Thursday, December 8, 2016

‘M in the Middle’ portrays girl’s experience of autism

Book cover, 'M in the Middle.' Colored-in drawing of pale-skinned girl with dark hair rendered in profile
M, a teenager recently diagnosed with autism, navigates school and social expectations while plagued by near-constant anxiety. She tries to shape her life to follow the “normal” life-event trajectory as defined by the greeting cards at her local Card Emporium and the idyllic life depiction of her television-drama idol, but can’t sustain the social “masks” she adopts to navigate friendship and dating.

M in the Middle (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, October 2016) offers a vivid portrayal of a teen girl on the autism spectrum. The book was written by the students of Limpsfield Grange School in England with creative-writing teacher Vicky Martin.

These teens sought to combat ignorance in society about how girls experience autism, and with M in the Middle, they created a story that is narrated by a girl who has autism.

As a reader, I was often frustrated on M’s behalf — when, for example, a school authority figure dismisses her diagnosis as a medical “fad” or assumes M is using it as an excuse to get out of things she doesn’t want to do. It especially angered me that an incident of bullying, in which M was the target, resulted in M being excluded from school while her bullies went unpunished.

The writers’ treatment of M’s passionate interest is at its best when they show M acting on that interest, downloading thousands of pictures of a boy she likes onto a school laptop. This single scene was more powerful, conveyed more impact for this reader, than portions of text that consist of the boy’s name rendered over and over and over again.

There was much I could relate to in the character of M, but because of where I am at in life — a grown woman and paralibrarian herself who is on the autism spectrum — the character in this book that I related to most strongly was “Julia,” M’s school librarian.

At one point, M speculated that, based upon autism prevalence, at least one staff member at her school would be on the autism spectrum. M didn’t flag the librarian as the possible autistic staffer, but Julia seems to draw upon expertise from personal experience when relating to M.

“They don’t do clocks with ‘after lunch’ and ‘first thing,’ do they?” Julia comments to M, after Miss Twinnings, the school’s head of pastoral care, has given M her latest vague approximation of when she’ll meet M in the library.

Julia, with her intuitive knowledge, offers a vivid contrast to Miss Twinnings, who continually touts the single course she’s taken in “autism awareness.”

Miss Twinnings seems to apply what she learned from that training as if M were less a person and more a “textbook case” of autism. There’s an expectation that M will respond exactly how Miss Twinnings wants, if Miss Twinnings gives her the right input.

Ultimately, I’d recommend this book for a library collection. It offers a vivid and compelling portrayal of a girl on the autism spectrum, and will hopefully do much to promote understanding of how the condition manifests in girls.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinion expressed is my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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