SAM’S BEST SHOT by JAMES BEST

December 24, 2017 at 6:51 am Leave a comment

This is an autobiographical story of a doctor who took his teenage autistic son, Sam, backpacking through Southern Africa. It is what he describes as an n=1 experiment. That is, an experiment with only one test subject. In this case the subject was Sam and the aim was to test whether ‘forcing him to endure’, or if you prefer ‘exposing him to’, lots of variety and chaos in the would, via brain plasticity, help his brain develop more connections and give Sam his ‘best shot’ at being ‘more normal’ as his dad puts it at one point in their book.

The author came along to the bookgroup so we were able to ask him about the book directly. Unfortunately I could not attend so i asked bookgroupers to send me their thoughts. Although i could not attend i did read the book and i think the bookgroupers have covered most of my thoughts below. I definitely liked the travelogue aspect.

Bookgrouper 1

As another bookgrouper reminded everyone, we normally talk about the book for about 45 minutes before the conversation descends (or in some cases elevates) to the subjects of politics, religion and sex. But having the author present changes that dynamic entirely. We were all very pleased to engage and be engaged by James for three hours straight. Sam was not able to attend but with James’ assistance made a video about his African experience specifically for the bookgroup. This was of special interest to us as it gave the bookgroup something more of a first-hand exposure to the unique way that Sam observes and negotiates the world. Also it provided insights into the dynamic that exists between Sam and James and places the events of the book in a more intimate context.

Fundamentally the book tells the story of James and Sam’s expedition to Africa for the purpose of exposing Sam to high levels of new and unpredictable experiences, without many (but not all) of their daily supports. Their travels took them through many countries over six months and presented them with constant daily challenges to not only simply negotiate their movement through, and experience of, Africa but also to complete a number of neuroplasticity exercises that would increase the flow of traffic across Sam’s corpus callosum (the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the hemispheres). Learning to play chess, boxing, writing, engaging in prolonged conversation with the general public were all exercises that extended Sam through this time. And all the while their experience was being recorded on video to document the project and also to produce a movie that might be broadcast on TV. In fact a month or so ago this video was shown on Australian Story.

It’s interesting that everyone in the group was so engaged with the broad subject of how we interact and work with people who have disabilities. It seems that everyone in the group either had a family member or friend who had a disability of some sort and were eager to discuss the subject of how our perceptions leads us to reach conclusions about what life must be like living with a disability (particularly an intellectual disability in this case) and how we can best interact positively and productively.

Of course travelling through Africa can be quite a challenging experience, and the regime that James set himself and Sam in order to test if Sam’s neuroplasticity could be expanded seemed on the surface like it would make the whole trip so much more difficult. And in many aspects that’s exactly what it did. However they could not have anticipated how generous people they met on route turned out to be, from fellow travellers, to local identities, to just people that they met in the street. Everyone seems to resonate with the effort that Sam and James were putting in to the project and were keen to participate and further the experiment in whatever way they could.

Autism still remains a big mystery for me even though I have met Sam on a few occasions and have also met other autistic children and adults in my daily experience. Someone like Sam seems to have so many capabilities alongside a kind of emotional myopia and the mix leads to a confusion on my part whether to step towards him or away from him. Fundamentally though he as a very friendly boy (nearly a man) even if at times outspoken and lacking in normal social graces. I appreciated the chance to get alongside both Sam and James’ experience and watch how this great experiment unfolded.

Bookgrouper 2

I’m still reading the book in drubs and drabs – ie it hasn’t captivated me but it has amazed me as to what they planned and endured together. Certainly demonstrates a father’s commitment to see if a strategy which has a reasonably strong scientific rationale but not strong evidence might make a difference to his son’s development and independence.

It is hard to imagine the real daily challenges of the minute by minute, hour by hour behavioural and situational challenges they both experienced and then have the energy to keep a diary, take videos, do the regime of physical and mental exercises and sustain this commitment for six months. Quite an achievement. I also have a better understanding of autism on a day to day basis with ongoing examples dotted throughout the book. I am certainly enjoying some of the vivid descriptions of the African countryside, animals and people.

More than just a book for parents of children with children autism.

Bookgrouper 3

One of the questions I asked was about why he chose Africa and could the trip be duplicated locally particularly for people without the resources to travel. James indicated that for him it was useful to have travelled outside Australia because if he had stayed within Australia he might have been tempted to return home when things were tough. Being in Africa encouraged him to deal with the difficult times. That said he was of the view that the tools and interventions he used could be duplicated in other environments.

It was a very enlightening and interesting bookgroup.

Bookgrouper 4

Just a few thoughts as I said yesterday…mostly

-I am a bit inhibited when the author was there

-he explained the there was no intention of a book or film until suggested by patients or friends who had a connection with a film mob and publishing mob

-went to Africa instead of Australia as he would have tossed it in, too easy to give in locally

-offered other sons the trip as well but they didn’t want to go, not because they wanted to have a break from Sam, just had other stuff on.

-he said it was really tough a lot of the time

– Sam did a video for us as he negotiated his way out of coming ” as he does”, very generous of James to come

– met some amazing people especially people like Morton who could look at their situation objectively and have an empathy with Sam

bookgrouper 5

You can¹t really tell the Author what you thought of the writing but it was good to discuss the issues of Autism and travel.

I asked questions relating to the issue of labelling people and what that does to them and everyone else and their relationships.

Also what the concept of NORMAL is. How its a socially constructed human and cultural invention.

Its was interesting to hear The writers research on what Autism might occur and how it develops to affect parts of the brain.

Of course the discussions about Africa and its beauty was also great.

Bookgrouper 6

Sam’s dad is a man of energy and purpose. He was generous in taking about his concern that the book not be read as ‘proof’ or a ‘cure’. We talked about the role of single case studies as building blocks in the long road of research and documentation.

He described how his practice had already focussed on children when Sam came along.

The book was aimed widely at everyone with an interest in and concern for autism. While James had written non-fiction before it was a fresh insight into the writing process; sitting up late any night he could to record the day, happenstance connections leading to the filming and the publication. James knew that his editor was supportive and skilled but I don’t think he knew that Jane Palfreyman is considered by many people I know to be the best in the country.

James must think that Don is (a) his favourite patient and or (b) an excellent cook because he went all out bringing his photos from the trip to share with us and recording a video with Sam specifically for the book group.

Oh and if the soup were to ever be reported to the Nobel academy I reckon its a shoe in!

bookgrouper 7

Sams Best shot was an interesting read for me. To be honest it’s one of those books that but for (a) bookgroup I would not pick up.

That’s because of its assumed intent. Who is this book primarily targeted to? Medical circles? Well the author is a doctor. The “autism community”? Well the author is well and truly inside. The “general population”? How could I consider myself one of these?

Well into the book the author uses and repeats a phrase “this is autism”. If he had produced a thirty page brochure with the same title I reckon fewer people would have read it. A travelogue with some family dynamic and personal struggle is more likely to take a general reader (like me) beyond page 3. So if it’s trying to reach me it worked.

Still it did leave me with questions;

What’s the intent of the book?

Who is the primary target audience

Why choose the format and genre used?

Should he have included more method – academic analysis? If yes why not and if no why?

At the end I did not feel compelled to read or look for more. What does that say about me, us, and maybe the book?

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Entry filed under: australian, biography, non-fiction.

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN by JENNIFER CLEMENT SATURDAY by IAN McEWAN

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