Patrick Hardy, 42, is a well-known spokesperson for autism, thanks to a book series called My Friend Sam, which presents the daily struggles that children who are diagnosed with autism deal with every day, inspired by his son Samuel, now 11 years old.

The books, intended for a young audience, have done a lot to educate people about what it is like to live with autism. Patrick hopes the books will also help with decreasing bullying towards autistic children and youth. Originally written in French, the series now has three titles, with more on the way. The books have been sold in Canada and overseas, and have been translated into English as well as many other languages, such as Vietnamese. A truly inspiring accomplishment for this loving father and son duo.

Few people know that this prolific author, illustrator, and artist has another personal accomplishment very dear to his heart: he has been smoke-free for the past 11 years. And much like his book series, it was thanks to his son Samuel that he found a new passion: tobacco-free living! Contacted by the NBATC, Patrick was eager to share his journey.

“I started smoking cigarettes when I was 19,” he recalls. “I was hitchhiking across Canada and I started smoking to pass the time. I was young, and broke, so you know I could not even afford real cigarettes. I would buy tobacco and roll my own cigarettes.”

What started as just a few cigarettes here and there to pass time on the road eventually became a full-fledged addiction.

“By the time I made it back to my home in Montreal, I was officially a smoker. I would smoke one pack a day and that increased to two packs per day. This continued on for a long time throughout my twenties and into my early thirties.”

Patrick would eventually move to Moncton, New Brunswick, to be with his future wife Diane, who had grown up in the region. In 2006, they welcomed their son, Samuel, into the world.

“I never knew I could love someone so much. Of course, I did not want to smoke around my son and I didn’t, but I was starting to get scared thinking about his future and how I did not want to miss any milestones. Maybe I would not be around to see his graduation or his wedding or my future grandchildren if I kept smoking.”

Patrick tried to stop smoking a few times that year, just by quitting cold turkey, but it was very rough. He struggled with depression, had low energy and felt like he could not function very well. The addiction was too engrained.

“Quitting cold turkey was not working for me, so eventually I realised I needed to try a different, more gentle approach. I started to simply reduce my tobacco consumption, all the while managing my cravings with nicotine patches. My baby boy was now one year old. Having seen him grow up and change so much that first year, I felt like time was moving too fast. I was more and more motivated to be successful in my attempt to quit smoking because I wanted to make sure I would not miss anything in his life. I also found some new strategies to distract me from smoking. Every time I had the urge to smoke, I would play with my son instead or draw and work on my illustrations when he was napping or in bed.”

One day passed, then two days and then a week. The weeks accumulated into months and Patrick eventually quit smoking altogether.

“After about a month after you quit smoking, you start being able to smell what tobacco really smells like again; and how gross it is. The smell still lingered on some of my clothes. I was so ashamed of this smell. I never want to smell like that again!”

“Today, I don’t even think about cigarettes – ever!”

While Patrick’s passion for the arts did provide a distraction from smoking, he admits it might have contributed to reinforcing the unhealthy habit when he was younger. “It’s really tempting to smoke in the art world. We all know the stereotype of the tortured artist fiddling with his cigarette. I studied visual arts in college and back then, we could smoke inside the classroom. I was such a heavy smoker that I even remember at one point using cigarette butts in my paintings! I thought they added a cool texture.”

Of course, Patrick’s son, Samuel, not only inspired him to live a healthier tobacco-free lifestyle but would also eventually become the basis for his Autism Awareness book project.

“My son has Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the least affected of the 7 levels of the disorder. He’s a pretty typical kid in a lot of ways, but there are daily challenges. Social aspects of hugging and playing with other kids do not come naturally to Sam; we had to teach him these behaviours as well as a lot of other normal behaviours that we expect from people in society. He has a teacher’s aide with him all the time at school. We’re very proud of him and his achievements. But I remember when he was first diagnosed. He was three years old. I was not sure what the future would hold nor how I would have the type of bond that I wanted with my son. There was a lack of information out there on what it’s really like to live day to day with autism. We had to learn a lot as we went.”

”Turns out that my son is very creative and has the same interest in art. The book series has helped us bond tremendously. He helps me with the illustrations. We collaborate on it. For example, in the third book, he helped me colour the drawings. He also signed his name. It is such a joy to have this special project with him. He’s very excited about it.”

With autism levels on the rise, Patrick hopes his books will better prepare younger generations for things to come. “There is still a lot to learn about autism and yet there is still so much misinformation. These books not only teach children about autism and all of its intricacies, but they also teach parents, when they read them with their children.”

Today, Patrick is very thankful to have been able to see his son grow up in a smoke-free household. “Any child with special needs demands a lot of energy from his or her parents. I have so much more energy now than I had when I was a smoker. I used to get winded just going up a few stairs! Plus, I’ve noticed that I get sick less often, it’s like my immune system has gotten better. Because I don’t smoke, I can be a lot more present with him and I have the energy and health to really be there for him and help him overcome those daily little struggles.”

“I feel like if you choose to smoke, every cigarette you smoke is another nail you add to your coffin,” Patrick concludes. “I have so much love for my son, he’s everything to me. I want to be there as he gets older.”

Bravo Patrick! You and Samuel are truly an inspiration!

Learn more about the My Friend Sam book series here:

Learn more about Patrick’s art and graphic design work here:

Story and photos used with permission from Patrick Hardy.

Published in July 2017.

By Nathalie Landry – NBATC Communications Coordinator.