The Write Life

New book traces a family's journey through autism

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In December 1969, when Franklin “Jay” Farnsworth Fitz, Jr. was born, autism was not a readily recognized diagnosis. There were no early intervention programs, very little applied behavioral analysis available, and special needs children weren’t even guaranteed a public education.

"So Far So Great! Lessons Learned from an Autistic Son’s Journey from Infancy to Middle Age" by Mary Miller is both a personal memoir and a history lesson about the treatment of autistic children from the 1970s to now.  On Sunday, May 7 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., Mary Miller will meet the public and sign her memoir at Simone’s restaurant in Warren, located at 275 Child Street. Books will be on sale in collaboration with Barrington Books.

Mary Miller started a journal when her son Jay was two years old, “compelled to document [Jay’s] development.” For Miller, the traditional baby book didn’t cut it. “I needed pages and pages to describe and record the milestones and challenges in the life of a young child with autism, as well as space to accommodate my own thoughts and emotions.”

There was good reason for Miller to be emotional. In the seventies, many doctors still subscribed to a “refrigerator mom” theory that children developed autism because of cold, withholding parents. So, in addition to battling for Jay’s healthcare, Miller had to bear contempt from the medical community as well as her own guilty feelings.

Despite the odds, Miller became her son’s staunchest ally: a warrior mother, unwilling to succumb to hopelessness. “I had to be his advocate,” says Miller. It was Miller who researched Jay’s condition and stumbled upon the diagnosis of autism, and it was Miller who advocated for Jay’s right to an education, even if that meant the heartbreaking decision to send him away to school. Explains Miller,“We would have lost three years [of progress].” Mary knew that the earlier she got help for Jay, the greater his chances to develop speech and other cognitive functions.

But the advocacy never stopped.  As Jay aged out of the public education sphere, Miller had to fight to find adult services, housing in group homes, and to continue his therapies. Miller currently lives in Chatham where she continues to be involved, raising funds for Cape Cod Village (capecodvillage.org), a project to create a group home for autistic adults in Orleans, Massachusetts.

There are moments of triumph and despair in So Far So Good, expressed with some lovely passages.  In one, Miller likens her emotional state to a Jackson Pollack painting: “Feeling alone and vulnerable, the palette of my emotions [were]...colors spattered randomly across the canvas of my life.” So Far So Great! is a touching and informative memoir of one family’s fight to have their son treated with dignity and respect.

Mary Miller lived in Barrington, Rhode Island for thirty years and has five grandchildren who reside there still.  Jay lives in a group home in East Providence where he continues to grow and learn. He uses public transportation and holds down two part-time jobs. Each year, since he turned twenty-one, Jay has initiated a trip with his mother to “see the sights” in both the United States and beyond. For more information about Mary and Jay, visit their website at autism-lessons.com.

Laura LaTour is an avid reader and former bookseller. She is currently working as a freelance writer and publicist. Tell her your stories at: Laura@LaTourCreations.com.

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