A Conversation with Marti Leimbach, Author of Daniel Isn't Talking
Daniel Isn't Talking is taken very much from your own life. How
much do you have in common with the mother in the book?
I went through a very similar experience to that of Melanie, who is the mother of an autistic boy in the novel. For example, I was certain there was something wrong with my child for quite some time before the actual diagnosis, and yet nobody seemed to believe me. I began to think that there was something wrong with me as I was so anxious all the time. Eventually, we discovered that our son was autistic. That did not ease my anxiety, of course, but at least it made me understand that I wasn't going crazy. And at last I was able to focus on the problem at hand, however awful that problem was. All this went directly into Daniel Isn't Talking.
What was that like, the pre-diagnosis time?
In some ways, I look back on the years before the diagnosis as a kind of dreamy idyllic space in my life. Nobody could have been happier than I was driving the children to farm parks, listening to Peter Pan on the CD player and singing, "I can fly, I can fly!" I was that besotted by motherhood. But then, things started going wrong. Our son was ill very often: ear infections, swollen glands in his neck, sore throats and vague diagnosis days. I couldn't get a handle on what was really going on. Things started to unravel, and then they started to go badly wrong. By the time he was three I knew he was autistic. I brought him in for diagnosis knowing the outcome already. Still, I was desperate for the doctors to contradict me, to say he was normal. I almost pleaded with them to say as much. But instead I was met with sentiments like, "He may never talk" and "He will need to go to a special needs nursery right away." It was a terrible moment in my life.
So the boy in Daniel Isn't Talking, Daniel, is very much like your own son was at that time?
Yes. I didn't have to imagine what it was like to live with a child with autism. It was just a matter of delivering what I knew to the page.
In Daniel Isn't Talking, the father of the child walks out. Is that what happened in your own life?
No, thank God. But it happens enough in the lives of women around me who have children with serious special needs. It's hard enough to keep a family together at the best of times, let alone when you have been given the news that one of your children has a serious mental condition. You start to imagine all the worst-case scenarios. Crazy thoughts like "Will he burn the house down?", "Will he hurt the other children?" , "Will he be dangerous to himself?", "Will other people hurt him just because he is different?", "How can I protect him?" There is just a terrific amount of pressure on you all of a sudden. I have read that the divorce rate among parents of autistic children is very high and I am not surprised.
Your book talks about the way the mother finds help for her child through particular types of education and play therapy. Is that fiction or are there specific treatments that seem to help autistic children?
People are very much divided on what is the best therapy for autistic children. You have such a variety of approaches, everything from "art therapy" to "music therapy" to something called "TEACCH." Early on I happened to speak to a man whose son was eight and had been diagnosed with quite low-functioning autism. He took my call on his mobile phone, having no idea at all who I was except that I was an autism mom. He was having dinner at a restaurant in London, but he got up and walked out of the restaurant, leaving his dining companions on their own, in order to speak with me. I asked about all these different therapies and what he thought of them all. He said one sentence which I believe changed the course of my son's treatment and made him the high-functioning child he is today. He said, "Choose Applied Behavioral Analysis. Everything else is crap." I don't know why I believed him, except that it felt to me as though I was speaking to someone in the trenches, who had been in the trenches for a long time, who had survived while others failed, who was battle-weary but full of wisdom. It was as though he was saying, "Here's the only gun that fires. Pick up the bloody gun."
What is Applied Behavioral Analysis?
Simply put it is an approach to teaching in which you reward a child for offering the desired behavior while ignoring the behavior that is undesirable. It used to be very clinical in its delivery with the child being made to sit at a table and perform repetitive tasks until he got it right. But it evolved into a dynamic, play-based therapy in which the child is set up to succeed, does succeed, and is immediately rewarded for doing what is required. The best practitioners inspire the child to want to learn but they are rare. There are plenty of crummy ABA teachers and some very excellent ones. The best ones are the parents who learn to do this kind of therapy. We know our kids well and we know what makes them tick. I remember teaching Nicky what prepositions are by taking his favorite thing at that time, the number 19, and putting it on top of, behind, or next to blocks. "Where's number nineteen?" I'd ask, making a bright purple 19 dance on the block. "On the block!" He loved the number nineteen so much he learned "on" real quick.
Andy, with whom the author falls in love with in the book, is passionate about teaching children with autism. Are there people like Andy in real life?
Absolutely there are. Sometimes autism is accompanied by other, serious conditions and those kids are harder to teach. However, if you have a child who is "only" autistic and you work with him or her early enough, the child has a real chance at attending regular school, having reasonable language and social skills, making friends. There is a small but important community of individuals who are dedicated to helping these children. I love them. I think they are the most valuable teachers we have and that the way they teach should really be extended even to "neurotypical" children, as clearly they are doing something right.
How would you describe your family now?
We think we're a normal family, but I am not at all sure that others looking at us would agree! My husband, Alastair, and I have been under the most extraordinary stress and trials so when things are going well we really enjoy ourselves. I think I am more of a "worrier" than I used to be, and I was pretty good at worrying before the whole autism thing. It's just that once you get hit by something that just isn't supposed to happen, like autism, it changes you. Our daughter, who is not autistic, is an absolute delight and adores her brother while understanding that he is a little different. She is the sunniest girl, always smiling. She says she thinks Nicky is better than other brothers because he is "much nicer." Nicky, who is nine years old now, attends normal school with help. He's a charming, talkative boy.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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