M in the Middle – The Students of Limpsfield Grange
In 2015, the students of Limpsfield Grange were the subject of a documentary about themselves and their experiences in the only state-funded school for girls with autism. Since then they’re consulted and worked with Vikki Martin on two books: the previously reviewed M is for Autism, and this one.
While M in the Middle was a shorter introduction to M just before her diagnosis of autism, this is a full-length novel. M is struggling to come to terms with her diagnosis of autism against a backdrop of family breakdown, inappropriate educational provisions, bullying and uncertainty.
I’m going to wonder outright whether this book is the first in a series and follow up with a hope that this is the case; otherwise this is a book full of story strands that are left unresolved and a number of events that leave you feeling a little frustrated at how they were dealt with. I had a rubbish time at secondary school and yet even with my school and their inability to meet my needs, the school staff and student body were not collectively as awful as those in this book. Hyperbole and character exaggeration are of course hallmarks of fiction but the sheer unpleasantness of so many of the characters in this book was a bit too much at times.
There’s also a particular story-line that is really jarring (and somewhat familiar for those who have watched the documentary), where M has developed an intense interest (perhaps special interest) in one particular male student at her school – who she calls Lynx. The way the book is written, I think we are meant to fully sympathise with M when she gets pulled up on the fact that she has saved and stored literally thousands of photos of her crush on a school laptop rather than doing any school work. M’s mother tries to argue with the school staff and I think we’re meant to agree that it is a harmless way for M to express herself. The problem is, in real life M would almost certainly need help managing and self-regulating her intense focus on individual people. Regardless of intentions, for the individual who is the focus of this intense interest, it’s going to scare them and that is just as understandable.
“Over 20,000 pictures of the Year 10 boy downloaded onto a school laptop.”
“It’s a school girl crush. A crush. We’ve all had crushes.”
“All kids are looking at each other on the internet, on their phones, these days. You should know that, Bloody hell…we’re all probably stalkers.”
There’s also some of the divisive “Autistic vs NT” stuff once a second autistic character is introduced later in the book and I have to admit that this always makes me despair because this is a tired theme in so many online autism communities that never helps anyone.
There are good parts to this book though, there’s a sympathetic look at how a mother and daughter are both struggling to understand each other and work towards finding a place where an autistic person can be accepted and get a good education. The tensions within the family environment are also well written – even if the brother and dad are sometimes excessively unpleasant much like the school staff. It also does a really good job of demonstrating how the different diagnostic criteria for autism can present in girls. Too often we read “Oh autistic traits are different in girls, the diagnostic criteria doesn’t work for girls”, which isn’t actually true – our problem lies in the fact that the diagnostic criteria isn’t being considered from different perspectives. Autistic girls still meet the exact same diagnostic criteria as boys it’s just some present those same traits in different contexts and ways. This book demonstrates that very well.
A BOMB exploded when Mr Bray announced that the surprise was the staff performing a carol concert for us in the Main Hall, lesson 2. The class roared and groaned and Mr Bray SHOUTS.
“Quiet down 8B.”
The timetable has collapsed. Time was officially broken and defunct. Order has escaped through the fractures and cracks and now HAVOC!
It is also a somewhat empowering book for teenage girls recently diagnosed with autism. There are not many books with autistic characters, of those that do exist – many have male characters. That makes this book particularly important as it also draws on the experiences of a range of autistic girls and for such a media to exist is important. As mentioned earlier, I hope this is the first book in a series and that some of the things that I didn’t enjoy very much such as the lack of discussion around how Lynx might be affected by M’s intense focus will be addressed in later books in the series. If I were to guess, I would say that the end goal is likely for M to end up at a fictional version of Limpsfield Grange School where she is both accepted and helped to manage in a world that isn’t always very well set up for people on the autistic spectrum whilst appreciating that there does not need to be this harsh ASD/NT divide.