When I reviewed the book M is for Autism, I said I wanted to hear more about this girl who calls herself “M.” I lost my copy of the book, and when I went on Amazon to buy a new one I discovered the students and their teacher had written a sequel. I was hand-flapping excited (though I tried to tone that down when I told Mom I ordered them).
Both books arrived yesterday, and I was so startled by M in the Middle‘s thicker size that for a moment I thought they sent the wrong book. But no, it’s a longer novel. I missed the colorful pages of M is for Autism, but they occasionally play with the fonts and type to help M communicate.
I re-read M is for Autism last night to prepare for the sequel. I was a little surprised by *just* how short it is; I think that I was so engrossed in the scenes and M’s mind when I first read it that it felt “bigger.” I loved it just as much the second time.
I was impressed by the consistency of the character and her voice between the two books. Our main character and narrator is now in year 8 in England (7th grade, here in the States). She got her autism diagnosis a year ago, and her wonderful therapist has been helping her understand herself and develop strategies for dealing with her often-crippling anxiety.
I do want to caution those of you who struggle(d) with anxiety. The authors do an incredible job of provoking empathy for their anxious narrator. Pretty much any time M was taking deep breaths or using another calming strategy, I found myself taking deep breaths along with her. I read the book in one day – partly because it was so good, and partly because I didn’t want to drag out my time living in her anxious mind.
We get a fuller picture of M’s life in this longer book. She deals with INCREDIBLY frustrating adults who do pretty much the opposite of what this poor girl needs, fueling her anxiety and pushing her towards mutism. She encounters a few people who get her, show her kindness, and help her find her voice again. She has “friends” who turn into horrible bullies and she has friends. She has an obsessive crush on an older boy, and wonders if she can have a “normal” future. She tries so hard to fit in. She tries so hard to have friends. She tries so hard to do the right things at school. She tries so hard to combat her anxiety. She tries so hard to connect with her family while recognizing she can’t do the things they want her to do to show that connection. She tries. So. Damn. Hard.
While 13-year-old me didn’t have all the same struggles and experiences, I related to a lot of what she goes through.
Again, the authors share some truly insightful thoughts through M’s words. Here are a few I made note of as I read.
About her mother (p. 113):
She was delighted when we got the diagnosis. She was reading books and web pages and talked about us going to meetings and then she just seemed to stop. Like she stopped believing I had autism or maybe when the reality of it began to unfold it all became too difficult. . . .
But I’ve been carrying it around with me my whole life. This is my reality, and does she realise how difficult that is?
About trying to “crack the friendship code” (p. 115):
And even though the truth is I love being on my own, I feel a desire to fit in and have friends. Like it’s part of my purpose on earth. I’m hardwired to fit in! . . . I want to be accepted by my fellow human beings, but it really is so much easier on my own, and I retreat back to my little pink room, back to the security of my bed and blanket and the comfort of Skylar, season 5, episode 7.
When her mother suggests she write down how she feels, to let her feelings “out into the world” (p. 169-170):
Is it like letting Bella out into the back garden? I haven’t got a back door. I can’t just open a door to me and let my feelings out into the world. Is that what everyone else is doing? Am I surrounded by other people’s feelings that they’ve let out?? Do I pick them up as I pass someone in town or do other people’s anger or jealousy latch on to me as I walk down a corridor? And is that why I get so anxious? I’ve picked up all the dumped emotions everyone else has let out into the world and I have an extra quota of feelings?
While writing this, I recalled watching the video about the Limpsfield Grange School girls (where this book was written). I just realized that one of the plot points (involving the crush’s photos) was inspired by a real experience of a girl at that school.
I strongly recommend this pair of books – for autistic girls to feel less alone, and for people who aren’t autistic girls to stretch their empathy muscles. It’s an emotional ride, but they both end with glimmers of realistic hope.