My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Autism Goes to School is an easy, enjoyable read. I do not know many people with autism but I have done a fair amount of reading, and I think this book will be very good for educating people about it. The author provides a sympathetic viewpoint character, Ben, who is ignorant about autism until his son Kyle is diagnosed and Ben gains custody of Kyle. Ben makes a lot of mistakes at first but he is well-meaning and a quick study, and none of the consequences of his mistakes are ultimately very dire. The novel tells the story of Kyle’s year of kindergarten, in a mixed special needs class taught by an expert teacher, Melanie Nichols. Over the course of the year, Ben and Kyle get to know each other better, Ben learns to be a father, Melanie becomes closer to both father and son, and a romance develops between Melanie and Ben.
The book works well as education and reassurance for anxious parents, but to my mind it is less successful as fiction. I found the situation by which Ben abruptly and surprisingly finds himself a single parent to a 5-year-old with autism to be a bit contrived. There is also a minor conflict around the fate of Melanie’s mixed classroom, in which special needs and mainstream children learn together, but that is happily resolved midway through when Ben makes an impassioned speech in defense of this type of education. As a reader, I hadn’t known such classrooms existed, but the author’s words in Ben’s voice presented a strong argument.
In general I didn’t find Ben that convincing as a character, because he had very few rough edges. He stepped up admirably, almost too admirably to be believable, to the challenges dumped in his lap by his extremely irresponsible ex-girlfriend. The characters of Melanie and Millie, too, were almost too good to be true, and there wasn’t very much difference between Ben’s narrative voice and Melanie’s. Both were stoic, cheerful, hardworking, and accepting of their lot.
There were a number of sweet, heartwarming moments in this book, which made it a pleasant read, but the plot got somewhat repetitive after a while, as Ben makes yet another in a series of parenting mistakes which get Kyle into a little danger, and Melanie bails them out. Melanie clearly cares about Kyle, and Ben seems like a nice enough guy, but one wonders a bit what Melanie is getting out of this relationship. She is doing most of the heavy lifting and emotional labor; someone as beautiful and caring and helpful as she is portrayed could probably do better.
Still, the happy ending, not only for Kyle, Ben, and Melanie, but also for Ben and Melanie’s siblings, is appreciated. The story shows that autism doesn’t have to ruin relationships, and that people with autism and neurotypical people can live and work together in mutual respect, support, and love.
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