The book The Accidental Teacher: Life Lessons from My Silent Son is an autism memoir and was published in 2009. It is a general overview of the author, Annie Lubliner Lehmann's life with her husband, Michael, her two youngest children David and Ruth, and her eldest, autistic son, Jonah.
Annie Lehmann, a young married woman at the beginning of the book, and her husband Michael decide to have a child. She talks of the joys of pregnancy and how she followed every rule religiously. Still, with the birth of her first son, Jonah, there were some problems. Her physically perfect son had autism.
She takes Jonah when he is older a few times to be professionally photographed, but he cannot hold himself up and is often uncooperative with the photographer. Annie also signs Jonah up to be a part of a mother-toddler bonding class later and compares him to the other children and in looking at the picture taken of the toddlers at the end of the group meetings where Jonah is slightly flopped to the side while the others sit up straight she can see her son is different.
Michael is offered a job in Detroit early on in Jonah’s life, and Annie reluctantly agrees to move. She refers to this move as “a blessing in disguise” and discusses they have no plans to move after 23 years (16). Annie also took a job that required her to work 40 hours a week. She missed Jonah dearly often, but sometimes enjoyed the escape—this mental, self-battle is often mentioned throughout the book. She also frequently writes of being upset by the obvious lack of a strong bond between her and Jonah and that the one passion he has really is food. Though Jonah is often unresponsive even to her, Annie loves him more than anything and will do anything to protect him.
After putting Jonah into special education classes for the first time, she met her first ally in this constant battle—Beth, Jonah’s teacher. Beth encouraged the Lehmanns to take Jonah to have psychologically evaluated, and there, the doctor finally told them what was wrong, “your son has autism” (23). Annie and Michael quickly sought out possible cures for their “untreatable” son (27). Barry Kaufman, “author of Son Rise” created a training course called Option Institute that helps parents of autistic children learn how to deal with it, or even “treat” it (27). After completing the programs, they brought it back to create an at home program called “Celebrating Jonah.” This program required the help of other caretakers, so the Lehmanns sought out the necessary help and, for the most part, received offers from college students that were short-lived. One woman, Kate, who had also gone through Option training, bonded with Annie on the trials of having an autistic child and what strains that put on their lives—about how they loved their sons, but often wished for a way out (37). The Lehmanns also hired live in nannies over the years to help care for Jonah—Dora, Cary, and then Debra.
Annie and Michael decide to have another child despite the fears that the results might be the same leaving them with two autistic children. In addition to Jonah, they also have a son named David and a daughter named Ruth—both “normal.” Jonah does not understand really the relationship of the two new children, however. Jonah gets to be such a handful at one point, the Lehmanns look at a residential school for children like Jonah, but do not enroll him. Instead they keep him close at home and enroll him in the public schools. The trying experiences--such as Jonah's lack of toilet training and his frequent tantrums--they encounter help Annie grow to not care what people think as they judge her son.
Later in life, Jonah develops insomnia. This, like many of Jonah’s other tics, came out of the blue and was very random in when it would attack. The Lehmanns eventually find another family to take Jonah for one weekend every month so they can attend Sabbath as a family without a hitch. Jonah also endures things like having his appendix removed, and Annie goes through the same feelings she would for any of her other kids, but she wishes that somehow the anesthesia could cure his autism. She knows, however, there is no cure for it as she discusses in her story.
They finally decide to consider sending Jonah away to school—Higashi, a school they had visited in the past. Jonah seems to develop new problems each summer he comes home such as epilepsy once summer and a hairline fracture another; he develops a cerebral spinal fluid leak and went through a surgery to have it helped around the time of his would have been Bar Mitzvah. Jonah returned to Higashi and the summer after he experienced new ticks of trying to throw himself to the ground head first. A new caregiver from Higashi named Tony helped their family when Jonah would come home.
In closing, Annie ambiguously discusses ‘’Rain Main’’, autism facts, and everyone’s lives and where they plan to go in the future with Jonah as their “accidental teacher.”
Rita Charon’s book, Narrative Medicine, discusses what a healing narrative really is. This is the practice of using narrative stories to help patients and doctors alike get through diseases and illnesses, or record their experiences and thoughts and emotions. Charon writes, “narrative medicine provides health care professionals with practical wisdom in comprehending what patients endure in illness and what they themselves undergo in the care of the sick” (vii).
The Accidental Teacher Life Lessons from my Silent Son is memoir that describes the trials and tribulations of having a child with severe autism. It closely examines the life of Annie Lehmann and her family, including her autistic son Jonah. It accounts for many of the troubles they encounter with Jonah in trying to lead a normal life and all the stress they deal with as a result of loving their autistic son. If a health care professional were to read this, based off of Charon’s definition, they would be able to understand the basics of Jonah’s case and comprehend how it is affecting other people in his life based off of his mother’s accounts. Therefore, Annie Lehmann's memoir could be considered an illness narrative--even though it is a mental illness and not a physical disease like a lot of illness narratives.
Caretakers and Teachers
A major theme in the book is the idea of caretakers. This is a prominent part of many healing narratives because not all patients are able to write of their own cases (like Jonah). Therefore, the caretakers write about the cases for the patients, or on behalf of them. Being a caretaker in some ways can be just as trying as dealing with the actual disease or illness. In Annie Lehmann’s case, her memoir is a narrative about her autistic son and the troubles they encounter throughout his life. She writes about how as Jonah grew up physically, and lagged developmentally, she grew up too. She learned not to care so much about what people thought of her and her family, and how to take challenges as they are thrown at her in life. As a caretaker, Annie has huge decisions to make such as whether or not to keep Jonah at home or put him in a residential school for most of the year. This is a difficult decision as she loves her son dearly and wants him to be with them, but at the same time they need the escape and help from fellow caretakers. She and her husband are the obvious caretakers, but there are other caretakers in Jonah's life too. All of the volunteers, nannies, teachers and people who helped look after Jonah are also caretakers. In autistic people and children, sometimes the influence of caretakers can help bring about social development, but in some cases, like Jonah's, the person needs special care and treatment for the incurable disease.
Autism being a mental disorder makes being a caretaker more difficult in some ways. With physical illnesses, they can often be cured, or the patient unfortunately dies. Nurses are common caretakers and are trained to deal with things like death and caring for patients. Annie Lehmann and her husband were not trained; they were given an autistic son and had to learn as they went along in life to adjust everything to fit Jonah's disorder--a disorder that had no terminal or curable end in sight. Some people choose to be caretakers, while others are forced to learn to become caretakers. These kinds of caretakers are constantly learning and adjusting, which is indicated by Annie Lehmann's title of her book. Jonah is a teacher to them, which many would consider ironic as he is said to have the mental capacity of an infant due to his lack in development. Nonetheless, Jonah has taught the Lehmanns what it is to be a caretaker, and so much more. This is why teaching and learning is another major theme of the book. One cannot always have a set plan for life as life often throws unpredictable situations in one's path. Annie and Michael Lehmann learned this with the birth of their autistic son Jonah.
More on Autism
As mentioned in Using Paraprofessionals to Teach Social Skills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the General Education Classroom, many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) lack certain social skills that cause lots of problems . The degrees of autism vary; for example, in Jonah’s case, he has a very extreme case that leaves him with the mental capacity of a baby and unable to speak, while other autism patients can lead relatively normal lives showing high levels of intelligence and independence. In childhood development, caregivers can have a big impact on the children, especially in autistic children. A modern psychology textbook states, "The way that caregivers talk to children is a good predictor of their success at these tests [false belief tests]." (418). False Belief Tests have to do with the Theory of Mind; they are simple tests that show brain development. It is also said that autistic children do not develop the theory of mind . All children require a proper environment and human interaction to properly develop, but autism patients are born with a lack of social skills. Therefore, even the best of caregivers cannot always help an autistic patient properly develop.
Jonah's multiple problems he encounters throughout his life in addition to his autism are fairly common issues for many autism patients. Hyperactivity is a very common problem for people with autism--especially children . In other stories, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, one can see examples of hyperactivity as well as other traits common to autism such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive tendencies and social underdevelopment. Even though The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a fictional novel, it is still a good representation of autism and in comparison to The Accidental Teacher Life Lessons from My Silent Son one can easily see varying degrees of autism.
- Lehmann, Annie Lubliner. The Accidental Teacher: Life Lessons from My Silent Son: An Autism Memoir. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2009.
- Charon, Rita. Narrative Medicine Honoring the Stories of Illness. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
- Mazurik-Charles, Rebecca, and Candice Stefanou. "Using Paraprofessionals to Teach Social Skills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the General Education Classroom." Journal of Instructional Psychology 37.2 (2010): 161-69. Web. 29 Oct 2010. <http://web.ebscohost.com.nuncio.cofc.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&hid=110&sid=597e297a-c31c-4e4d-8938-75c647ab12dd%40sessionmgr104>.
- Schacter, Daniel Lubliner., Daniel T. Gilbert, and Daniel M. Wegner. Psychology. New York: Worth, 2009.
- "Theory of Mind and Autism." Research Autism, Researching Autism Treatments and Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders. 10 July 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2010. <http://www.researchautism.net/asditem.ikml?ra=62&t=3>.
- "Research Autism | Autism Issues | Issues Facing People with Autism | Hyperactivity and Autism." Research Autism, Researching Autism Treatments and Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders. 10 June 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2010. <http://www.researchautism.net/asditem.ikml?ra=54&t=3>.