Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism

This memoir by Joel Yanofsky is one loving Dad's perspective on raising a son.

Posted Jun 16, 2018

Raising a kid with autism is no easy task.  And on Father’s Day I salute all the fathers out there doing their share. They deserve to be honored. Recently, I read a  memoir written by a dad that made me appreciate and understand more what it must feel like to be the father of a son with autism and husband to an effective autism mom.

Rarely do we read from the father’s perspective, and when we do it is usually when dad is the hero (ie The Horseboy).  So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across  Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism, by Joel Yanofsky. In January  I was contacted by Joel Yanofsky for some information in regards to an article he was writing.  Naturally I googled him. That’s how I found out  that this Montreal-based writer and book critic was the author of four books,  including  Bad Animals  which was long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize, shortlisted for the B.C. national Award for Canadian Nonfiction, and winner of the  Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction.

Intrigued by the title and the book cover of the US hard-copy edition (small animals drawn and labelled by his son Jonah) I read the description of the book :  “Joel Yanofsky tried for years to start this memoir. “It’s not just going to be about autism,” he told his wife, Cynthia. “It’s going to be about parenthood and marriage, about hope and despair, and storytelling, too.”  “Marriage?” Cynthia said. “What about marriage?””

Then I skimmed over the reviews.  Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me, but I couldn’t resist reading a memoir that was described as:  skeptical,  darkly humorous, entertaining, sardonically funny, heartfelt, deeply moving, refreshingly honest.  As the author of five practical guides to autism and mother to an autistic young man (Jeremy),  I have read my share of  parent memoirs. And if I read any more of them,   I don’t want sugar coating and I don't want bitterness. I just want good storytelling that is engaging and real,  humorous yet thoughtful, and this book did more than fulfill my criteria.

Brian Peterson
Source: Brian Peterson

Apparently Yanofsky spends a good part of the day writing in his basement office; writing is what he does for a living.  Writing this memoir was not easy for him; neither was parenting his son, Jonah. His wife, Cynthia, an art therapist, clearly ran the show when it came to choosing treatments, creating charts and timelines and dealing with the school and consultants. Not to say that Joel is not involved in his own way, but his role is clearly that of a supporting role to his wife when it comes to knowing what to do when raising and educating Jonah. And isn’t that what it is like for most families? Everyone has their role and they support each other in their own way. But we rarely do we read accounts of the dad's point of view.  Bad Animals is  most definitely  about parenthood and marriage and hope and despair  as described. And that’s what makes this book great. Because autism is a family thing - it doesn't just impact the child.

Obviously, Yanofsky’s perspective is not every dad’s perspective, but he is very clear in describing what he is feeling and why. Reading Bad Animals left me at times ready to cry, more often laughing while nodding my head at the familiarity of the situations and feelings described. Many times the autism mom in me clearly wanted to go down to Joel’s basement , and drag him upstairs to engage more with his family (and to give Cynthia a break)  instead of researching, reading, interviewing, and analyzing in his gloomy basement office. But then, we wouldn’t have this well-written entertaining perspective on one year in the life of a family if he hadn’t stuck it out in the basement.

For those living in Canada needing some autism advice, be sure to look up Yanofsky’s  recently published e-book, The Now-What? Parents' Guide to Autism (Canada): The Today's Parent roadmap to life after diagnosis for families with a child on the spectrum.  After reading Bad Animals and admiring how meticulous Yanofsky is in researching what he is writing about, I’m sure this book will be very helpful for Canadians parenting  a newly diagnosed child.

Happy Father's day to all the dads out there.