Mini-Review: M in the Middle

M.

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).

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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.

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This is what happens when you have autistic girls write a novel about an autistic girl.

 

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.

Lessons from Speech Class

This month I finished my last class for my associate degree in Information Sciences and Technology. It was a speech class.

More accurately, it was a class focused on the “Principles of communication, implemented through analysis and evaluation of messages, with some attention to formal speaking and group discussion.” Unlike the on-campus offering where you take turns giving short speeches in front of the class, this course focused more on analyzing messages. I chose CAS 100C instead of 100B, to avoid having to do group work.  (I’m so over group work. See image below)

group project

This class was a LOT of writing, which translated into a LOT of time spent on it each week.  I’ve been called a “good writer,” but it takes time for me to write.  Especially when it involves the need to read (and sometimes find) scholarly articles that are to be cited in that week’s essay.  In addition to the weekly essays, we had to write and record two 6-8 minute speeches as our midterm and final.

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I was really fighting my perfectionism this semester.  No matter how many times I reminded myself that my grade didn’t matter, no matter how many managers at work (2) told me to chill out and “just pass,” no matter how many times my boss guaranteed the grade would have no impact on my job. . . . I just couldn’t not care.  I tried SO HARD to turn in work that wasn’t up to my personal standards, yet I still ended the class with an A.  The professor even asked if she could share some of my work with the rest of the class as good examples.

Before this class, I had started learning more about the Enneagram, and I was suspecting that I’m a type 1, the “Perfectionist.”  My excruciating struggle with my performance in this class made this pretty obvious.  I’m thinking about doing more investigation regarding Aspergers and the Enneagram.

One day early in the semester, my boss and I got out of the office for lunch.  He could tell I was struggling (perhaps the fact that I was on the brink of tears clued him in).  Bemused, he reminded me that I just have to pass.  I told him the story of the inspirational “Do your best at not doing your best” image on my phone.

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He said, “I have one better than that.  Do your best at the things that matter.”

He then elaborated, talking about the need to evaluate my priorities, and to make sure I’m spending time and effort on the important things, like relationships.  Basically, if I’m getting a lower grade because I’m playing video games, that’s bad.  If I’m getting a lower grade because I’m focusing on doing well at work, and volunteering at church, and investing in relationships, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Even though I had a tough time following my manager’s advice, I’m extremely grateful that he gave it.

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A big revelation came after I received my final feedback for the class.

I had been super anxious about recording the two big speeches.  Like most people, I don’t enjoy public speaking.  But since I was recording this instead of presenting it to live people, that wasn’t the big reason for anxiety.  We were supposed to use an “extemporaneous” delivery for these speeches, having only words and short phrases on our note cards.  That really stressed me out.  Like most people on the spectrum, I can struggle with verbal communication.  I do much better when I have the time to carefully think out how I want to word something.  And when I have that time, I think I do it well.  I like making sure I get the words right to communicate effectively.  That is really hard to do “on the fly,” when I have a time limit in which to speak all of my main points, research, arguments, transitions, etc.

Our professor gave us a good strategy for how to deliver an extemporaneous speech.  We were to write out the full-sentence outline of the speech, then turn that into an outline of key words and phrases.  We could memorize the introduction, since it’s beneficial to have those introductory words “just right,” and it would give us more confidence for the rest of the speech.  But the rest was supposed to be based off of the short outline on our note cards.  She recommended we rehearse from the short outline, starting over again from the beginning any time we faltered and forgot details.  I tried this for the first speech, but as I rehearsed I found that I was really struggling with getting the words right, so I ended up writing way more on my note cards than I was “supposed” to.

For the second speech, I was reminding myself again that I just had to pass the class, which essentially meant I just had to turn in a speech.  Any speech.  Even a terrible speech.  I would still pass.  I had found enough sources to meet the assignment requirements, done a lot of thinking and synthesizing, sorted the ideas into main points, and had written up my full-sentence outline.  I simply didn’t have time to do the full-blown rehearsal to learn the speech, and I didn’t care if I got points docked for the delivery.  So I printed the entire outline on sheets of paper and cut them in half to be more note-card-sized.  That way, I could glance down and see EXACTLY how I wanted to say it.  (As I made edits to the content, I left the original outline file intact, so I could turn in something that was slightly different than what I said in the video, in case the professor compared them.  I’m sneaky like that.)

I recorded my speech two or three times and called it a night.  A few days later, I got the grade, along with this feedback:

“Really good extemporaneous and conversational delivery.”

Wait, what?  I had the whole thing written out!  I thought you said it would be obvious if we were reading from the page? I rehearsed, but in the end I was essentially reading it word-for-word from my printed outline.  How did I manage to fool you?

Then I realized: Oh.  Right.  I’m autistic.

Writing out words before I say them is a coping skill I developed long ago.  I need to call the mechanic to get a few issues looked at?  I’d better write it out.  I’m going to have a difficult conversation with a boyfriend?  I’d better write out some key points, because once the emotions hit I’m going to struggle to remember what I wanted to say and how to say it.

  • For my non-autistic classmates, reading their speech would be obvious.  They wouldn’t sound conversational.
  • For me, trying to speak off-the-cuff from an outline would leave me stumbling over words, pausing awkwardly mid-sentence, and anxious.  I wouldn’t sound conversational.

I was highly amused when I realized that for me to “pass” as an NT giving an extemporaneous speech, I had to use my coping skill of writing everything out.  I then had to fake being spontaneous and conversational in my delivery as I read, which of course is something I have unconsciously been practicing for years!

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To me, this was a good lesson in respecting who I am.  I have to remember that my brain, my struggles, and my skills are not typical.  The path I take to get to a goal will not always look like the path my peers take.  I also learned how fortunate I am to have people in my life, like the managers at work, who care enough about me to give me good advice and moral support when I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown.  Finally, I learned that I’m absolutely done with school for the foreseeable future!

 

Now that the homework is over, I have time for activities I truly enjoy, such as photography.

Now that the homework is over, I have time for activities I truly enjoy, such as photography.