April 30, 2009


The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens. By Malina Saval. Basic Books. $25.95.

The First Year: Autism Spectrum Disorders—An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed Child. By Nancy D. Wiseman. Da Capo. $16.95.

     Ten boys in ten chapters. “Madolescence” as shorthand for “male adolescence.” Chapters called “The Mini-Adult,” “The Sheltered One,” “The Rich Kid” and “The Gay, Vegan, Hearing-Impaired Republican.” It is almost as if Malina Saval wants not to be taken seriously. But The Secret Lives of Boys is a very serious book indeed, and its content is much better than some of the excesses of its presentation. Saval profiles 10 boys ages 14 to 19, largely in their own words but with plenty of connecting copy and interpretation. The boys’ own comments are by far the most valuable thing here. “The Rich Kid,” 18-year-old Preston, was clinically depressed a couple of years ago and “started viewing myself as a tortured artist and I looked up to quote-unquote other tortured artists like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Robin Williams, and Tom Cruise.” This is a much better and more interesting revelation than the oh-so-superior reaction of Saval, who has an MFA degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts: “That he considers Tom Cruise a ‘tortured artist’ could be the most curious discovery of my fact-finding mission on the secret lives of boys. I can do nothing to mask my visible disappointment.” But, see, this is not, or is not supposed to be, a book about Saval, and it is a much better book to the extent that she keeps out of it and lets the boys reveal what they choose to about themselves, their worldviews, their opinions, their fears and worries. Christopher, the 17-year-old “Gay, Vegan, Hearing-Impaired Republican,” comments, “I don’t have a lot of experience with people bashing me because I’m gay, and my hearing impairment might have something to do with that. Those who do approach me are those who wouldn’t be inclined to believe those misconceptions about deaf people anyway, so I get a ‘purer,’ if you will, crop of friends.” Aziz, a 17-year-old practicing Muslim whom Saval labels “The Average American Kid,” talks about the importance of fitting in: “If you want to avoid the stereotyping, you have to mesh as much as you can, but without losing your entire identity. This goes for everyone, regardless of religion. It’s a delicate balance. Also, if you want to be social, don’t go home at 2:30 after school. Join a club. Join a sports team. The key is to get involved. Tyrone, who at 19 is a father and has been to prison for drug possession, says, “I kind of fight myself a lot to change a lot of things. I’m sure there is a way out, but when you grew up seeing one thing, that’s kind of what you move towards.” The boys’ comments in The Secret Lives of Boys are far more revealing, interesting and sometimes even profound than Saval’s heavy-handed analysis and the predictable remarks by psychiatrists and other adults. It would be a mistake to think that Saval’s book provides good generalized insight into today’s teenagers – she has chosen her subjects far too carefully for that, as she tries to include one of every “type” she can while insisting that these boys are not “types” at all. But what is so good in this book is the chance to hear a variety of different teens, from a variety of different backgrounds, facing some similar challenges and many different ones, and handling them (for the most part) with much greater maturity and thoughtfulness than most media coverage of teenage boys would lead a reader to expect. Yes, the boys’ comments are edited and arranged by Saval, but enough comes through of these teens’ personalities to show that they are all seeking ways to handle the difficulties of their lives and to move past the tough times into what each hopes will be a better future – however defined.

     One boy in Saval’s book, 16-year-old Nicholas, called “The Troublemaker,” turns out to have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) with “signs” of ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). A diagnosis of this sort can follow a child throughout life, affecting his or her ability to get jobs and health care and resulting in a world in which the child is thought of as if the disease defines him or her. This is even truer when a child is diagnosed with autism or a related condition – the subject of the newest entry in The First Year series. Nancy D. Wiseman, founder and president of a nonprofit group called First Signs, Inc., that focuses on educating parents and professionals about early signs of autism and similar disorders, takes parents step by step through the difficulties associated with understanding autism and helping a child who has it. Wiseman clearly knows this subject inside out – perhaps too well for many parents, for whom even the hint of this diagnosis is likely to be frightening enough without all the detail that Wiseman provides. For example, Wiseman explains that it is important to rule out other possible diagnoses in order to be sure that a child does indeed have autism. She then lists 20 disorders to be ruled out, ranging from early-onset childhood bipolar disorder to Fragile X syndrome, Landau-Kleffner syndrome and selective mutism. Just reading the list and going to the book’s glossary to find out what the disorders are may prove overwhelming for worried parents. In another section, about obtaining services under the federally funded Early Intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities, Wiseman says “the process is quite simple” for obtaining help – and then gives a 14-point list of things that have to happen, several of which are acronym-heavy and complex. In reality, it is complex, time-consuming, difficult and potentially overwhelming to try to understand autism and related conditions, to accept this type of diagnosis for your child, to understand the lifelong implications for the child and the rest of the family, and to try to develop a treatment program. The complexity of Wiseman’s book is thus in large part a reflection of the complexity of the situation. Certainly it is helpful that she addresses such realities as the financial burden of caring for an autistic child – although the figure of “easily upwards of $70,000 a year” will likely only upset families even more than they already are. Likewise, her chart of treatments and goals is well-designed and carefully organized – but parents facing its subdivision into five categories with a total of 29 treatment elements, each with three goals, will likely cringe. Wiseman deserves great credit for pulling together so much information on such a difficult subject. Parents dealing with a child’s autism will find a great deal of highly useful information here. But this may not be the best place for parents facing such a diagnosis to go first, since the matter-of-fact, even clinical tone – while wholly appropriate for the information being disseminated – will likely to be off-putting to families already facing deep and severe distress.

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