Maria and the World – Lucille Méranger

Maria and the World

  • Gallardo Maria et Miguel, Maria et Moi (titre original Maria y Yo), Rackham, 2010 (édition française)

Maria and Me was written and illustrated by Miguel and Maria Gallardo in 2008. This book tells the story of Maria and her father during one of their summer vacations. It is a true testimony of her father’s love for her. He wants to express how unique she is, and tries to explain how his daughter functions in her everyday life. Maria is a twelve-year-old autistic girl, whose behavior can seem odd from a stranger’s point of view. This book offers a perspective on autism in general, and more specifically on Maria’s. There is not just one type of autism. This has led to the concept of autism spectrum disorder which is why this handicap is quite difficult to capture and understand. As not all autists are affected the same way by the handicap, it seems only natural that they all function and behave in different manners in similar situations. There are, of course, similarities between autistic people, such as a difficulty to communicate, a need for boundaries and a different perception of the world. Through this book, Maria’s father explains her particularities in a simple way which is accessible to adults and children. This book allows the reader to reach a better understanding of autism in a general and individual way and also through the author’s personal point of view.

            Though autism is a spectrum disorder, autistic people still share some behavioral similarities. Indeed, it is mostly their perception of events and actions which is at the origin of their comportment. This remains somewhat of a mystery, and is not necessarily the same from one individual to the other. The author expresses this clearly, as he describes both Maria’s particularities that are related to the handicap in a general way, and Maria’s peculiarities which belong to her and no one else. Maria’s father uses anecdotes from their vacation to explain technical terms related to autism, which gives the book a didactic dimension. For instance, he describes how Maria can play for hours on the beach, taking some sand in her hand and watching it fall, grain by grain. The technical term for this type of behavior is stereotypy, and englobes all actions which have no apparent goal for the rest of the world and are repeated indefinitely. Having worked with autistic children myself, I have witnessed several times this type of behavior, which seems to be a source of appeasement for the individuals. Stereotypies can be enacted in different ways, as each individual can find comfort in different objects or types of repetitions. These particular actions become close to an obsession, and can sometimes become a barrier in regards to communication, as this behavior seems to place individuals in an imaginary bubble that no one else can penetrate. The author describes how this compulsion is particularly present in the moments of in-between, which he calls “dead times”. When he mentions another type of Maria’s stereotypy, which can be described as some sort of clapping ritual, he explains how she has to be expressively redirected into another precise activity in order to come out of this bubble. This book is, of course, extremely personal as it is mostly about Maria herself, but it still offers a global idea of autism to the reader. Through the author’s experience, the illustrated journey has truly a pedagogical aspect, and this spirited subjectivity has in my opinion a lot more impact than other academic books on the subject of autism. On one of the very last pages of the book, the author writes that “people touched by autism can present the following particularities, in different combinations and degrees of seriousness.”[1] The page is composed of a series of drawings representing different situations in which an autistic person will have an unexpected behavior. I believe that this page is one of the most explicitly didactic pages on autism in general.

            The book, therefore, offers illustrations of autism in general, but Maria is indubitably its protagonist. Indeed, it mainly focuses on her own particularities, what she does, what she likes, what she does not, and so on. Through the story of their summer together, the book depicts the portrait of this little girl. As the author is her own father, the description is extremely precise and extremely truthful. But once again, this subjectivity offers a new perspective on the handicap. Despite the reality of Maria’s portrayal, she is never alienated. For instance, when he writes about her little manias, he does not fail to mention that he himself has some as well. They are sometimes similar to hers, such as their reticence when it comes to change in general or alterations of their daily routine. By doing this, he reminds the reader that although Maria is indeed unusual, people are in fact rarely completely neuro-typical. That is to say that all people have their habits, their preferences, their little particularities that may seem strange in the eyes of others. This idea is already clear on the cover of the book, as there is an illustration of Maria and him walking together, and she is wearing a T-shirt on which is written “I’m unique just like everyone else”. He mentions this T-shirt later in the book, and how he is happy to make her wear it in public places to try and remind people that everyone is unique in their own way. He acknowledges that most of his little manias are a result of his experience, and that Maria’s are mostly due to her handicap, but he does not use this as an excuse to isolate her from the rest of the world. He even adds that her habits come partly from her autism, and partly from her family heritage, as she is as obstinate as her grandmother. And if he explains her idiosyncrasies he also lets the reader know about her abilities and what makes her exceptional, such as her amazing memory of names, which always impresses him and is a source of pride to her. This unnamed characteristic of hers, I believe, could be linked to the Asperger syndrome. Indeed, it is not rare for autistic people to have an extraordinary memory, but it can rely on different areas. Some will remember song lyrics instantaneously, others will be able to recognize every flag, and Maria remembers the names of every one she has ever encountered, even for a brief moment. The author also explains how everyday life works with Maria, what is doable, what is not, and the ways to adapt his behavior to her in general. For example, at the end of the book, he added Maria’s pictograms. The pictograms help her know what her schedule is, and help her go through the day without anxiety. This book is a great way to introduce autism to the reader, but more so than anything else, it portrays Maria’s own autism.

            Finally, this book exposes the author’s own point of view, that of people who are close to Maria and who truly know her. Indeed, he does not only presents Maria’s behavior, he exposes what he makes of it, and how he perceives it. For instance, when he writes about her stereotypy with the sand, it seems to him that she is closely analyzing it, almost as if she could see the molecular composition of the sand, or entire worlds on each grain. He does not merely describe her actions, he tries to understand them and their purpose in Maria’s world. In addition to this, the author constantly contrasts his own perception of his daughter with that of people who do not know and understand her. In a poignant way, he describes the looks that they get when she acts in a way that seems unusual or strange to people, and how this annoys him. He also explains how Maria is insightful and instantly feels if people are uncomfortable or embarrassed, and how she either ignores them or pinches them in return for their rejecting body language. However, he acknowledges that some people are quite helpful, even in a very simple way, and they are usually the people that Maria never forgets. In fact, as a demonstration of how much he values her, the book is not dedicated to her, but is actually co-signed, by him and by Maria herself, who is credited on the cover as a co-author. The people that are dear to them, and that have been pleasant encounters during their vacation are thanked at the end of the book, either by name or by description (such as “the bus driver who waited for us to sit before he started driving” or “that stewardess, from I don’t know which airline, who prevented us from queueing before boarding”). All these people represent little parts of their trip, but they have an important place in the co-authors’ lives. This is, perhaps as much as the rest of the illustrated book, a testimony of how much this work is personal, and how much it comes from people who are actually close to autism.

            Maria and Me is, therefore, a very touching book about this little autistic girl and her father. It offers a lot of information to the reader about autism in general, which makes it a truly pedagogical book. Indeed, it allows the reader to have a better understanding of autism, whether it is about how it can be manifested, how it can be perceived, or how things can be adjusted to live with it. The main subject, however, is obviously not autism as a whole as it concentrates on one particular individual. Through the story of the author’s vacation with his daughter, the reader can create a mental image life with Maria. As autism is difficult to understand since it is not always manifested in the same way from one person to the other, being able to read about one specific individual is truly enlightening on the subject. The fact that it was written by Maria’s father, offers the reader a personal point of view which is not easily accessible to the outside world. This intimate portrayal makes the whole book extremely touching. Finally, the fact that the book is illustrated by the author beautifully echoes the fact that he draws a lot for Maria, and these drawings fully tie the book to their relationship. It is, therefore, a moving testimony of love, an incredible source of information, and a brilliant reminder that though it may be more noticeable in Maria’s case, uniqueness is present in absolutely everyone anyway.

Lucille Méranger

M2 – Anglais

[1] This is a free translation of the French edition of the book.

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