the world, but thwarted at every turn by a world resistant to his undoubted skills.
As Nuala, whose mother came from Dublin, depicts all too clearly in her book, autism changes, but it never goes away. Dale is ready for the world, but the world doesn’t seem ready for him: “Dale had a great quality of life and still does, thank goodness, and a really positive future as an adult. But it goes without saying that all children with autism will become adults with autism, and that brings a lot of challenges. I wanted to show that Dale wasn’t a ‘golden child’ and expose the plight of the adult with autism.”
Dale had hoped after school to access adult education, pursue employment – but shockingly, despite the fact that this handsome young man is in the public domain thanks to his mother’s writing, he has been met with barriers and prejudice. What he really wanted was to go into childcare – he had had work experience in a nursery and loved it, and his condition means he has an uncanny photographic memory of his own childhood but as Nuala says, expressing little of the heartache that the simple sentence must contain, “things didn’t work out”.
She says:“Pre-school is often where children are diagnosed and educated with autism, so it would be a very supportive environment, but he just wasn’t given the chance; one I think he was legally entitled to. He’s now doing an open learning computer course; he likes the office environment. He’s also doing work experience for an autism organisation which he’s hoping will take him on.”
Autism is on the syllabus at the college Dale went to, but there was evidently a real lack of understanding that autism is for life. Nuala says the college was great about how to help children, but not an adult, and hopes her new book gets the message across that adults need the same attention and support as they did when they were younger.
For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (2 Nov issue).
All Because of Henry (Black and White Publishing, £9.99) is out now.