When someone you love is diagnosed with autism, and you are their primary caregiver, you suddenly find yourself in the deepest, darkest hole. While family and friends try to reach you with a torch and a rope, you quickly learn the hard truth: you have to use your own tools and navigate your own way out. Some of these tools include acceptance, education, rationality, patience and prayer. As part of educating myself, I read some first-hand accounts of living as an autistic person.
And I recently got a hold of Can You See Me?, a book written by 11-year-old Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott. Libby is autistic.
Can You See Me?
Expected to Fit in Proud to Stand Out
The book is about Tally, an autistic girl who starts high school (year seven, as known in the UK) at Kingswood Academy. Only her best friend Layla knows who she really is. Tally hides her autism in her attempt to fit in with everyone else, and be ‘normal’… even though it makes her incredibly uncomfortable. She’s misunderstood and bullied, and it makes her life more challenging, over and above the challenges faced when starting at a new school.
This coming-of-age book is based on Libby’s personal experience as an autistic person, and has been adapted to create a fictional yet relevant and moving story of a girl who is just like any other… but is made to believe that she’s difficult. And worst of all, broken.
Tally allows us into her mind, a wondrous place, giving us enough of a peek to understand that autistics people try to relate to others harder than we know, empathise more than we can see, and feel all of their emotions more intensely than we realise. And the very fact that I have to lay out this humanising conclusion is simply because many of us are guilty of thinking of, and treating, autistic people like the ‘other’. Us verses them. Normal versus… not. What is normal anyway? This is a question you’re forced to ask yourself as you’re on this journey with Tally, her family and friends.
Reading Can You See Me? as a Mum of an Autistic Son
My son’s 2-and-a-half years old and non-speaking. Which leaves me yearning to know what’s going on inside his head. Why does he pick A over B? When he contemplated his options for a whole 3 minutes in silence, what were the pros and cons he weighed them against? So I was overly keen, to say the least, to devour this book.
The book aside, one of the first things you learn about autism is that it’s referred to as a spectrum: this means that there’s a range, and each person who is autistic experiences their autism differently to the next. Each autistic individual is unique. And I had to remind myself of this a few times, especially when Tally gives a raw account of why she did or didn’t, reacted or didn’t react to something in a certain manner. There are some truly heart breaking moments in the book, as I understand exactly how Tally feels but our social norms are not designed to accommodate her. As is.
There were moments in the book that I had to pause, close and put it down. And think – is this what my son will experience? And how can I be there for him? How do I help others understand autism better, so they treat him like the equal that he is?
It’s impossible to read this book without admiring Tally’s mum, who has the patience and understanding of a saint, compared to her dad and sister, who struggle to be more accommodating. Mind you, it’s not that they aren’t. They’re doing an outstanding job but Tally’s mum is the one who is able to bring her the most comfort. Without a doubt this family life is different and has challenges that linger every single day.
This book was insightful in a way that no journal article, medical specialist or therapist can explain. After all, is there a better way to understand someone’s autism if it isn’t coming directly from an autistic person?
What struck me about Tally is that she has amazing insight and wisdom for her age. It’s almost as though her experience of dealing with such intense emotions has matured her way ahead of her time. There were quite a few quotes scattered across the book that were pure food for thought. I’ve picked my favourite four (it was a tough choice!).
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I reckon that a lot of the cons of autism are not really caused by autism but by how other people react to it. I really do.
Sometimes other people don’t like the way that autistic people think or feel or behave. So when I’m at school or in new situations, I have to work really hard to squash myself into a new shape. A shape that everyone thinks looks normal.
What I’m saying is I’m just like the one mouldy blueberry in a packet. I’m not sure I’m wanted by the others as I make the whole packet look bad. I never fit in with anything or anyone. I feel like a key that doesn’t fit properly in the lock.
If she keeps running then she’s exactly like they are, and people like it when you behave like they do.
Even if it hurts more than you can tell them.