Odd Girl Out Laura JamesAnother NetGalley read slipped into the middle of my Virago month and Books of Summer. Thank you to Pan Macmillan for making it available via NetGalley.

“Odd Girl Out” is the story of a woman diagnosed with autism in her adult years, who surprises people with this fact when they only know the externals of her life as a busy and successful journalist and PR. When she finally discloses her status, and the raft of careful work to build her environment to be as supportive of her condition as she can that entails so much hard work on her part, she finds her people and draws comfort from other, hidden, autistic women.

It’s a very open and honest book – as what get called ‘high-functioning’ people on the autistic spectrum often are, and this is both an advantage and a disadvantage, as the sections detailing her medical procedures and addiction clinic experiences can be a little too searing at times. James does make an interesting point about the idea of the ‘spectrum’ being just that (rather than a continuum) with different characteristics appearing in different people to different extents. Therefore, she can function in interviews but has some very specific needs around comfort and her bedroom, and this is normal – or it’s her normal, anyway.

The book also touches on the important fact, really just coming to light recently, that just because girls are less frequently diagnosed as autistic than boys, it doesn’t mean they are less frequently autistic. She teases out the idea that girls, socialised to be, well, socialised, use copying neurotypical behaviour as a very strong coping mechanism. This helps them to ‘pass’ more easily (maybe unless they have co-morbidities, as James does, with issues with hypermobility, GI problems, a very delicate skin and hyper-sensitivity to drugs – still, she exhibited all this yet her autism was missed for decades). This ‘passing’, however, is much more exhausting than simply living as a neurotypical, needing hypervigilance and leading to meltdowns (for her, more melt-inwardses) and exhaustion. She’s very powerful on the hard work of maintaining that surface for the outside world.

I found the portrait of James’ marriage incredibly sad in many ways. She has happened upon a man who, although he has his own battles with depression, loves spontaneity and adventure, something she isn’t bothered with (well, is actively bothered by, but not in that way).  He asks her at one point if she ever experiences joy, and the part where she explains – to us, but not to him (although obviously he will have read the book) – that when he puts his hand on her knee to comfort her, she has to bear it, rather than drawing comfort from it, is heart-breaking. However, when he’s asked what about her autism upsets him, he looks to her wearing of a uniform rather than dressing for others, presumably in an effort not to hurt her. Still, you never really know what goes on in someone’s marriage, and it’s clear that they have found a way to hold together – more power to them.

The book is ordered very oddly, jumping around between the present, recent past and older past, with childhood scenes to boot, and I found this quite confusing, as there were few anchors in the text to remind you where you were, or links to justify the jump. Of course, in a print book, it’s easier to flick back to check. But overall it’s a valuable and good read, especially for women living with autism and their husbands, wives, parents and children, as well as for the generally interested public who like writers such as Oliver Sacks. This adds greatly to the small literature on and by women with autism, falling somewhere between Temple Grandin and Donna Williams.