June 01, 2006


Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, 2nd Edition. By Barry K. Baines, M.D. Da Capo. $14.95.

Engaging Autism. By Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., and Serena Wieder, Ph.D. Da Capo. $26.95.

     From life’s beginning to its end, families are faced with a plethora of difficult, even heart-wrenching (or gut-wrenching) decisions.  Here are two books that, if they cannot help make the decisions themselves easier, can certainly help in the implementation of whatever you decide to do.

     Ethical Wills, a useful resource now updated (and containing some information on living wills, as well), is for families whose patriarchs or matriarchs want to further the old tradition of passing along values, beliefs and advice to future generations.  These are not wills that distribute property – they are wills that disseminate values.  The wills can be written anytime, but most families are likely to think about them only after much time has passed, perhaps when a head of the family is retiring or ill, or the last child moves out on his or her own.  These are times when adults question themselves, their lives and those lives’ meanings, and therefore times at which ethical wills can provide a focal point for a life that seems to be losing its balance.  For instance, becoming empty nesters can be traumatic for many parents.  Writing an ethical will can show now-grown children what their parents hope to pass on, in addition to money and property.  Younger people may consider ethical wills, too: for example, a major life change, such as marriage, may be the right time for creating an ethical will – in this case, to establish a basic set of values on which the newly married couple can live a life together.  Divorcing parents may also want to use ethical wills: each writes down his or her version of the values by which he or she has tried to live and under which he or she has tried to raise the children.  Barry Barnes, a medical doctor, hospice specialist and cofounder of The Legacy Center, which tries to preserve values and meaning, shows in this book how to write an ethical will and share it most effectively with intended recipients.  He includes examples of ethical wills written in the last 10 years or so, by people of different ages and in different circumstances.  And his section on living wills wisely explains not only their benefits but also the possible outcomes if you fail to write one.

     Everyone may have a reason for writing an ethical will, but only a small number of families – thankfully – will have to deal regularly with autism.  For them, child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan and clinical psychologist Serena Wieder (who collaborated with Greenspan on The Child with Special Needs) provide a more-than-400-page manual discussing types of autism, symptoms and available treatments.  Subtitled “Using the Floortime Approach to Help Children Relate, Communicate, and Think,” the book is both a guide to the warning signs of autism and a set of pragmatic suggestions for encouraging two-way communication and social relationships.  Without unrealistically claiming to be able to “cure” autism, the authors show how kids of any age can improve significantly when diagnosed early (sometimes in the first year of life) and systematically trained in emotion perception and the ability to read other people’s intentions.  Calling for radical reform of the way autistic children are educated – a welcome approach, but scarcely a short-term one – the authors explain what parents, on their own and with knowledgeable members of the health-care field, can do at any stage of the condition, for a child of any age.  Autism is a kind of cutting-off of a child from indicators in the world at large that the vast majority of us take for granted.  Therefore, reaching an autistic child was once thought virtually impossible.  Greenspan and Wieder show how much is possible today – holding out hope for at least a moderately normal life for children on whom society, for many years, simply gave up.

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