What This 12-Year-Old Author Wants Readers To Know About Autism

Ten-year old Libby Scott's essay about autism went viral in 2018. Now, the young author discusses her new book, Can You See Me? cowritten with Rebecca Westscott, in which a young autistic girl navigates big changes while trying to be seen and supported for who she is.

Now that she's starting sixth grade, Tally is facing a lot of changes. A new school, a new, uncomfortable uniform—even her familiar friends seem to be changing right in front of her eyes. Tally is autistic, and though she wishes she could just be herself at home and at school, she feels pressure to conform to everyone's expectations of what "normal" should be. Can You See Me? (Scholastic, Mar. 2020, Gr 3-7) coauthors Libby Scott and Rebecca Westscott spoke with SLJ about collaboration, being changed by your own writing, and the importance of Tally's story for both neurodiverse and neurotypical readers.

Photo by Victor Castejon

How did you both find each other, and what did the coauthoring process look like for you?

Libby Scott: We all had lunch together; I still remember it because I had ice cream for my starter and nobody minded!  Rebecca and I got on really well and I knew she was the right person to write my story. It was great for me, a 10-year-old kid at the time, to have that choice of who to work with. Rebecca was perfect, and she just gets me. We both had ideas; she would send stuff and make all the changes to it that I wanted, and then I wrote the diary entries.

Rebecca Westscott: Scholastic approached me after Libby’s blog went viral online. As both a children’s author and a special educational needs coordinator in an elementary school, I was instantly interested. As soon as I met with Libby and her mum Kym, I knew that this project could be something really incredible. Having never cowritten a book before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it has been an incredibly exciting and dynamic process. We worked with our publishing team to figure out our initial direction, and then Libby and I bounced ideas off each other. I would write a chapter and send it to her, and she would send it back with her thoughts. It has been a truly collaborative project and we’re all really proud of what this team has achieved!

 

Libby, this project rose out of your 2018 essay, “The Life of a Perfectionist,” which went viral online. What inspired you to write this piece?

LS: I was bored one day, and my Nanna was staying so I decided to write something that she would like to read. For the first time, I wrote about some of the types of thoughts I get in my head, but I turned them into fiction. My mum loved it and posted it on Twitter. It just took off, and the likes and retweets kept coming!

 

You also have a blog now, and do a lot of interviews! How was writing the diary entries in Can You See Me? different from talking about yourself in front of an audience and online?

LS: The diary entries were different because they were fictional. I had to think about what Tally the character would write—though sometimes I did just forget and write as me. Talking in front of an audience is different because you have to think on the spot. I thought this would worry me, but actually I really like it.

 

Rebecca, how did your experience in the classroom and as a special educational needs coordinator inform your writing?

RW: I thought that I knew a little bit about autism before embarking on writing this book. It turns out that I was right—I did only know a little bit! I have learned so much by listening to Libby’s voice, and also the voices of the wonderful women and children from the autistic community who kindly supported us while we were writing. What I did know about and could bring to the book were some broad truths of being 11 years old and transitioning to a new school. We wanted to write a book with characters who were going through the same things that our readers have experienced, or are currently experiencing. I know from feedback that our readers love how recognizable Tally is to them.

 

I really enjoyed how your novel included third-person narrative, diary entries, and "Tally’s Autism Facts." Why did you decide to organize the book this way?

LS: Tally’s Autism Facts just came out of things I was already starting to write. I like giving people information that I think will help them to understand me, and others like me, better.

RW: This book is an #OwnVoices story, so it was crucial that Libby’s voice could shine through in an independent way. The diary entries allow this to happen and give Libby the opportunity to really show how she sees the world, and what life is like for her as an 11-year-old autistic girl.

 

What’s the story behind the title, Can You See Me?

LS: We took ages to think of the book title. At first I wanted to call it Life of a Perfectionist, like my story. Then we thought of Tiger Girl—but someone came up with Can You See Me? and it just fit exactly right.

RW: Right from the start of this project, we wanted to highlight the issues that surround many autistic girls and women, particularly when it comes to masking. A diagnosis of autism can sometimes take much longer in girls because they can be so adept at "hiding" aspects of themselves. Libby talks about feeling forced to squeeze herself into a certain shape in order to fit society's expectations, and this is a major theme in our story. If there is one thing that we’d like readers to take away from our book, it’s to see people for who they truly are and to celebrate the differences between us, not fear anyone who doesn’t look/behave/talk/think the way that you do.

 

As you mentioned earlier, Tally also talks about the pressure to look and act “normal,” and how it causes her to squash herself into a different shape around other people. How do you stay true to who you are, even when it feels scary to do so?

LS: Well I am getting better at saying or being exactly what I feel at that moment instead of covering up. Now, I try and explain to people why I’m feeling the way I do and why I can’t do something. I’m good at doing this with friends, but not so good with adults like teachers, because they don’t always believe me. Masking is still a big part of my autism, because you don’t realize you are doing it a lot of the time.

 

What were some of the easiest and hardest parts of this story to write?

LS: For me, the hardest part was getting started on writing each section because of my demand avoidance; I would put it off. But once I got started, it was easy to write all of it. It just flowed.

RW: Well, the easiest part of the whole project was forming the character of Tally! After I’d met with Libby and we’d exchanged a few ideas, we started to form an idea of who Tally might be; I knew instantly she was a character I was going to love writing about. She is complex and nuanced. Sometimes her behavior makes things tricky for the people around her, but she is so honest and open, too, and kind and loyal.

It was hard to write how Tally feels when her friends betray her. I think many of us can identify with feeling ostracized and the way that it impacts our lives. I also found it challenging to write about Tally forcing herself to behave a certain way at school, despite the fact that it comes at a huge cost to her. It made me reflect on my own teaching and the demands that I make of the children in my classes; it has absolutely influenced my own behavior in the classroom.

 

How do you think librarians could use Can You See Me? in their programs?

LS: Use it to help autistic kids understand themselves better, and to help neurotypicals understand autistic kids better. And make every teacher in the school read it!

RW: Our hope for Can You See Me? is that neurodiverse readers will be able to find themselves within the pages and that neurotypical readers will gain a better understanding of what life might be like for someone who is autistic. Libby has always been very clear that she doesn’t speak for all autistic people, as everyone is different, but we have written a book that will hopefully help others empathize with someone else’s situation.

 

Libby, you challenge a lot of stereotypes around autism and autistic people in your writing. What’s one thing you really want readers to understand after finishing Tally’s story?

LS: That usually, when autistic people say they won’t do something, it actually means they can’t, so please don’t make them.


Read SLJ's starred review of Can You See Me? here.

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Ashleigh Williams

Ashleigh Williams (awilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is the Assistant Editor of Chapter Books and Middle Grade for School Library Journal. Find them on Twitter @bombus_vagans.

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