Originally published April 2017
With April as Autism Awareness Month, I thought now was as good as time as any to pick up Keith Stuart’s “A Boy Made of Blocks.”
It’s been on the bucket list a while, and I’d even checked it at least once before this latest endeavor. And while this particular story, about a man named Alex and his autistic 8-year-old son Sam, is perhaps tied up a little too neatly (It doesn’t read that way, but still …), it should hit home with anyone that is raising a child on the spectrum.
Stuart has several themes running through this novel, personal and familial. Having lost his brother at a very young age, Alex has issues of his own that remain unresolved. But that’s essentially side drama to the main attraction — the price relationships pay when autism lives with you. For Alex, this includes:
His marriage: Yes, the mythical 80 percent divorce rate for parents of autistic children is just that — myth. Still, the stress of raising children with special needs cannot be underestimated. So it’s not unrealistic for our story’s progtagonist to have his wife, Jody, kick him out. She’s tired, he’s tired and there’s no respite.
His dreams (and hers): Alex never meant to be a mortgage broker. But then again, he and Jody probably didn’t plan to get pregnant with Sam as early in their relationship as they did. And because Sam has so many special needs, it’s impossible for Jody to work, meaning Alex had to find a career, in relatively short order, that could support his family.
His sense of self: Sam, his shaky marriage and a job loss leave Alex untethered and searching for anything that will ground him. Besides his best friend and neverending trips to the pub.
Meant to be a distraction to engage Sam elsewhere and give Jody a break, it instead becomes a world in which Alex can connect with Sam on a personal level, taking their relationship to a previously unknown level. It becomes apparent to Alex through this that Sam is his own person with feelings and dreams of his own, rather than just a character in his and Jody’s lives.
And this is where it’s a bit of a fantasy land and wrapped up a bit too neatly. And in not a bad way, either. In the story, it’s not as if Sam is “cured” or Alex and Jody have a clear cut happy ending. But because it’s a book, a reader can finish the final page, close it and move on. And in doing that, Sam always has friends and is playing Minecraft, Alex is always starting a coffee shop and Jody is always working on a burgeoning career.
But back in the real world, good days for autistic children almost certainly aren’t the happy ending, or even a turning point. It’s just a good day for which to be grateful, but in the back of your head, you know a bad day is out there lurking. The stress never evaporates. The worrying never ends.
A very good story with a bit of a tearjerker ending. But, as I one read somewhere, if you meet a kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism. Everyone’s story is different, and this is Sam’s. I’ve got nothing but respect for the real-lifers that get it done, every day.