Pat Henry Says Autistic
"The Glue That Holds Our Family Together"
by Christina Siebold
from The Chattanoogan.com
(reprinted with permission)
Pat Henry, wife of Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Jim Henry, said Tuesday that the key to raising autistic children is giving them the independence they need to
In a candid speech to Chattanooga's family support group for autistic children, Mrs. Henry shared the many challenges she and her family faced in caring for her autistic son, John, now 24 years old. John also suffers from cerebral palsy.
"I learned early on that I could be as depressed about the situation as I allowed
myself to be," she said.
Because he couldn't talk, John was diagnosed as profoundly retarded. Though the Henrys questioned the diagnosis from the beginning, John was placed in a center
for the mentally handicapped. As John matured, his time at home was often spent
in fits of rage.
"The anger John had inside him was just horrendous," said Mrs. Henry. "He would destroy the kitchen or the den before going to school. What he was trying to say
was 'I'm in here. Let me out.'"
Mrs. Henry said from the beginning, she thought John could understand what she
said to him, but as a non-verbal autistic, he could not respond. His frustration
over not being able to communicate drove his mother to dote on John even more.
"I felt like no one could take care of John like I could," she said. "You just get
At the age of 16, John declared his independence. The Henrys began a process
known as facilitated communication. Used by many autistic families, facilitated
communication involves an aide helping a non-verbal autistic type out what they
are trying to communicate on a keyboard.
"Facilitated communication saved mine and John's life," said Mrs. Henry. "There
have been no rages since he began typing."
John improved dramatically after he began typing - he even attended high school
for two years. "I realized I had made him more handicapped than he needed to
be," Mrs. Henry said.
Another event that shaped Mrs. Henry's view of caring for John came seven years
ago when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. As she watched her own
independence slip away during surgery and radiation, Mrs. Henry says she realized
how important it was. Now she calls the brain tumor "God's gift."
"Without the brain tumor, I would be doing everything today for John that I did before. I would be treating him the same way. But I found out for myself how important independence is."
Today, Mrs. Henry leaves John with his older sister as she campaigns with her husband. Though John will never be on his own, it's another step on his road to independence. While Mrs. Henry said she made mistakes with her autistic son, she is grateful for the joys and challenges he has brought to her family.
"John Henry is the glue that holds our entire family together," she said. "He has
been one of the greatest blessings in our lives."