Guest Reviewer: Adele Symonds
Full Title: A Friend Like Ben: A Mother Desperate for Love
Author: Julia Romp
Publisher: HarperCollins (2010)
Number of Pages: 274
How long it took me to read: 2 days
Where I got this book: my mum sent it to me
Like a Moth to a Flame
This is a true story about a boy with Autism. I have a son with an autistic spectrum disorder, so I knew I would be able to relate to the mother. I wasn’t specifically looking for a book on this subject but my mum was amazed at the similarities between Romps’ story and my life and recommended I read it. My mum told me that Romp’s book gave her insight into my life that she didn’t have before; she admitted that it’s helped her understand how difficult things can be sometimes. I was a little apprehensive at first, as no two children with an autistic spectrum disorder will display the same characteristics, but I wanted to see how Romp experiences the reality.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “I can honestly say that George really is the best son a mother could ask for and I love everything about the person he is. He’s truly unique, and that’s just about as much as any mother could want.” (p.272)
4. “George had come to life again in the moment that he saw Ben, just as I’d always thought he would.” (p.263)
3. “ ‘Would you like a cuddle?’ I’d ask him softly, hoping each time that he might let me near him.
‘No. Don’t touch me.’
‘I’ll find him, George. I’ll keep looking.’
‘He’s dead. Now leave me alone.’
That was why I had to keep going. I didn’t have any other choice.” (p.232)
2. “I knew he wouldn’t like all the noise of the applause but as I wiggled around in excitement, feeling as if I was going to burst at the sight of him, he looked at me. Then as his eyes locked with mine his mouth curled into a smile.” (p.181)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “After all those years and all that worry, a 24-carat expert had finally spelled out in black and white just how bad things were. But I didn’t feel sad; I felt relieved.” (p.62)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“I am falling in love with George already. He has what seems to be a severe form of autism. I have a son who has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition also on the autistic spectrum, so I’m really interested in the possible parallels between George and my own son.”
“The prologue has definitely grabbed my attention; I’m really enjoying Romp’s conversational writing style. The introduction of Ben, the cat, is the trigger that seems to have enabled George to begin communicating with the world. I will be reading on to find out how this relationship develops.”
“In chapter one, George is just born. He screams continuously. Julia’s mum cuddles and rocks him, feeds him and struggles with him. All Julia can think is how hard it will be for her if even her mum doesn’t seem able to settle him.
“My son, Joshua, was the same when he was born. Nothing could soothe him: cuddles made him scream more, and singing and rocking him aggravated his distress. I wondered if I would ever be able to cope. This book already has so many parallels to my own experience.”
“Everybody seems to be giving Julia the same advice they gave me—‘Don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it’ or ‘Just relax, you need to get used to each other’ and other such platitudes. But just like Julia, I had nagging doubts that there was something genuinely wrong with either him or me. Julia and I both believed the experienced parents and professionals who were saying everything was fine, but that just made us feel useless as mothers.”
“I’ve reached chapter two and the parallels are piling up. It’s like reading the start of Joshua’s life through somebody else’s eyes. George is two now and Julia is beginning to understand that everything is not her fault. She describes her inability to make George happy, regardless of whatever she does, and that it feels like living with a stranger. He ‘could change from happy to raging in the blink of an eye’ and this is the same for Joshua. George hardly sleeps, and neither did Joshua when he was two.
“One big difference between the boys though, is that George hardly speaks and what he does say is repetitive whereas Joshua had highly developed speech and was already a year ahead in his language development at two years of age. Another difference between the boys is that George has extreme difficulty showing love and affection, whereas Joshua cuddles when he’s happy but if something upsets him and he gets in a rage, it takes a long time for him to calm down; I can’t go near him without making him worse.”
“At age four, George starts school and immediately there are problems. He can’t concentrate, he doesn’t respond to his name, and he’s disruptive. This is very similar to my experience with Joshua when he started nursery school. I was convinced there was a problem and a reason for it but nobody would listen to me, whereas for Julia, the teacher’s were coming round and beginning to confirm her fears. This didn’t happen for me for another couple of years.”
“Julia and I both had to cope with the discrimination and judgement of people who didn’t understand that a child who looks physically normal can have a serious disability. Julia struggles in the book to make friends because children don’t want to be friends with George. She keeps him at home to limit the number of people who stare when she is out. I have experienced stares and comments mumbled under people’s breath because my six-year-old was having what looked like a two-year-old’s tantrum, and heard people say I just didn’t know how to be a good parent. So at this point in the book, I can honestly say that I can relate to Julia’s journey.”
“George and Julia have finally found somebody who confirms that George has severe learning difficulties (see my top quote for her reaction). This was exactly how I felt when Joshua was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome—relief. For me, it was one insightful headmaster at his new school when Josh was six who listened to me and set in motion the long process of getting a child with learning and behavioural problems a diagnosis. For Julia it was a teacher at George’s first school who had this insight.
“After years of struggle and confusion, both Julia and I finally found people willing to listen to our concerns. At this point, we began to understand what we were dealing with and knew that help would be available. We could both breathe sighs of relief and truly believe that it wasn’t all our fault. We could finally look forward to some improvement in our children’s lives. Even though our sons’ problems are not identical, there are so many similarities in people’s attitudes toward us and our situations. This book is becoming extremely poignant and moving.”
“I absolutely adore Julia’s attitude and patience, her perseverance and love, her community spirit and care for the underdog. While she struggles on her own to cope with George, waiting for that elusive moment when he’ll finally look at her and realise he loves her, she also helps rescues strays, ensuring they manage to find happy homes. This selflessness eventually brings Ben into their lives.
“After Ben is found, rescued, treated at the vets and then comes to live with them, things begin to change for George. I am currently reading the section where George and Ben are bonding with each other. George has found his voice through the love of a cat. He becomes comfortable receiving a certain amount of contact from his mum without freaking out; he’s learning what love is and how to express it. This section of the book is amazing and a little easier to read on a personal level since there are less parallels to my own life.
“George has become a chatterbox now; Ben unlocked George’s communication skills and his imagination is flourishing. I finally see the real George. My son communicates verbally very well but he has not yet managed to find a way to recognise, understand and communicate his emotions, but reading this book gives me hope that this may happen some day for my son, too.”
“At 11, George starts to attend a special school and things begin to improve exponentially for him. My own son is 10 and he’s starting at a special school next month. I truly hope that my story is as positive as Julia and George’s.
“George is in the school Christmas concert when my second quote above enters the book. It’s just so beautiful—an occasion which would normally freak George out, doesn’t. Instead, Julia gets her first real smile from her child. I’m not sure I can imagine waiting so long for a smile from my child; her patience is unbelievable. This must have been one of the best moments of Julia’s life.”
“Oh no! Ben has gone missing. The key to George’s world has gotten lost. I have really fallen in love with George and feel for him so deeply when things go wrong—his best friend, his voice, his outlet for his emotions, is no longer around.
“George is inconsolable and isolates himself from everybody. He won’t go to school and he refuses to talk to his mum, who he blames for this disaster in his life. I’m upset for his mum because there can be no worse thing than not being able to comfort your own child.
“I’m frequently in this position of being unable to comfort Josh. When anything out of the routine happens, he’s unable to cope and becomes aggressive or withdrawn, angry or upset. During these episodes, he doesn’t want me—he’ll push me away and shout and scream if I try to get close. I can only wait until he finally calms down and then we can cuddle together. Unfortunately for Julia, George’s autism is slightly different from Joshua’s: being close to George and comforting him is extremely difficult, even when he’s calm. Now that the bottom seems to have fallen out of his world, George repeatedly rejects his mother and any contact with him is impossible.”
“Julia spends months determined to find Ben and bring the light back into George’s life. Her perseverance is inspiring; most people would just give up and accept that Ben has gone for good. She helps many cats find their real homes again whilst on her search to find Ben and all her efforts are admirable. The compassion she shows for others who have lost their pets is remarkable considering what she is going through herself.”
“The end of the book finishes off with a short piece of writing by George that he wrote when he was fourteen. His words are sweet, endearing, funny, poignant—a true insight into an autistic child’s world. There are many people who try to explain how an autistic child sees the world but when you hear it from the child himself, it really brings home how differently they experience their world, how black and white it is rather than painted in shades of grey, how simple everything is to them but how complicated everyone else makes things. You can see through his words how very loving and caring Autistic children are but how extremely difficulty it is for them to express this appropriately in our confusing world.
“This book has helped me understand my own son a little better, even though I felt I already had a good grasp of what life is like for Joshua. I try to understand where Joshua is coming from when he has what I call a ‘meltdown’ and try to temper my own reactions to him so that I don’t aggravate the situation. I wait until Joshua has calmed down now instead of trying to comfort him before he’s ready. The daily rejection is still very hard to bear but at least I understand that it isn’t personal.”