A Children’s Book for Mom by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Children's Books

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As some of you know, my son James has autism. He is now thirty-three, the author of four books and a well-regarded speaker in the disability community, but when he was four, he was every preschool teacher’s nightmare child. Twenty-nine years ago, teachers didn’t know much about autism, and it was considered to be primarily a behavioral disorder. Therefore, interventions focused on changing a child’s behavior. Autistic children prefer to be alone, often avoiding other children like the plague. The misguided solution to this aversion, of course, was to enroll autistic children in as many school and social programs that would tolerate them, based on the theory that the autistic children would get used to their peers when forced to sit next to them. When that didn’t happen, and when the autistic children hid under the table or in the supply closet, they were either dragged out of the closet or punished in some way. This, of course, made their aversion much worse.

I ended up buying five copies of the book, so I’d always have one on hand in case I needed a good cry.

One of the most painful situations for an autistic preschooler was circle time. According to James, circle time consisted of a closed array of noxious sights and smells pelting him from all sides, physical pain from sitting on the floor in an unnatural position, and an inability to understand what was going on because it was auditory. Story time was the absolute worst because, in order to understand a book, he had to look at the words and the pictures. Spoken words meant almost nothing to him, they were produced and vanished too quickly, and listening was highly stressful and frustrating.

Nevertheless, his preschool teacher would force James to sit with the rest of the children for story time at the end of the day, and he would rock and wiggle and hum and attempt to lie down and become a general nuisance, hoping he would be given a blessed time-out.

One day I arrived at the school a little early, when circle time torture was in full swing. James jumped up to leave, but he was ordered to sit back down and listen to the story, whereupon he started rocking and groaning and trying to lie down again. The story that he wasn’t listening to was about a lonely, alienated adult, who these days would be diagnosed with autism himself. This adult worked at a meaningless factory job, took the same route to and from work, and ate the same boring dinner every day. Then one morning, the postman arrived with a large package containing a box of chocolates and the note: “Somebody loves you.” Suddenly the man didn’t feel alone anymore, and this one package changed his life. He shared the candy with his co-workers, started helping around the neighborhood, and soon he had a wide circle of friends. The kids flocked to his house, where he fed them brownies and lemonade after school and read them stories in his backyard.

Then one day, the postman came back, and apologizing profusely, he confessed that he had delivered the box of chocolates to the wrong house. The man went into shock, of course, then realized sadly that no one loved him after all. So the next day . . .

But at that point in the story, James had a total meltdown and demanded to be taken home. He made so much noise that the teacher finally said, “Take him.”

*  *  *  *

And for years, I wondered what happened to that poor autistic man. Did he go back to his old lonely life? Was the real owner of the chocolates ever found? How did the story end? Every so often, I’d think about that book and resolve to search for it. But there was always something else to think about.

As the years passed, I forgot about the man with the meaningless job, until one day over a decade later, when I happened to be in the library, I suddenly blurted out to the librarian, “Do you know about a children’s book in which a lonely man gets a box of chocolates and it changes his life and he’s not lonely anymore but the chocolates were delivered to the wrong house?” She was about to shake her head no when a librarian in the back room shouted out, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch!” It was one of those cosmic moments in life when everything else falls away, and within a minute, I actually had the book in my hands.

With trembling fingers, I turned each page, and I was surprised that I actually remembered the story correctly. I won’t tell you what happens, but by the end of the book, I was in tears. Sloppy, snotty tears. In fact, just thinking about the ending is making me cry right now. I read the book to my kids at least a dozen times, and I cried every time. In fact, this became a ongoing joke in my family. My kids only had to say “Mr. H-a-a-t-ch,” and I’d tear up. They’d even say to their friends, “Do you want to see my mom cry? Just say, ‘Somebody loves you, Mr. Hatch.’” It worked every time.

Don’t ask me why this particular book caused that particular reaction, but I suspect that it has something to do with the author’s statement that we all have a little bit of Mr. Hatch in us. Certainly my son James was on his way to being Mr. Hatch until researchers figured out that autism is not a behavior problem but a medical one, requiring medical interventions. I ended up buying five copies of the book, so I’d always have one on hand in case I needed a good cry.

Suzy found a PDF version of the book, and although the photos are reduced, reading it for the hundredth time still brought those sloppy tears to my aging eyes. Here is the link:


Profile photo of Joan Matthews Joan Matthews

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Marian says:

    OMG, Joan, what an incredible story! How awful that happened to your son. I am by no means on the spectrum but am introverted and didn’t like to be around crowds of other kids, so I can only imagine what preschool must have been like for your son. Can’t wait to read this book, and even without having done so yet, I can completely understand why you’d cry.

    • Thank you, Marian! Teachers are much more aware of autism and social anxiety in children these days, perhaps because there is so much more of it. When we were growing up, there was an extreme emphasis on social interaction so I can imagine being on a playground full of screaming kids must have been difficult for you at times. I didn’t like it either, and I often sat on the edge of the playground waiting for recess to be over. As I told Suzy, James and I off to attend a service at a Native American Catholic Church, but when I return, I hope to read everyone else’s stories and learn about new children’s books and probably reflect on some old favorites.

  2. Suzy says:

    Joan, I love this story so much, as I told you privately when you sent it to me. We have learned about James in other stories, and this description of his preschool experience is heart-wrenching. But you were there to take him home when he melted down, just as you have always been there for him. And the story of Mr. Hatch is so lovely, and so apropos. After your description, I couldn’t wait to find out how it ended. I thought I might have to go to the library, and was delighted to find the PDF online. You and your story made my day!

    • Thank you, Suzy! And thanks for finding the book online. James and I are about to leave for Milwaukee, to attend a service of the Church of the Great Spirit, a Native American Catholic Church. It will be interesting to see how those two traditions are blended. Tomorrow is a day of sadness for Indigenous people–the day commemorating when Columbus intruded on their society–so we’ll see what they have to say about it. James’s early experiences have made him sensitive to marginalized and struggling communities, and he says that the clan mothers often ask him about autism, since it’s a problem in their children.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Joan, my heart goes out to James (and you) so entirely. While Jeffrey/Vicki isn’t that far along on the autism spectrum, she certainly was a problem in nursery school. She didn’t want to work with others on the spectacular block structures that she built (why should she? Why did everything have to be about socializing when she was all about spatial relationships and seeing things in 3-D?) She would fidgit during circle time, but it wasn’t total melt-down for her.

    But I can just visualize what James went through and how totally intolerant the teachers were (this same nursery school did not encourage David when he WAS into reading and raised their eyebrows when I told them I’d brought 10 books home from the library for us to read together; David was very shy. They just wanted to encourage him to socialize…that was the mantra of the day).

    I tried to click on the book link, but it didn’t work for me. Hopefully, I’ll be able to read it. If not, perhaps when you have a chance, you’ll tell me off-line how it ends. And I totally understand your sense memory that brings you to tears with even the mention of the title. Catharsis is a wonderful thing. Tell us about this interesting service you are attending, also, please.

    • Hi, Betsy:

      It saddens me that so many of our children or grandchildren have issues that were almost unknown when we Boomers were kids. Just look at the comments to this story. Fortunately, there is a lot more understanding of differences and special talents (like early reading and spatial awareness) these days in young children, and socialization doesn’t seem to be the big deal that it was before computers. Ironically, the highly socialized kids had the hardest time with Zoom schooling, whereas introverts like my daughter Julia actually liked it.

      I’m sorry the link didn’t work. Try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGAS_Aj85cA. It’s a video of virtual story time.

      I enjoyed seeing the photo of you and your husband on Facebook after the Boston marathon. It’s quite a big deal to qualify.

      The Indian church ceremony was amazing–hopefully, I can write about it for Retrospect. It was a Catholic service, but the hymns were in Native languages, and instead of an organ or a piano, the accompaniment was a huge drum played by multiple people.

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        You make great points, Joan. Socialization is good, but isn’t the be all and end all. It may be the task for 3 and 4 year olds, but other accomplishments can be applauded as well. Your observation about who best succeeded on Zoom is really interesting.

        Thanks for the YouTube link. Via email, Suzy gave me the link to your lovely book. No wonder you and James loved it so much. I did too. What a kind, empathic book, worth remembering forever!

        I loved your comment on my photo from 1980 (from the start of the race). These days, security is so tight (after the bombings 8 years ago), no one can really run without a number, but it used to be such a fun event. My husband ran it several times (his personal best was a 2:48 – damn good, but not that year. It was very hot and he “hit the wall” at Heartbreak Hill. We had friends who lived there, so he collapsed and remained there. We lived near the finish line in the Back Bay, which is where I waited, so I got to see cheater Rosie Ruiz come in and snapped her photo). Now we live around the corner from Heartbreak Hill. I did go out to the course yesterday. Many fewer people and security is so tight, it just isn’t as much fun. But still inspiring to see all the runners go by.

        The service you attended sounds so interesting. I hope you do write about some day. With so many prompts already, maybe there is one that fits. One from a long time ago is “faith” – would that work?

        • The marathon was yesterday? It was in April when I ran it. We Bandits were all given a number (0000), an unofficial certificate at the end, and a blanket. And those wonderful college students cheered for us along the way as if we were real runners. (My time was 4:33.) I can’t even imagine 2:48.

          • Betsy Pfau says:

            COVID-delayed from April. First time in 125 years. It was only run virtually last year. But (assuming all goes well), it will return to its rightful spot on Patriot’s Day (3rd Monday in April) next year.

            The “Wall of Scream” as the area in front of Wellesley College is known. They are the best. But BC (just east of where I live) has started to come out strong as well. So nice that you were given some sort of number, certificate and a blanket at the end. I don’t think they’d let unofficial runners on the course now, for security reasons. There are still runners out there at 8 hours. For them the race is even more grueling!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    As the grandmother of twins on the autistic spectrum, your description of how James felt at circle time and why he felt that way was spot on. At my preschool, which the twins attended, we never forced kids to sit in that circle. They could sit on a chair where they felt safe and participate as they were able or they could skip it and do something different with an aide. I just read the book from the link and, of course, it made me cry. One of the twins texts with me every day for at least an hour, and every night I text her that I love her. How ironic that this was the book they were trying to force James to sit in the circle to hear. The teacher obviously didn’t gain any wisdom from that book.

    • Hi, Laurie, that preschool sounds a lot more enlightened than Jame’s back in the early 1990s. Autism was still a rarity, but the autism baby boom was just starting, and now there is a lot more awareness of their needs. How old are the twins now, and how are they doing? I’m glad you were able to finish the book–the ending is so sweet. Uh-oh…I feel the tears coming.

  5. This was a wonderful narrative, intertwining a retelling of the “Mr. Hatch” picturebook with the events in the life of you and your child, and for social context you also provided a brief sketch of the history of how our society has looked at people with autism. Finally, with the link that you provided, we each got to find out more about the “happy ending” on our own. That was fun and riveting.

    • Thank you, Dale. Suzy found the link, and I’m glad you were able to experience the happy ending along with me. It’s hard to describe, isn’t it,. You had to see it. Awareness of autism has come a long way since those preschool days, and I’m not even sure circle time exists these days, given Covid restrictions. Interestingly, when James was thirteen, he volunteered at the YMCA children’s drop-in center, where he encountered a growing number of kids on the spectrum, who were hiding in corners, lining up blocks by themselves, and trying to be invisible. He was able to work with them, giving them positive play experiences (which he said were the opposite of what neurotypical kids wanted when they played), and in a sense, he replaced his own negative experiences with those happy ones.

  6. Thank you for this story Joan and for Mr Hatch. You may remember I commented on another story about your son and told you about my autistic nephew Michael who is about the same age as James. Michael is no where near high-functioning as your more fortunate son, but he’s in a wonderful county-run program in Rockville, MD and living in a wonderful group home.

    And as a retired librarian I’m delighted to hear it was a librarian who helped you find the book that is so meaningful to you!

    • I’m so glad that Michael has good living situation. So many autistic adults fall through the cracks. Is he able to work as part of the program?

      The librarians in our community are the best. Before the Internet, they offered a telephone reference service, which as an editor, I used all the time. They were like a living Google, finding answers to the craziest questions I asked.

      • Yes Joan, thankfully Michael is able to work. His abilities are such that his work is menial, but it gives him a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.

        We are so happy he has a good placement with a caring staff and congenial housemates!

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    I agree with the other comments—a wonderfully clear and sensitive description of the trials James went through, and your own emotional connection. The link didn’t work for me either, but I will try it on the computer and not the phone. Thanks for sharing this story.

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    Just got the pdf of the story–heartwarming indeed! As the Beatles said, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” You have given much love, and may it be returned many times over.

  9. Oh, Joan, it’s just chilling to think about how many autistic children have been misunderstood over the ages, and undoubtedly continue to be misunderstood by some. Your personal and deeply moving story deserves to be read by a wider audience, and you’re such a fine writer…I hope you’re sharing elsewhere as well.

    • Hi, Barbara: I often cringe to think of all the ways I tortured James without knowing it. I should have just pulled him out of the circle and gone home, but I didn’t know what was going on inside him, because he didn’t have the language to tell me. Because of his amazing memory, he is able to recall all the times I messed up or he had a meltdown, and now he can tell me why he reacted the way he did. It all makes sense NOW!

  10. Risa Nye says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story! My little grandson may be experiencing some of these same feelings (he can wear noise reducing headphones at preschool when he feels he needs to). I cannot wait to read this book, with a tissue at the ready. And I am so impressed with your son’s accomplishments as an author and public speaker. He is providing a great service, and you should be very proud of him (and yourself!).

  11. How old is your grandson now? Teachers have a lot more awareness of social and sensory issues than they had in the early 1990s. That’s wonderful that he is allowed to wear noise-reducing headphones. James had a terrible problem with noise sensitivity until he was about 13, then noises stopped bothering him. Listening to music helped him a lot because it was organized sound. I am extremely proud of him, and because he is older than the autistic baby boomers, he can share his experiences with parents of younger children, to help them know what might be in store.

  12. Dave Ventre says:

    I love this story, and you told it very well. I knew a boy back in grammar school whom I now think was autistic; then we just considered him strange. A teacher actually (secretly) gave me the assignment of being his friend so he would not feel completely isolated. I tried, but have never been sure how well I did.

    There is one work of art that has a similar effect on me as that book did on you. I suspect a good many of us have one or two. Mine is a song by Steve Goodman called “The Dutchman.” To be exact, there is ONE LINE in the song that rips me up. As I type this and merely think of the line I get misty.

    “Sometime he think’s he’s alone and he calls her name.”

    There I go again, dammit….

    • Thank you, Dave. It must have been quite a challenge for you to try to befriend that “strange” boy. It’s a challenge, even for parents, to know whether a child wants to have friends or wants to be alone, especially if they cannot articulate what they want.

      So you have a tear-jerking line, too? So does Betsy. Maybe a future prompt should be, “Songs or stories that always make you cry.”

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