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Writing from life

Telling her son’s story of autism

Movie critic Hannah Brown publishes her first book, a novel about four mothers coming to terms with their children’s disability

Hannah and her boys (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hannah and her boys (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hannah Brown's first book (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hannah Brown's first book (photo credit: Courtesy)

For years, writer and movie critic Hannah Brown shied away from writing about her elder son’s autism. Then a stretch of helpful therapies for him, a fortuitous work situation for her, and supportive colleagues boosted Brown’s spirit. The result, her novel “If I Could Tell You,” published by Vantage Point Books, is currently stacked on actual and virtual bookstore shelves.

We’re sitting in Brown’s regular workspace, Laurent’s Cafe on the second floor of Jerusalem’s Feuerstein Center, the school and therapeutic center where 15-year-old Danny has spent countless hours in therapeutic activities over the last four years. Three days a week, Brown would “lug her laptop” to the school and settle herself at one of the tables, amid the hubbub of children, teachers and therapists and the hiss of the nearby espresso machine.

Brown first spent those hours writing movie reviews for The Jerusalem Post. She remembers the day the school got WiFi as “one of the greatest days in my life in the last decade, because it just changed my work schedule so much,” as it allowed her to watch films online while waiting at the cafe for Danny.

It was Danny’s progress at Feuerstein that allowed Brown to return to fiction writing, which she hadn’t considered for many years. He had been enrolled in various schools and therapy programs over the years, but at Feuerstein found “people who were really able to help him,” said Brown. “I had this peace of mind that I hadn’t had for years because I saw people who knew how to help him, and were showing me how to help him, and that really turned everything around for me.”

She first began writing short stories about everything except autism, believing it would be too emotional and painful, as well as “of no use to anyone.” It took several months of outlining some ideas to realize that a novel about autism could work.

Where the story began

Based in New York City — where Brown lived before moving to Israel — the novel follows the individual dramas of four mothers in a support group for parents with recently diagnosed autistic children.

“The first year after your child is diagnosed is probably the most dramatic thing you can go through in terms of the emotional ups and downs and confusion and dislocation about everything you thought,” said Brown. “It just turns your world upside down, and at the same time, it can be so different for different people. I just wanted to look at that.”

At the time of Danny’s diagnosis, Brown was living in New York with her then-husband, having just given birth to their second son and trying to figure out if she would return to her part-time job as a film critic for the New York Post.

“I was on maternity leave and I thought about not going back to work because I wasn’t sure how I would concentrate, how I could possibly focus on anything else,” she related. “But you don’t just walk out on a job like I had. It was my dream job of all dream jobs.”

The first time Brown tried to write a review following her son’s birth, she couldn’t get a word out and instead spent valuable work time crying at her desk. She ended up telling a coworker about Danny’s diagnosis, and found that his empathy and comfort allowed her to be more open about what was happening to her son.

“I realized I could tell people, that it wasn’t such a big secret, and it gave people the chance to be kind about it and be good to you,” she said. It also offered Brown the freedom to be upfront with editors and colleagues, which was helpful since Danny’s rigorous therapy schedule limited her work hours and she didn’t want people to think of her as “a weird diva with a crazy schedule.”

The various therapies included ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, a highly touted autism approach that is discussed at length in Brown’s novel and which Danny did for two years in Israel. Like many parents of autistic children and kids with other special needs, Brown has tried a range of treatments and medications — some that “common sense would have told me that nothing good would come of this, but you come to a place where you’ll try anything,” she said.

Several therapies that her characters try in the book, as well as the kids’ reactions, are based on Brown’s own experiences. She wanted make the kids seem real without resorting to use of some of the typical autistic characteristics seen in movies and television, such as excessive neatness or lack of warmth. She focused on the tendency to organize, as well as other habits, such as one child’s propensity to draw musical instruments while being bothered by hearing music, and another child’s repeated tantrums.

“I wanted to put the emphasis where he [the character] wants it and not where most people think it should be, and for a reason that he can’t explain,” she said. “It’s all suggested by kids I know, and not as people imagine autistic kids to be.”

Kinship in diagnosis

While still in New York, Brown spent some time in a support group with other parents of kids with special needs, and discovered the particular kinship one has with other adults going through the same painful emotional experience. As in the book, there was a certain amount of competition among the parents regarding who would “cure” his child first, and that was where Brown discovered just how competitive she could be.

She has also found throughout the years of parenting Danny that every friend she had in the autism world went through the same process, parenting to the best of their ability and watching hopefully for their child to progress.

“There’s so much luck involved,” she said. “I can see that being a parent of a kid with autism is like being the parent of any other kid, but more extreme; the highs are higher and the lows are lower. There have been times when I’ve felt I can’t look at anybody who has a normal kid, but I have to get over it.”

Brown moved back to Israel with her family in 2000, when she became the film critic at The Jerusalem Post just as the Israeli film scene began to expand. At the time, she was focused on reviews, but it was her work relationship with one particular director, Avi Nesher, that helped bring her back to fiction. He asked to read her writing after she was turned down by several publishers and his positive reaction ultimately helped her find a publisher for the book.

Four and a half years later, this particular mission is complete, even if her ongoing work as Danny’s mother never ends.

“I”m always hoping that someday some pill will be created and I’ll give it to Danny and he’ll start acting like a mainstream kid, even though I know that’s not going to happen,” she said. “I have had times when Danny is waiting with other kids on the third floor and he can’t stop moving and the other kids barely move, and he can’t stop talking and they can’t get a word out but they’re great at typing. These are three kids with the same diagnosis; it doesn’t make any sense, it’s a strange thing.”

With that, we drain our coffee cups and head out, Hannah Brown going upstairs to her son, her first published novel sitting safely in her bag.

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