Book Excerpt: "Laughing Allegra" — A Guide to the Heart
|The following excerpt is from the introduction from Anne Ford's book, Laughing Allegra: The Inspiring Story of a Mother's Struggle and Triumph Raising a Daughter with Learning Disabilities.|
..."I think mom has done well telling those people out there that you CAN get help. I didn't want my life in a book at first, so I told mom that and we talked it over and after I talked with mom I thought about it. If it helps other kids, then we should do it, and so I told my mom 'ok.' "
— email from Allegra Ford
In 1972, I was living in Manhattan with my six-year-old son Alessandro and my newborn daughter Allegra. We had a very happy life, with no sign of trouble on the horizon. Alessandro was in kindergarten and was doing fine and Allegra was a happy, healthy baby. This continued for four years, but then our lives took a turn that forever altered the course of our future. My daughter began to exhibit what I thought at first was a small behavior problem. This problem soon escalated into something I had never seen or imagined before. When I tried to find help, I was confronted by a medical establishment that offered me conflicting opinions and seemed to know as little about her condition as I did. This uncertainty was the beginning of a terrifying and bewildering ordeal, filled with dire predictions from all sides telling me that my child's education and future prospects and even her happiness were in question.
I had no signposts to follow back then. I had no idea what to do or who to turn to. Worst of all was the crushing sense of isolation, the feeling that I was the only one going through it and that no one could possibly understand. I even had difficulty talking to my own family about this. My father was extremely busy as the head of the Ford Motor Company and was always traveling. My mother, although she was nearby, had instilled the concepts of discretion and stoicism in us at an early age. Problems were something to be handled quietly, preferably without imposing them on anyone else. Nothing in my background or upbringing prepared me to handle this new, unexpected challenge.
What was the cause of all this confusion and pain? It is something that sounds very simple, but it is not. It is complex and devastating, not only for the child but also for the entire family.
It is called a learning disability. Most people equate a learning disability with dyslexia — reversing letters and words — and that is, indeed, a form of LD. But there are varying levels of severity, some mild and some so severe that every aspect of a child's life is affected: reading a book, playing a game, interacting with other children. Such ordinary daily occurrences as these have the potential to become a confusing, often paralyzing, ordeal and can turn what should be a happy childhood into a life of endless frustration and isolation.
LD is a neurological disorder. Information isn't processed as straightforward information but as a chaotic jumble of words, numbers, and thoughts tumbling over each other in the brain. Social cues are often misunderstood and can lead to tension in relationships. Often attention deficit disorder will accompany LD, adding more confusion and disorder to the mix. This is not mental retardation, autism, or Down's syndrome, and often there is no outward sign of the turmoil within.
When Allegra was diagnosed with multiple severe learning disabilities in 1976, there was little or no literature on LD and I was going through this on my own. I needed information to explain my daughter's condition and what I could do to help her, but I also needed a guide to the heart. I needed to connect with someone who had been through it already and could offer words of comfort and the simplest reassuring statement a parent can hear: "Your child will be fine."
I didn't have that, and that is my reason for writing this book, to enlighten parents and give them hope and help guide them on their oftentimes-treacherous journey. Laughing Allegra is the book I could not find when I needed help. It is not an academic work. I have access to many of the leading experts in the field of learning disabilities, but I have chosen to stay close to my own experience and opinions — not because I discount those of the experts but because my intention is to be the friend across the table, the one who listens and shares lessons learned through similar experiences. It is critical for parents to seek out the advice of teachers, pediatricians, and other experts. At the same time, there is great value in simply knowing that someone else understands exactly what you are going through, feels the same emotions, and has suffered the same doubts and fears.