REVIEW: IZZY BAIA

Reviewed by Mary Hanlon

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Izzy-Baia offers a chance to enter into the autistic world of Brian O’Connell through the eyes of his carer, Kevin Whelan. It is as much about Kevin as about Brian, and we lear about Kevin’s past—the years he spent in England, a drifting lifestyle. Kevin describes some of the jobs he had before becoming a carer and friend to Brian. He reveals his own sense of failing in his parents’ eyes, and particularly in the eyes of his father, who was (as Kevin says) doing his best to understand the dreams and ambitions that drove his son.

In this book Kevin does his best to understand the complex syndrome of autism. The first chapter describes the meaning of autism, briefly examines causes and refers to some famous people who have autistic offspring. Kevin then enters on different journeys with Brian, around Brian’s native city of Galway, as he takes charge of Brian each evening. Each encounter allows us to get to know our autistic friend Brian a little more, and we share in Kevin’s life also. We learn how important routines and rituals are to Brian, and how Kevin feels the need to challenge this in order to bring some ‘buzz’ into Brian’s life.

When the ‘mindstorm’ hits Brian, waves of anger, frustration, fear and terror sweep through him. Kevin tries to come to terms with the real meaning of autism and the fact that autism is not very well understood. It involves the breakdown of information-processing and sensory overload. Dealing with a person who experiences the world in this way demands time, patience and energy. Kevin reflects on his past a lot; he tells us that he was an ‘anxious, impatient and spoilt individual’, and that getting to know and understand Brian has been good for him.

The book is written in an easy-to-read format. Although brief (91 pages), it speaks volumes for those who have an interest in autism and who wish to gain a greater understanding of the condition. Notwithstanding the different effects of autism on an individual and his/her family, this is a book that parents and carers of children with autism in Ireland can relate to in a very real way. Throughout the book there are powerful, humorous touches, but with depth of meaning; I found the poetry particularly effective.

The book must be read in its entirety because if you skip pages and read the last part you may think there has been a miracle cure—that Brian has emerged from his autistic state. While Kevin, as his carer, would wish this, there is no such happy ending. As Kevin says: ‘If you want a happy ending, read a fairytale’. While Kevin feels quite challenged by Brian during the years he spent as his carer/friend, he says that ‘it is never too late to have your own way of seeing the world challenged’. Kevin realises that there is going to come a point when he won’t be taking care of Brian because he has another life—to be a writer—and obviously that day has come.

In the final chapter, Kevin pays tribute to Brian’s family, whom he says are real heroes and heroines, and this is so true. We get a sense of the enormous task facing the families of children with autism, and how important it is to have support for families. As a mother of a fourteen-year-old autistic young man, I found it heartening to read that Kevin felt privileged to know this family and that knowing Brian has made a major difference to Kevin’s life.

Well done, Kevin—a welcome addition to the very limited stock of literature in this area. And the name of the book remains as much a mystery as the condition of autism.

Well done, again!

IZZY BAIA by Kevin Whelan. Marino Books, 16 Hume Street, Dublin 2. (1998) £5.99. ISBN 1 86023 075X (email: books@marino.ie) Also available from leading bookshops nationwide.