Book review: George and Sam by Charlotte Moore

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When you have not one, but two, autistic sons, how do you cope with daily life, when do you find time to sleep and how can you possibly retain a sense of humour?

Charlotte Moore is an extraordinary woman, an extraordinary mother and an extraordinarily brilliant writer.

In 2004, her ground-breaking book, George and Sam, stole hearts with its searing honesty, sparkling clarity and remarkably positive account of living with two severely autistic boys.

George and Sam are now young adults – 21 and 19 respectively – and Moore’s classic memoir, regarded as one of the key books on autism, has been updated with a new chapter on the boys’ passage through adolescence and its impact on her family, which also includes Jake, aged 13, who is not autistic.

Far from being another ‘misery memoir,’ Moore’s powerful book achieves what many would consider to be impossible in her position – it entertains as well as educates.

As author Nick Hornby, himself the father of an autistic son, notes in his introduction to George and Sam, Moore offers no cure for autism, does not try to make you feel better about the ‘huge chunk of bad luck’ that has fallen on her and makes no attempt to sentimentalise the boys.

Instead, she gives us a clear-eyed observation of her sons and their behaviour, gives practical, rather than evangelical, advice on education, diet and sleep and helps us to see her sons as she sees them – not with pity but with joy at their sense of ‘otherness’ and delightful eccentricity. The result is a surprisingly uplifting tale of love, laughter, tears, frustration and acceptance.

George, who was not diagnosed with autism until he was four, appeared to be precociously intelligent for the first two and a half years of his life. Friends and family were astounded when he smiled at three weeks, laughed at one month, sat at five months, crawled at six months and stood alone at seven months.

But he was also unnaturally alert and slept very little until his parents ‘plugged’ him, unwillingly at first, with a dummy. George had an amazing ability to learn by rote and was reciting poetry before he was two.

It was only later that Moore realised that George was merely mimicking words, phrases and even large chunks of dialogue rather than learning, like a normal child, to put together words in his own way.

Sam, born two years later, was a more easy-going and placid baby than George. His speech and behaviour were off-beam and he seemed oblivious to the company of adults but he was less high maintenance than George with the result that he was not diagnosed with autism until he was well over four.

Moore has faced many challenges with her two sons but one of the most devastating periods was when Sam was five and experienced a ‘crash,’ a serious regression in his skills.

Her ‘happy-go-lucky’ Sam had gone and instead he became restless, agitated and frantically destructive. He would scream for hours and talking was replaced by a jumble of apparently meaningless noises.

Moore’s update reveals that Sam suffered a difficult adolescence but that he now has the ability to get more enjoyment out of life and to use his time more purposefully.

George thrived as a weekly boarder at a special school where he gained confidence and independence. He is currently at a special college but two words continue to haunt his mother, ‘What next?’

Many hurdles still lie ahead for Moore, George and Sam, and youngest son Jake whose brothers have endowed him with a benevolent tolerance of human variety which makes it difficult for him to brook any kind of bigotry.

Moore’s devotion to her sons is truly inspirational. Her book was written, she says, ‘not to bewail the ‘loss’ of the ‘normal’ children they were never meant to be, but, despite the problems, to celebrate them for what they are.’

(Penguin, paperback, £9.99)