When novelist Hannah Brown learned that her son Danny, then about three and a
half, had autism, she says she didn’t know where to turn first.
time I didn’t know a lot about it,” says Brown, who also writes short stories
and has been The Jerusalem Post’s film critic since 2001.
“I’d seen Rain
Man. I knew in this very general way what it was supposed to be but I didn’t
really understand what it meant for him and for us.”
The mother of two,
who along with her Israeli husband lived in New York City at the time,
immediately started reading as much as she could on the subject and tried to
figure out where she should take her son for therapy and special
But it was the other mothers who also had children diagnosed
with autism that she met early on who were the most helpful in directing her.
She befriended the parents at her son’s special needs preschool and later, when
she moved to Israel, she joined a support group at Alut, Israel’s society for
families of kids with autism. Today she swaps stories and advice with parents
via a very active Facebook group for single mothers with children who have
autism (Brown has since divorced) and has grown close to other parents who send
their autistic children to the Feuerstein Center in Jerusalem where her son, now
16, goes a few times a week for therapy.
Being part of a community of
parents, she says, and “how much we’re able to help each other get through
things” inspired her to write her first novel, If I Could Tell You, about four
very different mothers in New York City raising young children with autism.
Vantage Point Books published the novel in May 2012.
characters try out different types of therapy for autism – which is diagnosed in
one out of 88 children, according to the Center for Disease Control – including
floor time, applied behavior analysis and chelation therapy (a procedure to
remove heavy metals from the body), and compare notes with each other on the
successes and frustrations. Some are sure one method is better than any other
because they’ve been convinced of the research or by experts that this is the
cure they’ve been searching for.
“It’s really irresponsible to make that
claim to someone, even if it’s a remote possibility,” says Brown, who has tried
all the methods except for chelation, which can be very dangerous.
has found that focusing on steady progress with her son, who has medium-
functioning autism, has been the most helpful.
Brown wants for her son
what any mother does.
“I just feel like I really, really want my son to
get to a point where he can make his own choices and decisions in life,” says
The book is both a terrific resource guide on autism and an
insightful novel on the day-to-day triumphs and setbacks of raising a child with
the disorder. It is not without humorous and touching moments of friendship and
parent-child bonding, but it does not sugarcoat the challenges or the parents’
pain when their child can’t make eye contact or doesn’t even acknowledge
“I really didn’t see any books like this,” says Brown, who seems
very familiar with the literature on the subject. “I didn’t see anything about
the experience of the parents.”
The dynamic in the support group in the
novel is also interesting, as friendships shift and new relationships are
formed. The therapist’s calming and supportive voice is also an important one,
in contrast with other doctors and experts in the book who talk down to the
parents, and with tremendous authority. The women share their anxiety over
listening to the experts while trying to do what feels right for their
The female characters are relatable and yet all speak with
distinct voices and have different backgrounds.
One is career-focused and
balancing work with an increasingly demanding home life, another is Israeli and
vivacious and raising two autistic sons, a third is a former model and single
mom struggling to date and the last, Anne, is a former literature professor
turned stay at home mother of two with an uninvolved husband.
character of Anne is the one that’s most based on me and my family,” says
Many of the scenes in the novel Brown took from her experiences
with Danny when he was very young and they were living in New York City. For
example, Anne bumps into a mother she knows in the park. The mother proceeds to
complain about her daughter’s preschool testing scores not being high enough.
Anne doesn’t quite know how to respond, feeling overwhelmed by her basic
struggles with her son, but is polite and casual. Brown says she wrote this
scene from life, but adds that she wasn’t as polite as the character in the
“You’re constantly coming up against that stuff, where people are
really competitive and evaluating their kids,” she says. “Maybe that’s just
normal or part of life, but you feel like you’ve fallen into this different
world, this Alice in Wonderland parallel universe and the only people who can
understand you are parents who are gong through the same thing.”
Israel, she says, the stigma of having children with issues seems even stronger
than it is the US. However, it’s getting better, as parents of children with
autism are becoming more proactive about their kids’ options, and talking about
it more openly.
Many parents who identified with Brown’s work reached out
to her, to tell her “this is my story,” or to compare notes and give or receive
advice. One woman with whom Brown corresponds regularly, an African- American
cosmetologist and single mother in Atlanta, Georgia, has an autistic son who is
afraid of hand dryers in public bathrooms.
Brown says Danny used to have
the same phobia.
“We each have developed our strategies so we email about
it,” she says. “We have a lot of common ground, where we can really help each
other with all these little things.”
Brown hopes eventually If I Could
Tell You, which is soon being released as an audio book on audible.com, could
transition to the big screen.
Brown also contributed three short stories
to Ang-Lit Press’s fourth collection, Love in Israel, which includes 65 short
stories by English-speaking writers in Israel and was published in January.
Brown’s stories feature strong female protagonists faced with emotionally
complex obstacles. In one story most closely based on her life – though she
won’t confirm or deny any details – a single mother of two, one of whom has
autism, is raising her children and dealing with the fact that her ex-husband’s
girlfriend is giving birth.
In another, a young ultra-Orthodox woman
finds out that her husband is cheating on her, but the rabbi has given him
permission to continue the affair, and in the last, an Orthodox woman in her
late 20s is deeply frustrated that she is not married yet.
is herself not Orthodox, she says she has been inspired by living in Jerusalem
and by the different types of parents she’s met who are also raising autistic
Brown, who participated in a reading with other Anglo writers
at the International Book Fair last month, says she stopped writing short
stories soon after her son’s diagnosis because she became completely absorbed
with reading about autism and stopped reading anything else. Fiction seemed
silly to her.
“I just couldn’t focus on anything else,” she says. “All
the things that were part of who I was, I gave them up, and focused on Danny...
Then I came up for air.”
It was a year and a half before Brown began
writing short stories again, and when she did, she wrote “A Hard Day’s Life,”
featured in Love in Israel, the story about the mother with the two children.
One of the sons in the story, who is autistic, is excitedly awaiting the snow to
fall in Jerusalem.
“I have a lot of experience consoling my younger son
about [snow] not falling,” she says. Often times it’s predicted but it doesn’t
end up snowing, she adds. “I always try to manage his expectations... to deal
with the crushing, soul-tearing disappointment [if it doesn’t],” she says
For her next book, Brown says she’s not writing on autism,
and hoping it will be on the lighter, more Nora Ephron side. Set in Vermont, her
novel follows a couple as they go through a messy divorce.
“I’m kind of
at this stage now where I can’t decide if it’s the best thing I’ve ever written
or the worst,” she says, laughing.
Still, even a book about autism
doesn’t have to be humorless, she notes.
“I get this sense that people
feel so sorry for me because I have this son,” she says. “[But] everyone [in my
situation] isn’t sort of miserable and depressed and having a horrible
Life for parents raising kids with autism may be more difficult at
times, but it can also bring out the best in people, she says, depending on how
“Basically all the things that help with autistic kids are
good parenting tips in general. I call it ‘extreme parenting.’”