Autism goes to School – Sharon Mitchell
Mitchell writes fictional accounts of autistic students and the schools they attend in an attempt to provide information on autism through a less threatening manner than some people perceive text books to be.
I don’t know if she improves in the latter books as I have not read them yet, but I can say that the delivery of information in this book leads to a lot of unnatural and stilted “info-dumping”. The dialogue is robotic and jarring in places where the author tries to convey the information. One of the main pieces of advice for fiction authors is to “show not tell”, which is difficult in a fictional story that also serves as a vehicle for providing autism advice.
A lot of the actual autism advice in the book is really good – with a solid perspective on acceptance and understanding what the world is like for an autistic person. It sometimes gets a bit preachy but nothing that makes it unbearable to read by any means. The use of visuals and other strategies (although they don’t suggest any form of AAC) are realistic to those that are shown to be helpful for autistic children, and there is a solid inclusion of sensory issues which have so long been overlooked. Including small things like the different types of seats that can be used to help students self-regulate are really good additions.
What is unfortunate then is that it takes until page 60 to actually get to know a likeable character in the book (Millie, the maid). The mother abandoned her autistic child and isn’t very present, the father is completely unknowledgeable and from the very beginning is positioned as ignorant and making prejudice comments (including asking why children in wheelchairs are in the same class as other children, with those children right in front of him), and the educational staff are sanctimonious and unpleasant – I don’t care how frustrating a parent is you don’t go around glaring at them and muttering snide comments, it’s just unprofessional. Then there’s Kyle – the autistic boy at the centre – who is basically Mr. Autism Stereotype and has no personality over and above the cliches of autism.
“Look. Kyle is a normal little boy. I’m not sure he belongs here. He’s not like these kids.”
Just then there was a huge wail from the back of the room. Kyle. As Ben watched, Kyle’s voice ramped up an octave and his wail became a scream that went on and on and on. He was staring at an any farm. No one was near him. Ben couldn’t see any blood or any sign that his son was hurt. Kyle just kep staring at the ant farm, screeching and flapping his arms.
Ben was frozen to the spot, but not Ms. Nicols. She brushed past him, muttering as she went, “Oh no, he’s not like these kids. None of them is screaming over an any farm.”
Part way through the book, and when the impending love story makes it’s first real appearance, it’s like the author realised that the characters were all quite unpleasant and then tries to backtrack and make them more well-rounded and likeable but it just comes across as forced and insincere because it’s like the characters have completely changed personalities rather than growing as characters. There’s a lot of inner dialogue from characters justifying their earlier behaviour but it just doesn’t work well – the exact phrases are simply repeated as an internal monologue four or five times. There’s also a more technical problem of “head jumping” – most of the book is told from the third person point of view of Ben, Kyle’s father, but every so often and only for a paragraph or two the author will randomly jump to the third person view of another character, access their thoughts for a few sentences then go back. It is incredibly jarring every time it happens.
The inconsistency issues can be distracting as well. For example, teacher Melanie informs Ben that his son has a lot of difficulty with receptive language and needs visual support for even simple instructions. Except later in the book, when they’re at the park and then her house, she speaks to Kyle in long and quite complex sentences with no visual supports mentioned (and they would be impractical given the spontaneity of their meeting) and he not only understands but responds verbally with some quite long responses- despite the fact it is hinted that he is practically non-verbal at the beginning of the book. Then it returns for a short while to Kyle struggling with expressive and receptive language, and then later (after Mel berates Ben again for using too much language) she has 4 and 5 sentence conversations with Kyle that he responds to with no difficulty. This perhaps wouldn’t be as noticeable for some people – but I found each one pulled me out of the story in a jarring way.
Mel looked at Ben. “Did you rell him to keep that towel on his head?”
“Yes. I needed his help to keep the pressure on it. I had to drive, you know?”
“Kyle, you did a good job of helping your dad. But he old meant that you had to hold it until you got to the hospital. You’re here now so it’s okay to let go. The nurse needs to take a look. She’ll help you”.
Which is a shame, this seems like an interesting premise and an accessible way to convey information on autism to new parents. I think the big problem is it reads like a power fantasy for an educational professional – everything they do works perfectly for all the students, Kyle immediately takes to them because they are so wonderful at their jobs, they have the answer to everything and are so much better than parents. I will try and read the other books in the series because I like the idea, I think it could be valuable; hopefully the author will have developed their style and resolved the issues with both character and structure in later books.
For parents, a tentative yes, but it does depend on how lenient you are towards inconsistency and technical writing issues.
Value for money?
At the time of writing, the book was free on Amazon UK in Kindle version, so at that price absolutely. For the print price of £8-9 I’m less likely to recommend it, a book being sold at that price shouldn’t have basic consistency problems and writing errors.