Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016: Max Shelf Issue: Ron Fournier

Harmony: Love That Boy by Ron Fournier

Harmony: Love That Boy by Ron Fournier

Harmony: Love That Boy by Ron Fournier

Harmony: Love That Boy by Ron Fournier

Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations

by Ron Fournier

Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations offers many things: memoir, parenting advice, meditations on Asperger's Syndrome and even short discursions into the lives and personalities of various presidents. In other words, Love That Boy is not the straightforward narrative one might expect from Ron Fournier, an experienced journalist who's covered multiple presidents for the Associated Press. Instead, Fournier has written a searching, introspective book that examines his relationship with his son Tyler, diagnosed at an early age with Asperger's.

Fournier presents himself in a surprisingly unforgiving light. Perhaps he is attempting to replicate his son's penchant for blunt honesty, a common Aspergian trait, when he regretfully recalls how his workaholic tendencies combined with the requirements of his profession led him to leave his family for lengthy periods. He describes his job as "an ego-inflating career that I often put ahead of my wife and kids" and wonders whether his preoccupations prevented him from recognizing the symptoms of high-functioning autism in Tyler: "his pseudo-adult intellect, vocabulary, and baritone; his awkward social interactions and obsessions; his aversion to certain fabrics, the comfort he found in a weighty blanket, and an extraordinarily picky palate."

These bouts of self-criticism, as well as the exhortations of his wife, Lori, lead Fournier to the conceit of the book: so-called "guilt trips" where he would use his professional connections to take Tyler to various historical sites dedicated to deceased presidents as well as meetings with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. As Lori put it: "You can use a job that took you away from Tyler to help him now." The idea for the trips stemmed from an interest in presidential history shared by Tyler and his father. Fournier sees it as an opportunity for them to connect after failing to interest Tyler in sports and other traditional bonding activities. Lori sees it as way for "Tyler to interact with a world mostly unlike him." Tyler may be less than enthused, but he does seem to appreciate the opportunity to recite his already-encyclopedic store of presidential knowledge: "As if his brain is a website being queried for presidential information, Tyler pulls up fact after somewhat-related fact. The elder Adams was a lawyer who defended British officers accused of murders resulting from the Boston Massacre. He wrote the Massachusetts constitution, a model for the U.S. document. The Tea Party was just a tax fight. And on and on...."

Fournier admits to feeling uncomfortable and even embarrassed by his son's relentless interruptions, questions and monologues--broken only by bouts of complete silence--and the arc of Love That Boy follows him from that initial stage to a place of acceptance and appreciation for his son's unique personality. He learns these lessons from unusual, often presidential sources. For example, he gains perspective on the danger of parental expectations from Teddy Roosevelt's letters to his sons and learns from Bill Clinton that Tyler's conversation-hogging monologues are far from unique to "Aspies." In fact, Tyler ends up becoming quite comfortable with Clinton, whose lengthy digressions and long silences bear enough similarities to Tyler's own personality that Fournier scribbles down in his notebook "IS BC AN ASPIE????" As they're leaving, Tyler shares a rare compliment: "Nice guy.... He talked a lot about himself and his stuff."

In one instance, Fournier and his son are waiting in line to speak with President Obama. Despite his best efforts, Fournier can't help but worry that his son will act inappropriately, but is ultimately disappointed only in himself when Tyler embraces the First Lady and shakes President Obama's hand while looking him in the eye. It's a moment that forces Fournier to realize "the problem here isn't my son. It isn't even autism. It's me." Even the title, Love That Boy, was said to Fournier by George W. Bush upon meeting Tyler. While Fournier worried that Tyler's clipped conversation might strike President Bush as rude, the President's persistence eventually led to Tyler coming out of his shell and explaining his passion for improv comedy. "I thought I understood what he meant," Fournier writes, reflecting on President Bush's admonition to "love that boy." "I didn't. It took me years to understand."

While Love That Boy provides invaluable information and advice for parents of Aspies--the robust bibliography and numerous quotations attest to the seriousness of Fournier's quest to understand his son and his condition--it's also full of wisdom for parents of "neurotypicals." Again and again, Fournier returns to the problem of expectations. He advises against seeing children "not as they are but as we think they should be" and laments the heavy weight of external expectations felt by parents.

Fournier also warns against "mini-me" parenting--"parents who assume they're raising an echo of themselves." He quotes from Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree and numerous other texts in support of his point, and draws from interviews with other parents of atypical children, and atypical adults who often recall childhood as a constant struggle not to disappoint their parents. Here, Fournier's reportorial skills come into play as he draws candid admissions from sons and fathers. He quotes Solomon: "Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity." Fournier reveals the truth of that statement, but also centers his book on a powerful message of empathy. Love That Boy contains important lessons for anyone struggling to relate to the strangers in their own lives.

Still, Fournier is quick to admit that all the empathy in the world won't make parenting easy, let alone parenting an Aspie child. He credits much of Tyler's growth to his admission to a magnet school with programs catering specifically to kids with high-intellect Asperger's and to the team of professionals Lori built to work with Tyler outside of school. Love That Boy does not disguise the fact that raising an Aspie child takes time, patience and, unfortunately, resources many parents do not have. In the epilogue, Fournier makes a moving case for government programs in support of these overwhelmed families. According to him, "every taxpayer must be willing to support public services for children, especially those with special needs. Federal, state, and local governments must invest in child welfare...."

Love That Boy starts in a very personal place, expanding its scope as it goes along. By the time it reaches the point of broad policy proposals and sweeping parenting advice, Fournier's insights feel earned and evidence-based. Without putting too fine a point on it, Love That Boy presents a particular story about Tyler and a universal story about parenthood--its conclusions are born out of this moving interaction between personal experience and time-honored truths. Love That Boy is a must-read for parents and the parented. --Hank Stephenson

Harmony Books, $26, hardcover, 9780804140485, April 12, 2016

Harmony: Love That Boy by Ron Fournier

Ron Fournier: Presidents and Parenting

 photo: Richard A. Bloom

Ron Fournier is senior political columnist for the National Journal and co-author of Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press and has covered the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In his new book, Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations, he expands upon a 2013 article for National Journal about his struggle to come to terms with his son Tyler's Asperger's and about the difficulties of modern-day parenting.

Towards the end of Love That Boy, you write about Tyler's reaction to an early draft of the book: " 'It's okay,' my little professor says. 'But it's a bit of a cliché.' " Does he ever hurt your feelings with his seemingly blunt remarks?

Tyler continues to give the book a smile and a shrug, the go-to response of any teen. Nonchalance also is part of his particular wiring. It's not just with the book that Lori [Ron's wife] and I are constantly asking ourselves, "Okay, is this his teenager talking? Or is this his Aspie talking?" Or both?

Sure, he occasionally hurts my feelings. But what child doesn't trample on his or her parents' tender emotions? What I've come to understand is that Tyler's bluntness is a refreshing change from the artificiality and pretense that shape most of the rest of us. I love that I always know where I stand with him.

Back to his view on the book: we told him he had full veto authority from start to finish, but it never came up. Tyler doesn't consider Asperger's syndrome an affliction; he views it as just another trait--like the color of his eyes or the quality of his vision--with its particular disadvantages and assets.

I think he likes the notion that his story might help other children be as comfortable in their own skin as he is.

In the recently published Neurotribes, author Steve Silberman argues that neurodiversity has real societal value. How fair or appropriate do you think it is to try to teach "Aspies" to behave like "neurotypicals"?

I think Steve's book is an incredibly important piece of work. He's right; as Tyler would tell you, and as I have learned through Tyler, autism brings huge value to our society. It always has. 

I think it's important that we teach our children--all of them--to find happiness in goodness rather than just pleasure, and to be the best they can possibly be at whatever they want to do.

So while I don't think we should teach Aspies to be anything but their best selves, I do think it's important to help them thrive in a neurotypical world. We do that by helping them unearth and polish their brilliant uniqueness. By the way, that's what we should do for our "typical" children, too--help them discover and polish what makes them brilliantly unique. 

Much of your book focuses on parental expectations. You give economic and sociological reasons why expectations seem to be trending so high, but you also quote examples of unreasonable expectations from century-old presidents. Do you think parental expectations have become exceptionally unreasonable in recent years compared to, say, when Teddy Roosevelt was raising his children?

That's a tough one. On one hand, I try to ease parents' concerns by showing how parents a century ago worried about many of the same things we do: rising violence, the influence of popular culture, and the pressures of economic and technological revolutions. Then again, we face pressures that are unique to our times. While a parent in 1916 worried about what their teenagers were doing in the rumble seat of the newfangled automobile, parents today lie awake knowing that the Internet exposes their children to horrifying stuff.

It almost doesn't matter whether parental expectations are higher or lower than in the past. The fact is they're too high and too often aimed at the wrong things--and we can do better.

Why did you decide to center your book on presidents, both living and long-deceased?

It was Lori's idea to visit presidential sites. She wanted me to spend more time with Tyler and give him a real-world opportunity to practice his social skills--and presidential history was a fixation we shared. It was also her idea for me to write a magazine essay and eventually this book so that he would, in her words, "know how much we love him." While we think Tyler always felt loved, we realized after his diagnosis that these kids struggle with self-esteem and self-doubt, and Lori wanted to give Tyler something tangible to hold on to after we're gone.

I balked at every step, because I was overwhelmed by the challenge of writing something so personal and scared about digging too deeply into my shallowness.

It was my editor's idea to anchor each chapter with a related "guilt trip"; Heather Jackson, my editor, also had the idea to center each chapter on a particular expectation we have for our kids. When I got to the Clinton and Bush chapters, I decided to shift focus to the attributes we should want for our kids--empathy, grit and acceptance.

You write about the teams that you set up to help Tyler and the huge amount of time, money and effort you and your wife have put in to keep Tyler from lagging behind neurotypicals. Do your other children ever resent the amount of attention Tyler receives? You touch on this a bit near the end of the book, but do you ever think about the even greater difficulties poor families, for example, face in raising an Aspie child? Do you believe the government should pursue policies to negate or leaven these difficulties?

It was tough. Gabrielle watched her older sister suffer with depression and her younger brother deal with autism, and I'm sure she could have used more attention. It's hard to be a middle child. We were really conscious of Gabrielle's sandwich situation, and she tells us now that she never felt neglected. I think we avoided most of the resentment issues many parents face.

We are unusually fortunate in having the money and time to tackle Tyler's challenges. It's horribly wrong that most other parents lack the resources to deal with their children's special needs. I strongly believe that we need to help the least among us--and government is often the best way to do so. As a national community, we're not doing enough for these kids.

One of the challenges we're facing now with Tyler is how to transition him out of high school, where there are many resources, and into the adult world, where there are so few. Millions of young men and women with autism face similar challenges when leaving high school, and government must be a bigger part of their support system.

For Lori and me, I think helping parents of autistic children navigate these challenges will be our life's work.

Do you have any suggestions for further reading on autism or parenting children with autism?

Good question. This is a book for all parents--a universal read. My particular expectations for just one of my kids were rooted in a special need. But to answer your question, the autism books that help me personally the most were the autobiographies listed in the bibliography [e.g., Temple Grandin's Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism and John Elder Robison's Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's]. They helped me see Tyler through a new set of eyes.

More broadly, I say Madeline Levine's work [author of The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well] helped me the most in unpacking the difference between the two kids every parent must learn to raise: the one that we expect and the one that we get.  --Hank Stephenson

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