M is for autism is written by the girls at Limpsfield Grange School – a residential special school for girls with autism, speech, language and communication difficulties and emotional vulnerabilities. The girls felt that there was nothing that really explained what it was like to be a teenage girl with autism and that this could leave girls feeling alone, misunderstood and without a simple way of helping others to understand how the world looks, sounds and feels when standing in their shoes.
So they thought they’d write, and illustrate, their own.
They have done so rather marvellously with support from Vicky Martin, a creative writing tutor who has enabled the girls to put into words and pictures the story of M, a teenager with autism. We follow M’s journey from younger childhood where she is constantly overwhelmed by how loud, busy and difficult the world is to understand and where she is ruled by anxiety and rituals. M is unsure how other people manage in this tipsy-turvy world and is often left feeling like a naughty kid as a result of her difficulties and consequent behaviours.
We learn about M’s relationship with her counsellor – these interactions are really quite humorous at times and help to make the counsellor – child relationship feel less scary and more easy to comprehend. For example, M often refers to ‘counsellor silence’ “She does this sometimes when she wants me to think about things” – this both injects humour and also helps to clearly convey a typical aspect of the counsellor-client relationship which would make this feel less intimidating for a young person just starting out with a counsellor.
One of the aspects of the book that I most enjoyed is that the girls have also imagined the world from the point of view of M’s mum. Just what is it like to be the parent of a girl with undiagnosed autism? One gets the impression from the parts of the book told in M’s mother’s voice that it is lonely, scary and you are left feeling like you’re speaking a different language to the rest of the world. To M’s mother it’s very obvious that her daughter is somehow different and special, but it’s very hard for her to get anyone to take that seriously or help her to work out how best to support M and enable their relationship to flourish – difficult when a child does not respond to you within a frame of reference you, as a parent, understand and feel comfortable with.
Within the book we see M work through the process of diagnosis and deal with the feelings around that, we see her work within a framework of professional support and start at a new school. But most importantly of all, we see her doing normal teenage things. We see her navigate crushes and parties – tough for any teen, but with its own set of challenges for M. This book will make any teenage girl with autism feel more understood, less alone and it will give them hope. M isn’t given a fairy-tale happy ending, but we see her gain a better understanding of how to be within a difficult world – and by the end of the book, she feels ready to live a ‘gloriously fulfilled life…. With guidance and support…. With ups and downs…. With autism.”
I read this in one sitting. It is both compelling, beautiful and utterly engaging. I’d highly recommend it to young people with autism (especially, but not exclusively girls), to their families and friends, to the adults who care for or work with them and to anyone else who would like a glimpse into this sweet and sour world.