Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Review: The Best Kind of Different: Our Family's Journey with Asperger's Syndrome, by Shonda Schilling

The Best Kind of Different: Our Family's Journey with Asperger's Syndrome
by Shonda Schilling
Harper Collins
224 pages

For Philadelphians, the image of former Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling covering his head with a towel whenever Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams took the mound is embedded in our 1993 post-season minds.

In this new book, Curt and his wife Shonda don't hide from their experiences with Asperger's Syndrome as viewed through their eyes as parents to their son Grant, who was diagnosed at age seven.

I usually look at "autism memoirs" somewhat skeptically, especially when they are written by celebrities (who have very different lives - translation: more money and more help - than the people I know). I also eschew flowery sentiments like The Best Kind of Different. There are many, many words and phrases that come to mind when I think of Boo having Asperger's and our family's experiences, and  quite honestly, "the best kind of different" is usually not among them. (Surely not after this morning's meltdown of epic proportions.)

But I must say that I found this to be a very honest and down-to-earth book.  It would have been much easier for the Schillings to remain silent, to not be as forthcoming with their struggles with Grant or about their oldest son Gehrig's eating disorders or with their other children (and Curt) having ADHD. 

"Though it's one thing to make peace with your kids not being academically or athletically exceptional and realize how they are each special in their own ways, it's another thing entirely to come to terms with one of your children being significantly different. This is every parent's worst nightmare, that their child will be labeled different in some way, whether it's a physical disability, social awkwardness, or coming from the wrong side of the tracks. The child who is different stands out and faces huge social and emotional consequences.  The other kids notice who is different. Just the word different seems to be a bad thing, carrying all sorts of assumptions and stigmas. Different means hardship, different means struggle.  It may seem like a reductive way of looking at the world, but as pretty much any parent will tell you, children can be incredibly cruel, and nothing attracts that cruelty like a kid who is labeled different." (pg. 87-88)

In her book, Shonda Schilling gives example after example of Grant's behavior and issues that confused and frustrated her - as well as her other children.  (The Schillings have four kids.) She writes how his tendency to run off in parking lots and crowded spaces, as well as his unpredictable meltdowns, made it difficult to take him anywhere, especially baseball games. How he had difficulty with simple transitions from one activity to another.  How he didn't seem to listen or make eye contact and did socially inappropriate (but logical to him) things like walking into a neighbor's house and helping himself to a Pop-Tart because "they have better Pop-Tarts."  And yet at the same time, Grant was very intelligent, compassionate towards others (especially those with physical disabilities) and affectionate.

All this making Shonda, who at the time knew only the sterotypes of autism and nothing about Asperger's, utterly perplexed.

"Before I knew about Asperger's, before I knew exactly what it was that made Grant different, the thing I kept coming back to was that he seemed like one big youthful, energetic contradiction. He would do something that would make you angry, and in the same breath he would tell you he loved you. This tendency made me refer to Grant as a child who would pinch you while he was hugging you. .... For years before Grant was diagnosed, this never-ending sea of contradictions was a constant source of confusion.  The contradictions are what make you think this is a just a phase, that somehow the "bad" part or the "odd" part of the contradiction will one day just stop, leaving only the "good" part behind. Isn't it funny how willing we are to assume that bad behavior is somehow different, but good behavior is normal?" (pg. 59)

And as many of mothers with kids of special needs can relate to, Grant's behavior and her inability to "fix" it also made Shonda feel as if she wasn't a good mother and that many people saw her as the culprit. Being in the public eye and living such a high-profile life as the wife of a major league baseball player only compounded matters.

"Part of the problem was that despite my instincts that something was wrong, I felt as if people second-guessed me whenever I brought up Grant's behavior. When I would talk to friends and family about how Grant acted, there was always an excuse, something that they felt made the behavior somehow my fault. They weren't necessary trying to point the finger at me, and everyone was well-intentioned about giving advice, but all their ideas seemed to place the blame squarely at me, especially because Curt was on the road so often.

Grant didn't respect me.
I spoiled him.
I wasn't firm enough.

No matter whom I spoke to about the trends I saw in Grant, everyone seemed to dismiss it with a wave of the hand and an overly simplified generalization.  None of it felt right." (pg. 73)

It feels kind of odd to say that I enjoyed this book, but I did - in the sense that it reads so conversationally (making it somewhat of a fast read for me) that it was like sitting down and having lunch with a friend, another mom who knows what it is like to walk this road. (I think that The Best Kind of Different would be helpful reading for others who might feel alone with this, or for relatives of those with Asperger's.)

Even though children with Asperger's have some commonalities, Asperger's can be very different from one child to the next. Still, there is much about Grant's personality that is very similar to my Boo's - and many of the Schilling family's experiences are similar to our own. 

In telling her family's story, Shonda Schilling doesn't go where some other celebrities have gone - she doesn't give advice on therapies, she doesn't get on a soapbox spouting theories about autism's causes, she doesn't preach or tell others what to do.  While she gives strategies on what has worked for Grant and their family coupled with what they haven't done, it's presented in a very matter-of-fact, "here's-what-works-for-us," parent-to-parent style.

Shonda is also very honest on the impact that being Grant's parents has had on her relationship with Curt.  For many years, she was pretty much parenting solo while Curt was on the road most of the year.  She describes their tense conversations over the phone, giving him the news of Grant's diagnosis while they were on the road in a hotel room, and the decision for them to go into couple's therapy together (along with her seeking out help for herself in the form of medication for depression).

Those of us who live this life know the statistics on the increased rate of divorce among married couples who have a child with special needs and the toll that parenting them takes. "Our job as parents is to prepare our kids for what is ahead of them, to teach them the difference between right and wrong and how to choose wisely. Sometimes, especially in the case of a child with Asperger's, that's easier said than done.  It takes parenting up to a whole other level." (pg. 133)

Parents who are also parenting on this level often feel alone and misunderstood by others. (This was especially true in the book when Shonda writes about Grant's participation in sports and the nasty remarks hurled at her when Grant had difficulty playing and being part of the team.)

We all want our kids to be part of the team, and as parents, we want to be part of a winning team that has us on top of this game of life. It's a struggle for most of us, especially those who are parenting children with special needs. The Best Kind of Different doesn't present a perfect game by saying everything is wonderful in the world of autism, but instead scores a home run by simply showing that more of us are in this game than we might think. 

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

1 comment:

K A B L O O E Y said...

Aw, man. Now I have a reason not to hate Schilling? His wife sounds like a very decent person who's written a good book. (Darn her, making me see them as real flesh and blood humans instead of Yankee foes.) I know I'm late to post this, but I was scrolling through your 2010 list looking for some titles, and this one stopped me. I didn't notice the Curt connection, but since I love memoirs and am always on lookout for good ones about parent/child stuff, this caught my eye.