Sep 8, 2008

A Friend Like Henry

by Nuala Gardner

This is "the remarkable true story of an autistic boy and the dog that unlocked his world." When Dale was two, life at home was an endless struggle for his mother. Dale rarely spoke, never showed affection, failed to play appropriately and threw horrendous tantrums all the time. Then they got a golden retreiver named Henry, and Dale slowly began to change. Latching onto her son's acceptance of anything revolving around Henry, his mother used the dog as a foil to help Dale learn many skills and try numerous new experiences (which had heretofore been disastrous). The most surprising development to me was when his parents began impersonating Henry's voice, "talking" through the dog in order to have conversations with their son. He gradually learned to communicate directly (sans dog), use eye contact, and understand and express empathy. Dale progressed until he was able to move away from special education programs into the regular school system, and when he entered high school, anxious to fit in, he didn't tell his new friends that he had autism. They were unaware of his disability for years. Just when you begin to think the story is all over, it was discovered that Dale's little sister had autism too. Henry the dog was enlisted again (albeit in a slightly different manner) to help her as well.

Needless to say, this is a very special dog to the Gardner family. I admire their tireless efforts (when little professional help was available) and endless patience in teaching Dale. His story is really remarkable. I do wish that it had been told a little better. A Friend Like Henry is straightforward to the point of flatness, and not very fluid. The beginning is kind of awkward. Seeing as the dog was such an important part of Dale's growth and learning, I really expected him to be a central figure in the story. But a third way through the book he falls into the background. From that point on, it becomes a litany of all the different programs, schools and people who assisted Dale. The accounts of various personal struggles his mother had also receive a lot of emphasis- distracting from Dale's story. In fact, she was the only person whose personality showed through the pages- not that of Dale, or the dog, or anyone else. Through the last half of the book, I really struggled to stay interested.

This book reminded me of one I read many years ago called Karen, about a girl with cerebral palsy. Her family also struggled against public ignorance and lack of professional support, creating their own intensive therapy routine at home and working for years without seeing results before finding success beyond anyone's expectations.

I received this title from Sourcebooks. They very kindly sent me an entire catalog to browse and select from. I found quite a number of books that looked interesting, so a few more will be showing their faces here soon!

Rating: 2/5                         262 pages, 2007


  1. Sounds like an incredible story

  2. Great review, Jeane!
    This sounds like a wonderful story.

  3. I love stories like that. Thanks for a terrific review, Jeane!


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