When doctors diagnosed Alan Clark’s son, Adam, with autism in the late 1980s, Clark didn’t know what to expect.
He’d hardly even heard the word before. He and his wife, Patricia, had sought doctors’ opinions only because they’d noticed their one year old had stopped making eye contact and responding to them.
“At the time the word ‘autism’ was out there but the general public hadn’t heard it yet,” the St. Croix Falls man said. “My son was diagnosed in 1987. That was about the time the movie ‘Rain Man’ came out.”
The 1988 film, a box office hit, brought public awareness to autism. Still, because the traits of autism vary greatly from person to person, it was not entirely predictive of the Clark family’s experience. For instance, at 32 years old, Adam remains nonverbal.
Seen on a spectrum, autism includes a wide range of behaviors with underlying commonalities. These include challenges with communication and social interaction.
Current research suggests there are actually many types of autism spectrum disorder with different genetic and environmental causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Before Adam’s diagnosis, Clark described his family’s life as average in every way.
Afterward, all he knew was that his life would never be the same.
“You’re confronted with this,” he said. “And you ask yourself, ‘What’s this world we’re entering into?’ I think it’s human nature, you find yourself asking, ‘How is this going to affect me?’”
Decades later, Clark is sharing insights about what that future held in his book, “Silent Partner.”
The book delves into the many challenges the Clarks experienced in raising an autistic child. But readers also watch Clark’s perspective shift gradually from apprehension to appreciation.
“You start to see a lot of goodness from this type of thing,” he told The Sun.
Other children’s acceptance of Adam, for instance. After Adam started school, accompanied by an aide, Clark found himself surprised when, again and again, classmates approached Adam at the beach or county fair to say hello.
“Somewhere along the line we’ve raised a generation of children who are accepting of this,” Clark said. “Our society has evolved to accept Adam and others more openly than when I was a child. You kind of keep in the back of your mind, what if this was 20 or 30 years ago? There are more institutions out there to help and guide you and do all the things it takes to put a disabled child out into the world.”
When Adam was diagnosed, only recently had diagnostic criteria and behavioral therapies for autism been developed. Treatments tested just decades before included psychotropic drugs and electric shock therapy. And parents, especially mothers, had been blamed for causing autistic behaviors.
“One of the things you learn right away is how lucky you are to have this problem now,” Clark said. “In the past it would have been so much worse.”
There were other benefits, too. Indirectly, Adam brought people together who otherwise might never have met. One friendship began with Clark’s phone call to a neighbor, asking for permission to bring Adam on a ride across his expansive acreage. The man on the other end of the line, Blair Klein, quickly became a companion.
“We just hit it off,” Clark said. “It turns out he had the same type of wanderlust Adam did. All the sudden there were three of us in the car. This went on for years and turned into this beautiful thing. None of it would have happened if it hadn’t been for giving Adam a ride.
“You gotta look at the good that came out of this,” he continued. “I have one of the greatest friendships I could ever ask for.”
Clark emphasizes other partnerships too, especially the help of family and friends.
“My wife has been, by far, the principal person who has given her life to him. If he decides to be up at three in the morning, she is there with him.
“She and my mother were his guardian angels who spent so much of their life to make his life better. And my family has stuck around in the area, so there’s a lot of support from brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.”
Bearing witness to such kindness speaks to Clark’s larger point in “Silent Partner.”
“The arc of the whole book is: Realize it could be so much worse. Use that for strength. Look at the good things that happen because of this situation,” he said.
That lesson, however, comes with a caveat.
“You don’t want to paint it as a rosy picture, like it’s no big deal,” Clark said. “Even now we have to be very cautious because Adam will pick things up and put them in him mouth like a baby would. And there have been some pretty scary times. That’s been a constant thing on our mind.”
He hopes the book offers encouragement to parents wondering what their life might be like with an autistic child, or those going through difficult times.
“I kept thinking it might help someone going through the same thing,” he said. “Once you’re through it you can kind of look back.
“I read a couple things when we were first confronted with this that really helped me. One was just a tribute a woman put in the St. Paul paper. It was a beautiful, succinct thing about how grateful she was to her husband. Their son was autistic and she said something like, ‘If he could speak he would tell you how much he adores you.’
“Every once in awhile I’d pull that article out and read it and get such a boost. I thought it wouldn’t be right for me not to carry that forward. If I can do that for somebody else, that was a real big incentive for doing this.”
The book acknowledges that the journey is difficult and, at times, thankless. But for Clark the challenges, sacrifices and work have brought a true sense of partnership with his son, even if it is one without words.
“Silent Partner” is available through Dorrance Publishing (bookstore.dorrancepublishing.com/silent-partner), Amazon, and Barnes & Noble’s e-book page.