Enabling Technology


Making Peace with Autism: One Family’s Story of Struggle, Discovery, and Unexpected Gifts by Susan Senator

Avery Smith

Even though I have heard of the word autism, and have read about various people with autism (e.g. the high school student, who recently scored 20 points in his conference basketball championship), I have never met anyone who was autistic. Until recently, if someone had asked me what autism specifically was, I would not have been able to give them an educated answer, only some generalized set of characteristics that could be used to describe many other disorders or disabilities. This book, ‘Making Peace with Autism: One Family’s Story of Struggle, Discovery, and Unexpected Gifts’, not only helped me better understand what autism is, but how to handle raising a child with autism.

This nonfictional account was given by the mother of the family, Susan Senator, whose first born child, Nathaniel, was born with autism. Throughout the book, the mother (Susan) describes in vivid detail, the trials and tribulations her family endured during the first 15 years of Nathaniel’s life.

Like most mothers, Susan was thrilled at the fact of finally becoming a mother. She had finally joined the exclusive club of parenthood, and was excited at what it would bring. However, as she mentioned in the book, she was not prepared to handle raising a child that behaved in so many different ways than other children. Nathaniel’s behavior towards people, especially children, was one of the first ‘warning signs’ Susan noticed before his diagnosis. Her husband, Ned, and other family members constantly reassured her that although Nathaniel’s behavior was odd at times, he was a perfectly ‘normal’ child. For example, Ned and his mother explained that when Ned was growing up, he preferred to stay to himself. Despite her ‘gut feelings’, Susan wanted to believe that her son was normal like the other children his age in their community, so she didn’t pursue the matter any further. It wasn’t until he was three, when she and Ned decided to take ‘Nat’ to a specialist and then found that he had autism.

After the discovery, Susan experienced many emotions, from anger that her God gave such a disorder to her son, to embarrassment that her child was afflicted with the disorder, to sadness that her family would never be the same. Being that I plan to have a family in the future, I took a special interest in Ned’s reactions and emotions throughout the book. Ned, who is also a computer programmer, was portrayed in the book as one who supported his family in all ways possible, and one who stayed stable for his wife, to help her cope with her emotions. As time progressed, Ned began to express his feelings more about Nat having autism, and as a result, his relationship with Susan grew stronger.

This book is a clear example of how raising a child with any disorder is not equivalent to rearing a typical child. For example, most parents experience a typical situation when they first send their child off to school. They do not worry about whether their child learns and improves. After seeing that the school was not providing the type of instruction that Nathaniel needed to learn, Senator decided to make some adjustments. The author admits that she allowed the school system to make all of the decisions when Nat was first placed in school, but she learned that in order for her child to have the resources he needed, she had to take a proactive stance and become involved. This led Susan to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Nathaniel, and stay committed to his cause. Even though Nat was transferred to various schools and Susan ‘harassed’ Nathaniel’s doctors, she did what was necessary for her son.

Senator’s commitment to her son and his well being was evident in other scenarios. As Nathaniel grew, some of his behaviors such as loud, disruptive laughter in the middle of the night became unbearable for the family. The author describes her reaction and viewpoint to allowing Nat to take medicine. Just like finding the suitable education system for Nathaniel, Senator educated herself, and eventually found a medicine that worked well for her son.

The most impressive part of this book to me was the ingenious techniques Senator used to assist with Nathaniel. For example, when the family went on a trip to the beach or Disneyworld, Susan created ‘Nat Books’ that told a story of the upcoming trip. She would read the book to Nat multiple times before the event, so that he knew what to expect (e.g. how long he would be there, what he would do, how it would end). The approach helped Nat become acquainted with the new location or activity easier. There were other tactics that the author used to help Nat deal with new things, such as rewards (treats, snacks) for good behavior, or songs about a particular event. Ned contributed in his own unique way by creating computer games that had Nat as the main character in a new setting.

Although Senator gives an account of a parent’s experience raising a child with autism, this book also serves as a valuable resource for those wanting to know more about autism. Senator provides insightful hints and tips for some of the issues she faced in raising Nathaniel, such as education, medication, and various social environments. There are also references to web pages that provide more in-depth information pertaining to autism, and a glossary that accurately defines many autism-related terms. Despite the fact that this book was not written by a professional, I consider it to be just as informative, if not more, because it provides the ‘human’ perspective on what to expect and how to cope with an autistic child, along with professional references to help make the journey of raising an autistic child be a rewarding one.