The Only Boy in the World: A Father Explores the Mysteries of Autism, by Michael Blastland (2006) is a fascinating, philosophical, and honest account of raising a child with severe autism. The book, unlike so many others, isn’t about treatments or the day to day struggles of raising a special needs child as much as it’s a look at theories and ideas behind autism, illustrated and brought to life through one small boy, Blastland’s then 10 year old son, Joe.
This book is not a feel-good inspiring story of hope and triumph. Blastland can be quite pessimistic about his son’s prospects. There are a few promising signs of progress presented, such as an expanded list of foods Joe will eat and some progress in reducing aggression. But, Joe is severely impacted and struggles throughout the book. However, the author is clearly a caring father, who loves his son and wants to do what’s best for him. He presents scenes of embarrassment and near disaster, such as when Joe hits a toddler, as well as times when Joe is joyful in his own experiences. Throughout the book, the author examines some of his own difficult decisions, such as his mixed feelings about the decision to send his son away to live at a school.
Frequently, this book feels almost philosophical in tone, moving well beyond autism into ideas that impact all of us as humans. For example, most well informed parents of an autistic child have read articles on ideas such as Theory of Mind. But in this book, Blastland takes the theory beyond science into experience. Using examples from Joe’s life, the author looks with compassion at different experiences with Joe, and analyzes just what might be going on inside his son. Certainly, none of us can truly know another’s interior experience, and when communication is severely limited, as in Joe’s case, his father can only make guesses. But Blastland is consistently and sometimes painfully honest about his own thoughts, as well as what he’s guessing about what’s going on for his child. Blastland then pulls in other ideas from his own extensive reading.
This book shares the joys and pains of raising a severely disabled child, brings the theories behind autism to life, and in a much broader way, raises questions about what makes us all human.