"When Jamie was first diagnosed, I read everything I could get my hands on.”
I hear this phrase almost as often as I hear “good morning.” It invariably comes from loving, devoted parents determined to do whatever is necessary to help their special needs child. They are irresistible forces planting their feet in front of the immovable object. They bravely confront the slenderness of the passage between the rock and the hard place. But after reading everything they can get their hands on, they often feel far from enlightened or educated. They are exhausted, confused, frustrated, bewildered–and paralyzed by information overload.
With our finite dollars and even more finite time, we want to do what we can to avoid that. Choosing the right parenting or self-help book is a tricky balancing process. Cost is always a factor, as is available reading time. Your specific needs will ebb and flow over the course of your child’s development. Do you want a book to further your own knowledge, or to give to others, to—in effect—speak for you? Are you looking for hard information or divine inspiration? Perhaps both, but not simultaneously.
The factors you consider will come and go over time. They may be different each and every time you choose a book, but there are guidelines you can follow.
How much and what type of information do you need immediately?
Where are you on the journey? Do you need an encyclopedic overview of all issues concerning your special need? If your child has recently been diagnosed, you might choose a comprehensive book that provides a little bit about everything to use as a reference tool, referring back to segments as needed and as new issues arise. If you are past the initial diagnosis, you may want to narrow your focus to deal with a specific issue, choose a smaller book by a more specialized author.
There is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Any book that does not take into account the fact that each child, parent, and family is unique and individual will ultimately fail. Programs that prescribe parameters that are too narrow, offer too little choice or flexibility or fail to adapt to the multiple settings in which we live our lives are doomed to be short-lived. That goes double for anything that claims to be the last or only solution you will ever need. Cast a cautious eye on the book that espouses a formula or method that “works for everyone.” It doesn’t exist, and even if it did, it doesn’t mean that it is right for your family.
Test-drive the book.
Whenever possible, borrow the book from a library, school or social service agency. If you can’t borrow the book, apply this test in the bookstore: open the book in three random places. If you do not see anything that strikes a chord with you in three random spots, chances are the book is not for you.
Make use of Internet options for exploring a book. For instance, Amazon.com’s "Search Inside" feature lets you read an excerpt, review the Table of Contents, flip through the index and read the back cover. You will have a good grasp of the format, tone and content of the book without laying down a dime.
Don’t be swayed by celebrity alone.
Celebrities are only flesh-and-blood parents like the rest of us, with one major difference–they usually have more money. They can try many different approaches, hire outside help and travel to distant hospitals and programs. Realistically, most of us must take a more limited and moderate approach. Will you be disillusioned if a celebrity implies that you can “have it all”—every increment of the career you want plus a successful child? Beware: it may or may not be true.
Memoirs can be inspiring and exhilarating, or they can be depressing provokers of excess stomach acid. When choosing to read a memoir, ask yourself what you want out of it. Do you want to identify or connect with someone in a situation similar to yours, regardless of whether you find solutions to the problems you both face? Do you expect the writer to provide you with usable practical wisdom? Will you compare your child to the writer’s, and be unhappy if the comparison is not favorable?
What’s your reading method?
Do you want to explore alternative methodologies, or are you more comfortable going down a tested path already well trod by others?
How much time do you have to read?
Be realistic—if it’s only an hour a week, select a shorter book that gives you broad information on a topic. That way, you'll know what to hone in on next. If you have more time, go for something with more depth.
Rely on reliable authors.
If you still haven’t a clue where to start, the autism category does have its core of reliable, knowledgeable authors to whom readers return again and again. Tony Attwood, Temple Grandin, Carol Gray, Jed Baker, Michelle Winner and Carol Kranowitz all gain that national attention and recognition for a reason—their books are worth reading.
Cut your losses.
If you began eating a meal that tasted bad, bored you or disagreed with you, would you force yourself to finish it? I hope not! The same goes for books. Beginning a book does not obligate you to finish it. If a book doesn’t capture your interest in the first few chapters, move on without a backward glance.