Praying for Strawberries – Gail Simpkins

23 September 2018
Praying for Strawberries Book Cover Praying for Strawberries
Gail Simpkins
US Naval Institute Press

Have you ever wondered what an Autism Assistance Dog does? Or about the unique perspective of a person living with autism?Through his mother's diary, follow nine-year-old Lachlan's journey with his new friend "Itsal" the Labrador, as they navigate the world together, with Lachlan achieving one of his many dreams and goals - learning to surf!Read about the fantastic improvements Itsal makes to Lachlan's life, and how he strengthens and supports Lachlan and his family. "Praying for Strawberries is a remarkable story of the daily, real-life events of a mother, a child and a family who have been blessed as they travel with each other on a journey where each day unfolds with many surprises not planned for. It is this uncertainty that can be both exhilarating and challenging. The reader will not remain untouched." Trevor R Parmenter AM, Professor EmeritusSydney Medical School, University of Sydney

Praying for Strawberries is an informative diary style book following a year in the life of a family from the perspective of the son, Lachlan, who has Autism. The writing is a piece-by-piece set of statements detailing actions and feelings regarding their experience as a family. As a guide and information resource, it is less formed as a story and comes across as one-dimensional and fundamentally fact driven. It is, however, an engrossing and interesting book that tears at your heartstrings and enlightens your mind to the beauty and joy to be found in families who are coping with members that have a personality disorder and don’t fall into the spectrum of normality or conventionality.

From my own experience of family members with Autism, unless you have that personal connection with people who are autistic either from family members, friends or working environment it is hard to understand what it means to live with those who have autism and the spectrum autism encompasses.

This is where this book comes into its own. It is not a book looking for sympathy, it doesn’t shy away from the challenges and the up and down periods, yet we’re given a sobering insight as to how these trials and tribulations are managed. Like all families, we face different types of challenges and stresses, yet it is how we choose to cope with them that makes the difference. We could either sink or swim and in this case, it’s the positivity throughout learning to adapt as you go along because that’s what you do for the people you love.

The book provides information about the immense variety of help available from the specialized schools to the organisations that provide specific personalised help. For example, the school that Lachlan attends, although the curriculum is not mainstream, it provides the environment that fits with Lachlan’s needs. The school that hosts Lachlan, recognises that all the children that cross its doors have different levels of programming as to how they relate, express, cope and communicate with others.

In the case of Lachlan, although he does not speak often or use many words, he can fully understand what people are saying to him and has a full understanding of other languages simply by playing and watching DVDs in other languages. Therefore, the main source of communication is via sign language and a Picture Exchange Communication (PEC) system. Other help available, such as access to a dietician to give advice on how to go about getting them to perform the simple task of eating, which can be a major stressful situation for all involved. The main tip was not to make it an issue. Gradually introduce food by first leaving it about so that it could be seen and touched. Allow them to witness others eating and let them try in their own time and prevent them getting bored with eating by slightly introducing small changes like serving the same food in a different dish thus help prevent boredom.

Tips are provided such as how to help them cope with new situations or things they don’t like doing by using PECs to make social stories of upcoming events like dental visits or having a countdown system whereby they know there is a starting point but also an ending point was is crucial to having them go with the flow less stressful. Institutions such as ‘The Righteous Pups Australian’ society which provided a specially trained dog ‘Itsal’ who became not only Lachlan’s best friend but physically helps Lachlan to keep to routines, helping him become confident and desensitizing stressful situations having a calming influence on Lachlan enabling him to interact more with people. Giving him the confidence to have a greater desire to explore and be less anxious about new unfamiliar places which before he would have found completely overwhelming. Overall Itsal had become an invaluable member of the family, Gail the author and Lachlan’s mum would go so far as to suggest Itsal’s presence helped improve Lachlan’s speech had fewer meltdowns when dealing with public situations and maintain regular attendance to his school.

This book gives hope and celebrates that living with someone who has a disability such as Lachlan’s is not weird or a burden it is just different and can be rewarding. They have similar feelings and hopes as everyone else and they have goals and aspirations. Some of Lachlan’s achievements which he was proud of was playing soccer and learning how to surf. It’s a truly inspirational book.

I would warn that if you were hoping to read a sentimental novel that flows, then you would be disappointed. It is not as a novel I rate this book but rather based on it being a guide or tool, giving real life and invaluable incites to living with someone with a disability. From a literary perspective, it is a hard read. However, it is so inspirational having a first-hand very personal take and informative guide with the realities of living with someone that lives outside the spectrum that society would categorise as ‘normal’. The book provides optimism that as a family they are not alone with learning to cope, that there is help from the wider community. Therefore, I’m recommending this book to a specific audience i.e. for people whose lives are touched by any personality disorders or any type of disability.

I would like to thank Gail Simpkins for a copy of her book in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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