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Anne Ford's memoir: The pain and joy of raising a child with LD

Even wealth and fame didn't protect this loving mother from the challenges that come with raising a child who has a learning disability.

By Anne Ford , Linda Broatch, M.A.

In 1970, when Anne Ford's daughter, Allegra, was four years old, the family discovered that Allegra had a severe learning disability (LD). At that time, although she had a wealthy, well-connected family, it was difficult to talk about a learning disability, much less get a reliable assessment of Allegra's LD, or find a supportive learning environment for her. As Ms. Ford sought out countless doctors, schools, and tutors over several years to find help for her daughter, she developed a strong conviction that no parent of a child with LD should have to make that journey alone.

As chairman of the National Center for Learning Disabilities for 11 years (1989-2001), Ms. Ford served as a national advocate for children with LD and their families. When she stepped down from that position, she decided to write the book that eventually became Laughing Allegra, a candid and heartfelt memoir of her experiences parenting a child with LD. The book was co-written with award winning novelist and playwright, John-Richard Thompson, and took three years to complete. Published by Newmarket Press in 2003, the book offers parents both practical advice on raising children with LD and a "guide to the heart" for accepting, supporting, and advocating for their children.

We interviewed Ms. Ford on May 13, 2003, when she and Mr. Thompson were in Los Angeles as part of a national book tour to promote Laughing Allegra. What follows are edited excerpts from that interview.

Q: This is an amazingly candid and poignant book. What motivated you to write it?

Anne Ford: Working at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) for 12 years, I answered the phone, I read the mail, and I realized that there were a tremendous number of parents out there who needed, as we call it, a "guide to the heart" - a parent talking to a parent in very understandable language. I wanted them to realize that they were not alone, that there were other parents out there. And to accept the problem once they'd been told that their child had been diagnosed with learning disabilities … I had the time then and I just basically wanted to help other parents have something that I didn't have when I was going through it 25 years ago.

I really had to get my children to okay it, too, because their lives are so exposed in this book. So once they agreed, we sort of really got to it. And it was long, and it was hard, and it was painful. But Laughing Allegra really is the story of joy and hope and success. Allegra started out with a misdiagnosis of being mentally retarded when she was three-and-a-half-years-old. She was 30 when we finished the book and she's living successfully, independently, on her own.

Q: You're just beginning your national book tour to promote Laughing Allegra. What kinds of feedback are you getting from parents?

Anne Ford: Every parent who reads it sees themselves in this book and sees their child. Last night I spoke to a group of parents at a school and each one of them said, "Oh, my God, my child is Allegra." So I think by opening up as much as I did, I think it has helped parents.

Last night, there was one mother who stood up and said - she actually was crying - "I feel so guilty that I did something that caused this, and I cannot do enough for my child." And she was having a sibling problem, too. It was a very sad story. But I think a lot of parents feel guilty. I just said, "I think eventually you'll stop that feeling, but it's understandable to feel that way." I never felt I could do enough for Allegra. That's why I felt guilty, because I thought, "Maybe there will be one more doctor out there. Maybe there's one other school I didn't see or one other something that I didn't do. And I didn't do it, and that's why she is the way she is today."

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.