Anna Whateley, Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, Allen & Unwin, April 2020, 248 pp., RRP $19.99, ISBN 9781760525309
Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal is the debut novel by #ownvoices author Anna Whateley. It tells the story of Peta Lyre who with diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder is wonderfully neurodivergent. Peta struggles to pass for “normal” using the social skills taught to her by various therapists, guidance officers and specialists. The story recounts her efforts, past and present, to comply with the many “rules” given to her by the cacophony of voices created by the authority figures in her lives. Particular focus is given to her experiences at school, interacting with her best friend, Jeb, meeting a new friend and going on a school ski trip. Along the way, Peta gives herself a normal rating out of ten after significant interactions.
I was excited to read Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, with a number of family members on the Autism Spectrum I welcome further insight and understanding. Not surprisingly, given Whateley’s own diagnoses, I found her descriptions of Peta uncomfortably familiar. As I have talked with autistic family members about decoding social situations, I have encountered the shortcomings of social skills training multiple times. Quite simply, it is impossible, given the dynamic nature of social interactions, to conceive of and plan for all the possible outcomes of a particular social situation. Peta faces these same complications in the course of the story and for her, they become watershed moments.
The text deals sensitively with the myriad challenges that neurodivergent (and neurotypical) adolescents face including mental health issues (there is reference to suicide and suicidal ideation), discovering/determining one’s identity and navigating relationships. There are also references to family violence and parental abandonment which may be confronting for younger readers.
I was concerned as I read Peta Lyre about potential pigeonholing. For example, when the film Rainman was released, many people grabbed hold of the portrayal of autism in the character Raymond as typical of all autistic people. I wondered if the same might occur with Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal. To avoid pigeonholing it is worth noting that Peta Lyre shows more aptitude for personal insight and reflection than many of the people on the spectrum I have encountered. She exhibits fluid sexuality which is common of people on the spectrum but not a defining feature. Finally, the calming behaviours she employs would work for some people on the spectrum but not all. Whilst I would thoroughly recommend Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal for people wishing to gain a better understanding of neurodiversity and Autism Spectrum Disorder, I would encourage readers to remember that it is a work of fiction.
I recommend this title for readers aged 14 years+ and for parents and teachers wishing to understand experiences of neurodivergence.
Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal has been Shortlisted in the Older Reader category of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards.
Reviewed by Anne Varnes