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Book Review: Walker Finds a Way: Running into the Adult World with Autism

Walker Finds a Way: Running into the Adult World with Autism. Robert Hughes. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia, January 21, 2016, Hardcover and Kindle, 240 pages.

Reviewed by Susan Dennison.

Walker Finds a Way opens with Walker’s parents, Ellen and Robert Hughes, struggling to understand why their autistic 30-year-old son Walker is unhappy in the group home where he had lived contentedly for five years. Now the home is plagued by reports of violence and disruptive behavior, and Walker is facing eviction and commitment to a psych ward. For Robert Hughes, this is not the son he has known as gentle, friendly, and charismatic. However, aware that Walker has changed into a tense and anxious young man, he and Ellen try to discover the truth from a son who cannot tell them.

Hughes describes his son as having low-functioning autism, which “. . . manifests itself as a communication problem. He is verbal, but shrinks his few statements into the shortest form possible: ‘Shoes and socks’ mean ‘Let’s get moving.’ ‘Pen’ means ‘Let’s write down another schedule.’”

Walker is extremely social, adores being around people, and is “never in a world of his own,” a marker often applied to autism. Residing in the group home five days a week, Walker returns home to his family on the weekends. His constant need to be in motion takes Hughes and his son on daily walks throughout Chicago, no matter the weather or Hughes’ aching knees.

Hughes, who taught writing at Truman College, City Colleges of Chicago, writes a memoir of love, hope, and honesty. His devotion to his son’s well being is unmatched but not without a cost. He unflinchingly describes his own exhaustion, angry flare-ups, and frustrations. The memoir, peppered with anecdotes about the triumphs and failures of caring for Walker, offers stark details about family dynamics, a home mortgaged again and again to pay for Walker’s care, and the looming worry of what will happen to Walker when his parents are gone.

He writes about the impact of the attention he and his wife have devoted to Walker on their younger son, Dave, who has been living with “Walker emergencies” all his life. It is some of most poignant prose in the book.

“[Dave] had watched as his older brother flailed through psychotic episodes and seizures and behavior breakdowns of many varieties . . . he had watched helplessly as all the king’s horses and all the king’s men tried and failed again and again to rescue his brother . . . [he] was trying to carve out a normal life for himself while surrounded by a troubled brother and troubled parents.”

Through it all, Hughes manages to keep a sense of humor (at times, self-deprecating), and he voices his struggle to see the positive side in the situation. He remains open to what life brings, and this candor is apparent in the book. It is one of the most charming aspects of his writing. He even tries his hand at writing from Walker’s point of view where you can imagine Walker rolling his eyes at his father for not being able to figure something out.

If there is one shortcoming in the memoir, it is the description of the group home when things begin to fall apart. The caretakers and other residents are painted with broad strokes, and Hughes is quick to find fault with everyone. Perhaps this is nothing more than a parent rising to the defense of one’s child, and Hughes admits his knee-jerk reaction is anger. However, as there is rarely one side to anything in life, I would have liked some objectivity, if for no other reason than to add weight to Walker’s struggles.

At the end of the book, Hughes writes that his family is lucky. Yes, to a certain extent that is true, but his family is tenacious, smart, and fiercely protective of Walker. Hughes has taken a situation that would break many families and made it into an act of love. He writes about the setbacks with the same honesty as the successes, and every reader will become enthralled with Walker and the Hughes family.


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