Book review: Autism - How to raise a happy autistic child

by Jessie Hewitson. Reviewed by Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson.

image of book cover

Date published: 2018

Paperback price: £14.99

Link to Orian Books

Reviewer: Sue Fletcher-Watson, Director, Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre

Reviewer expertise: I have a PhD in developmental psychology, and have been specialising in autism research since 2004.

What is the book about and who is it aimed at?

Jessie Hewitson is an award-winning journalist, with an autistic son.  In this book she has put her personal experiences, writing and research skills to excellent use, providing us with a comprehensive and progressive account of parenting an autistic child.  The book is a must-read for any parents struggling to understand and support their child following an autism diagnosis.


A brief description of the book.

In the book, Hewitson covers an impressive range of content, drawing on academic publications, interviews, and knowledge of legal and procedural frameworks in England. She starts by defining autism, exploring the evolution of the construct over the last 80 years.  This sets the tone for the rest of the book because, amongst the usual suspects (clinicians of the 1940s Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger) she also highlights the key contributions of autistic people in shaping how autism is understood today. Moving on, we are taken through the early signs of autism in childhood (including a nice account of major psychological theories), the diagnostic process, and into a description of the experience of being autistic.  Here, once more, Hewitson has made sure to include the accounts of autistic people, including those whose communication is largely non-verbal.

The remainder of the book (another two-thirds) takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the practical issues a parent may have to confront: mental health, support in education, playdates and holidays. In “creating an autism friendly home” Hewitson discussed sleep, eating and toileting, in each case giving clear and practical advice.  Her writing is enriched by frequent evidence of her own doubts as a parent – “I wonder if I should be firmer about it…” she says, referring to her son’s reluctance to eat dinner at the table. It’s comforting as a reader to feel that Hewitson herself doesn’t have all the answers, and a real strength of the book in my opinion.


Is the content in line with best practice or research evidence?


Hewitson doesn’t cite academic papers but she is clearly effectively engaged with the evidence base - and I’m not just saying that because she cites a piece of work I did!!  For example, she mentions the PACT trial – at the time, the largest intervention study in autism worldwide - more than once, and describes the newly-recognised influence of alexithymia (difficulty reading one’s own emotions) in autism. 

In fact, this book is, in many ways, far ahead of autism research. For example, Hewitson devotes an entire chapter to sensory differences, reflecting the fact that these have a profound impact on daily life though they have been under-recognised in academic theory. Likewise she covers the experience of siblings of autistic children, and has chapters not only on girls and autism (an area where research is finally catching up) but also on autism in black and minority ethnic communities.

Who would this book be helpful for?

This book has a lot of practical information to offer to a parent of a young autistic child, and could also be very useful to any practitioners who work closely with families. Hewitson’s son was seven at the time the book was written, so it is necessarily focused on the early years. The book doesn't cover issues that arise later, such as puberty, transition to secondary school and the more general challenges of adolescence. The discussion of gender is based on a simple binary model, but we know that autistic people as they grow up are more likely to identify as non-binary, and / or transgender. So for parents of older children, this might not be the right volume.

In addition, the book in some places is fairly England-centric.  For example the detailed discussion of Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) has limited relevance to the devolved nations of the UK, though it does still contain some useful principles for parents.

What is your final, overall opinion on the book?

I really enjoyed reading this book.  Hewitson has an open and chatty writing style that is extremely easy to read.  The book is littered with her personal reflections, as well as accounts from other parents and from autistic adults. She frequently provides lists of practical tips, while also drawing on research evidence effectively. All in all, a great read for parents of autistic children – a book that educates and problem-solves, but also uplifts and inspires.