Sherman Oaks author to sign books at Bloomingdales for Autism Speaks

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With cornflower blue eyes wide as saucers and a head of hair with an altogether amusing mind of its own, Wills Price was an easy mark for the long-lashed blonde who captured the little boy’s tender heart. Inseparable and undeniably connected at the soul, trust was the cornerstone of this life altering friendship. She showed him a world he never knew existed – and he in turn wants to show the world that her all too early death was not in vain.

Wills is the son of acclaimed author (“Driving with Dead People”) Monica Holloway.

And the fair haired beauty in his very real love story was Wills’ beloved Cowboy, a golden retriever who miraculously and remarkably impacted the life of her autistic companion. Wills, now thirteen years old, is a ball playing middle schooler who reads zealously, is uncharacteristically social and – thanks to Cowboy – is very much living his life out loud.

A puppy mill casualty, Cowboy was one of a long line of pets welcomed into the family home – a coping mechanism that Holloway says momentarily helped soothe and detract from the crushing weight of Will’s spectrum disorder diagnosis. Hermit crabs, an adopted rabbit named Ruby, a fish filled aquarium and hamsters pre-dated the arrival of Cowboy, a frantic (and costly) pet store purchase that was the result of an otherwise futile search for a promised Christmas arrival.

Holloway chronicles her son’s puppy love story in the heartbreaking, witty (yes, witty) and compelling memoir, “Cowboy & Wills.” And she’ll be signing copies of the book tomorrow evening,  October 20, at the Sherman Oaks Bloomingdales, as spokesperson for Autism Speaks.

Holloway’s journey from mother, wife and heralded author to relentless warrior is deftly displayed in the captivating tome. The Sherman Oaks resident knew little about autism when Wills was diagnosed. “I didn’t know that there was such an enormous array of autistic traits and that the spectrum was so vast.” For the voracious reader (married to “The Simpsons” writer Michael Price) who says she doesn’t like to be without a book “if I’m going to be anywhere more than three minutes,” the daunting prognosis that her son would never read (among a litany of other “would not’s”) was unfathomable.

But together – and with the support of a knowledgeable and caring team — they’ve read “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Little Prince,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men.” And, yes, he’s even read the memoir detailing his early years. “I realized (he read the book) when one day he came out of his room with it in his hand and said to me “Hey, I kinda like myself in this.”

Monica and Wills

What’s not to like? Will was an affable child. He liked people, Holloway writes, he just didn’t know it yet. “Cowboy helped Wills turn to people for the first time in his life,” Holloway tells me. “Children came running to meet the dog, but ended up loving Wills – and with Cowboy by his side, he ended up loving them right back.”

Wills possessed an acute sensory aversion to water and bubble baths. But the day Cowboy dive bombed into the bathtub, Wills’ screams of terror gave way to screams of playful delight.

Wills never said “I love you.” He couldn’t connect the words to the feelings. Until one day, out of the blue when Holloway was driving the car with Wills and Cowboy seated in the back, the longed for words were soft and clear: “I love you” he said as he nuzzled Cowboy.

Many areas of his life shifted thanks to Cowboy’s large and looming presence -sleeping alone was not as daunting for Wills with his dog by his side.

And Wills soon was communicating his own thoughts and feelings for the first time, expressing emotions through Cowboy. “Cowboy is scared” meant Wills was scared, and his parents could respond accordingly.

But far too early in her young life, Cowboy was the one who was scared her adoring family. She was ill. Gravely ill. Valiant and stratospheric fiscal efforts to save her were thwarted by the severity of her illness. “Wills will probably never get over the loss of that amazing dog,” says Holloway. “Her legacy is that she helped Wills turn to people for the first time in his life.”

And, ironically, Holloway says that’s what allowed her to safely navigate an often harrowing path. Turning to people. “I isolated myself when Wills was diagnosed and what I really needed was information and a community of parents to turn to. Through the Autism Speaks website and Facebook page, I have found parents addressing really difficult and helpful subjects regarding autism.

“Autism Speaks also works hard to post information that they feel will help the autistic community, or at least stimulate debate and conversation. Knowledge is everything.”

Research studies and similar books are now detailing the powerful effects of animal relationships with autistic children. A New Mexico Highland University graduate student led a study on the impacts of Animal Assisted Therapy. Five year old Zachary struggled with conversation but after just three months of working with an 8 year old cattle dog named Henry, Jennifer Barol reported that the autistic boy was completing sentences for the first time.

Today Wills’ home and bed is filled with two new animal companions – dogs Buddy and Leo Henry. “Even though he loves them very much,” says Holloway, “he doesn’t need them to be in the world.”

And if things go Wills’ way, our world will be one without puppy mills. “He wants puppy mills shut down forever,” says Holloway. “That’s his goal, and he’s already written to President Obama about it. He wants the puppies in puppy mills now to be rescued and cared for – especially medical care because most of them are ill, like Cowboy was.

“Most importantly, he wants them to feel loved.”

For more information, visit Monica will appear at Sherman Oaks Bloomingdales on behalf of Autism Speaks from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday October 20 where she will sign copies of her book.

Judith A. Proffer is Vice-Chair of entertainment/media company Meteor 17, where she oversees creative development for film, television & literary projects and charitable initiatives. Co-founder and former Executive Editor of Sun Community Newspapers, she was publisher of LA Weekly and OC Weekly and is currently writing “How to Love Your Dog: A Timeless Compendium of Information and Inspiration” for her Huqua Press.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.