Book Review: Can You See Me?
A sweet moment while reading the book!
Can You See Me? By Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott, published by Scholastic Children’s Book, is about Tally a 11 year old person with Autism. The book is a realistic fiction novel. It lingers in my heart and mind well after I have read it. Part of the book title is also the sentence “Expected to fit in proud to stand out”, this encapsulates the heart of this book. Tally works really hard in grade seven to fit in, to appear “normal” but is tagged “weirdo Adams” through the course of her year seven journey. The book takes us through a first person account of Tally’s experience of herself as an autistic person. Libby Scott the co author is a 11 year old autistic person who provides the voice for Tally’s journals. We journey through some key aspects of how autism is seen as a “problem” by people, while how Tally sees people’s ways of being as problematic, one that entails enforcing ways of being on a young person that does not work for them.
There are so many layers to this book. Tally’s mother and Mrs. Jarman, the Drama Teacher as allies, Tally’s father and her sister as people grappling to understand Autism and its ways while also being sucked into their own lives as people that need to fit in and function in a world that is increasingly stressful for everyone. Tally’s friends as young people in school spaces who are themselves navigating and making sense of life by figuring out who is the other and who is in-group, resulting in experiences of ostracisation and bullying for Tally.
What I want to delve deeper into and share is really my own personal experience of this wonderful book. As an adult who has begun to identify as autistic, there were several moments of tearing up in shock, dismay and realisation. As someone approaching their 40s I find myself going right back to my own childhood, when I was Tally’s age and realising that a big part of going to school was marked with memories that were overwhelming. I only remember feeling the desperate need to appear “normal”, that my entire middle school and high school were spent focused on navigating relationships with my peers in ways that I could appear hidden, accepted and “well adjusted” .
Tally’s voice is clear, the experience that she narrates of what happens for her marvels me. I wondered what it was about Tally’s situation that got her to a therapist at a young age. She was also held, it appears like, by Mental Health Professionals who seemed to have supported Tally and her mother and by extension the rest of the family, to hold space for her experiences through the frame of neurodivergence and not the medical model that problematises the person. I think about life for a young person, especially one who is assigned female at birth in a country like India, and someone who passes, who masks, who tries really hard to fit in, What of them? When do they, if at all receive care and support and presence for who they are. When does masking become too much? What if there aren’t safe spaces in people? Often, care for neurodivergent people, those who are Autistic or have ADHD is problematic in the country. Discourses are shrouded around similar things like bullying, othering and frustrations of adults and neurotypical people like Tally faces, but mental health care is also sparse and problematic.
I recently spoke with a mother of a young person who is diagnosed with ADHD and has had to face violence from the father and then the school setting, in a time like COVID, where support for children and their parents are few and far between. This mother spoke with me about being labeled with Borderline Personality Disorder for experiencing distress and having several meltdowns with the husband for his behaviour with the child and her. Our understandings of what is “normal”, who is responsible for ensuring the “normal” in families and who suffers from it all are questions we all ought to be grappling with.
When we are pressured to show up in the world a certain way, what becomes of us all? What becomes of people who are neurodivergent? The book is tender in opening to the ideas of the neurodivergent movement, through Tally’s life. It acknowledges everyones struggle in an ableist world and gently leans into looking at Tally’s world. The experience of being outed for being Autistic is also addressed. Tally speaks to how it is no ones prerogative to out anyone and that it has to entirely be based on how safe and supported the person feels to own their identity.
All in all five starts for this brilliant book. I would highly recommend this book to anyone exploring the experience of autism in their own lives or the lives of people they want to hold space for. It is a wonderful book to understand the different experiences a young person as Tally has growing up Autistic and gosh I was sad the book was ending.
PS: There are sequels and Im off to read them!