The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog That Unlocked His World
About the Author
Nuala Gardner is a community nurse and qualified midwife and mother of Dale and Amy, both of whom have autism. Together with her husband Jamie, she fought the authorities to have her childrenís condition recognized before there was sufficient understanding of autism.
Reading Group Guide
When Jamie and Nuala Gardner chose a puppy for their son, Dale, they weren’t an ordinary family choosing an ordinary pet. Dale’s autism was so severe that the smallest deviation from his routine could provoke a terrifying tantrum. Family life was almost destroyed by his condition, and his parents spent most of their waking hours trying to break into their son’s autistic world and give him the help he so desperately needed. But after years of constant effort and slow progress, the Gardners’ lives were transformed when they welcomed a new member into the family, Henry, a gorgeous golden retriever puppy. The bond between Dale and his dog would change their lives ...
1. One of the most cherished relationships in our society is the special bond between mother and son. It seems Nuala feels autism robs her of love; Dale is unable to express tenderness towards his mother. How does Nuala cope with this? How would you cope in a similar situation?
2. How do Jamie and Nuala complement each other’s roles and act as a team? What aspects of their relationship you especially admire?
3. In many ways, our childhood relationship with pets helps us understand and prepare us for some of the more difficult aspects of human relationships we will have later in life. How is this especially true for Dale? As a child, did you have a pet that taught you any particularly meaningful lessons? What were they?
4. Death is a constant theme throughout the book. Grandparents pass away, and Henry dies too. Nuala seems to take comfort in Dale’s sweetness during these times. How does a child’s understanding of some of the greatest mysteries of life make those mysteries easier for us to live with?
5. While Dale’s progress is gradual, there are some major breakthroughs throughout the book. What do you think were the most significant leaps Dale made in his struggle against autism?
6. After reading Nuala’s account of her son’s autism, do you perceive autism in a different way?
7. Did this book raise fears about having a child with autism or another disability? Or did reading about Nuala’s great parenting and Dale’s progress temper fears you might have already had? In what ways do you think this book would be helpful for a mother or father with an autistic child?
8. It is clear that Henry was a very valuable member of the Gardner family, and that they got a lot out of having Henry as a pet. Do you think that Henry might have gotten something special living with a family with an autistic son and daughter, something that he would not have been able to experience with another family without the same issues?
9. While the Gardner family is the central focus of this memoir, a larger cast of friends, teachers and others often make appearances. What role does community play in the book? Do you think Nuala would have as successfully fought for her son without the help of this larger community?
10. Throughout the book, Dale’s problems are without a doubt unique to him, and symptomatic of his autism. Yet, he simultaneously has to deal with the same issues that all children have to overcome when growing up. What parts of Dale’s story reminded you of challenges you yourself had to overcome when growing up?
11. Nuala teaches Dale many valuable and concrete lessons in this book, from learning how to talk to learning how to make friends. When do those roles reverse? When does Dale teach Nuala valuable life lessons?
12. Why could Dale communicate with his parents through Henry as an intermediary?
13. In what ways does Henry make life easier and more congenial for Dale’s mother?
14. In what ways are pets like Henry less threatening than humans to a child with autism?
15. While Henry was a buffer for the outside world for Dale, what other figures in his life served the same purpose, and how did they do so?
16. What was the relationship between Henry and Thomas the Train, and how did they help Dale in different ways?
17. Do you think a dog like Henry would prove helpful with all autistic children or was Dale’s situation a special case?
18. What do you think would have happened to Dale if neither Henry nor any dog like him had entered his life?
19. Children’s problems can range from autism to ADD to simple behavioral disorders. Oftentimes these behaviors put other children at risk, yet the best medicine for these children is often to have peers they can regularly interact with and learn from. How do you strike a balance between being a parent kind enough to help someone else’s children overcome their obstacles, while defending your own children?
20. Which of the many aspects of autism do you think would be the most difficult to deal with as a parent?
21. For people who do not have challenged friends or family, it is often difficult to know how to interact with handicapped people they encounter on the street or meet socially. For example, how do you know when help with a task is needed, or how much help might be perceived as condescending? After reading this book, do you think the way you interact with people with disabilities will change?