Reading David Finch’s 'The Journal of Best Practices'

One man's quest to be a better husband teaches us about finding family.

Posted Oct 29, 2018

In 2012, David Finch published The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger’s Syndrome and One Man’s Quest to be a Better Husband. The book became a New York Times Bestseller and launched a national speaking career for the author. Six years later, the book still has much to offer readers, especially those of us with Asperger’s in the family.

In the introduction, Finch recounts the life-changing evening his wife sat him down and asked him a series of curious questions.

“Do you prefer to wear the same clothes and eat the same food every day? Do you become intensely frustrated if an activity that is important to you gets interrupted?” she asks.

Finch doesn’t understand the point, but the questions resonate with him even those that seemed “odd and out of place, such as, ‘Do you sometimes have an urge to jump over things?’ and ‘Have you been fascinated by making traps?’ (Admittedly, it sucked a little to hear myself answering yes to both of those,” he writes.

At the end of this game, which his wife explains is an online assessment for Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Finch answered yes to 155 out of a possible 200 questions, leaving them both convinced that Finch has ASD. This diagnosis, informal was it is, comes as a relief to them both.

At the time, Finch is thirty years old. He and his wife Kristen have been married for five years and have two toddlers. Great friends since high school and deeply in love when they got married, they’ve become disconnected and unhappy under the strain of raising children along with his ASD. Finch, an obsessive note taker, challenges himself to change his behavior in order to become a better husband and, as the title of his first chapter notes, “Be her friend, first and always.”

Finch’s storytelling is wonderful. He’s got a self-deprecating and funny voice —such as when he explains how his different working brain might not remember to turn on the dishwasher when asked, but if a complete stranger handed him a hot dog costume, he’d don it unquestioningly. Similarly, Finch parses how he might find it more important to perfect the sound of a mooing cow than interact with his family.

As the sister of a person with severe ASD, I found his story revelatory. Margaret can’t explain why certain situations make her flip out, but Finch’s experience offers real insight. For example, my family avoided gatherings and parties because they always set her off.  Margaret lacks the communication skills to explain why, but Finch gives a host of reasons.

“One thing that I find challenging about a gathering is the disruption to my schedule. If it is at someone else’s house, we’re doomed because that’s not where I usually am at 4 p.m. on a Saturday. I’m not familiar with their silverware, their hand towels, the sights and sounds of their homes,” he writes.

That made me think of how Margaret would almost always freak out when we went anywhere new when we were kids. Now on her rare visits to my adult home, she will spend the first few minutes in my house opening and closing cupboards and drawers in the kitchen and checking to where I’ve left my purse.

Finch is willing to share some of his most difficult moment, like when he explains how playing Scrabble before Catch Phrase on game night with his roommates could reduce him to silent brooding and punching himself in the face. That made me think of my sister and her frequent, full-blown meltdowns when we were teenagers and how powerless I felt not knowing what she needed.

Besides offering me insight into the world of ASD, Finch’s book resonated with me personally. I’m an introvert, and I believe there is some overlap between my aversion to noise and crowds with my sister’s audio processing issues. So I laughed out loud during Finch’s chapter “Parties are supposed to be fun.” He writes, “There’s only so much relating I can handle. Usually after six minutes, I’ve had enough. I have to get home, to my own thoughts to my own TV shows on my own couch.”

Exactly.

Margaret’s autism is severe. She’s one of those kids diagnosed at the age of three. Finch’s parents didn’t pick up on his ASD, though he describes childhood behaviors like the comforting habit of pushing himself down the carpeted hallway on his face and sitting alone in the family cow pasture for hours. His family obviously loved and accepted him. And yet it’s Finch’s young family that raises the stakes. He comes to understand that he has been unable to connect with his own children, and just be present with them. Not only has this made things hard on his wife, he feels it has made him a failure as a father.

He finds that the easiest way for him to deal with morning routine of breakfast, diaper changes, and dressing is to detach from his children and discourage play so he can get everyone out the door. The simple process of bathing two splashing toddlers is a sensory nightmare for him and is so upsetting his wife doesn't even want him to try. He drops the kids off before work and walks away feeling that he has failed them again. “I am not good enough for my children,” he writes.

Finch finds his way as a father by deciding to surrender to the singular moments of his children’s lives whenever possible and finding brilliant workarounds for his triggers  — such as donning a swimsuit and goggles for the kids’ bath time.

One has to wonder if a professional assessment or diagnosis might have made things easier for Finch. But that would have made for a different kind of story. As it is, he found his way into family life on his own with sticky notes posted around the house, lists scrawled on the backs of envelopes in the car and a nightstand drawer full of random reminders. The Journal of Best Practices is one man’s triumph in the quest to be a better husband and father.