Anna Whateley is the autistic YA author of Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal. In the story, neurodivergent teen Peta has always tried hard to pass as 'normal' - until a ski trip and a crush on a girl throw her off track. Anna took some time to chat with our Adriana White about writing YA with autistic representation, and her complex, intersectional main character.
Adriana: It's so rare to see neurodivergent characters in kid lit, and it's even rarer to see a character with multiple diagnoses. Peta is autistic, and she also has ADHD and SPD. When you were creating her, did you worry at all that her "alphabet" would be a tough sell to agents, publishers, readers, etcetera?
Anna: I did! And thank you for having me here with A Novel Mind.
I didn't realise that Peta would be quite so letter-filled when I started writing. I thought I was just writing a teenage girl with ADHD, because that's what I thought I had to offer young adult fiction - a teenage girl with ADHD. Reading back what I'd written, it appeared she was autistic.
Firstly, I needed to know how I could write her as autistic, and investigated whether or not I was also autistic. And yes! After much money and time I was diagnosed as autistic -- hardly surprising given my family history. When she was attracted to Sam (which just happened!) I realised her labels and divergence from the norm was increasing. The main problem was that I couldn't take anything out of her character without changing who she was. I did research to make sure I'm not, and Peta is not, the only person to have that number of diagnoses on top of being queer. Knowing the stats, I felt more confident going forward. Thankfully, she's been super well received by everyone in the industry, and by readers.
Adriana: You talk a lot about social training in your book (or social skills, as we usually call it in the US). Peta is constantly reminding herself of all the rules she's been taught to follow, in order to appear more "normal." Can you briefly sum up for readers what social training is, and why you chose to feature it in your book?
Anna: Absolutely. We are encouraged as parents to put our neurodivergent children through a lot of social skill training, whether that be at school, with psychologists, or groups. They might use software that repeats flash cards of facial expressions until you can correctly guess what the person feels (I hate this one!). We are also given rule books, literally, of how social situations work, and what we should do to appear typical. This narrative is difficult to shift when we as a society are constantly in a process of disciplining folk to behave in certain ways that make neurotypical folk feel comfortable.
I'm not saying all these are bad, and some are making an effort to change the framing and meta around social skills. An example is to say that instead of teaching children to look people in the eye, give them a script that allows them to say "I may not look at you while you speak but it's my way of listening carefully." I prefer educating myself and my own children with a sense of honesty. I tell them the rules don't make sense, and NTs often don't follow them at all, even though they want us to. Another example of my 'honest' social skilling is to recognise we say please and sorry and thank you because everybody otherwise will think we mean badly. We don't start out assuming well, which is pretty sad! But we still say 'the things' to make other people happy. Not because it makes us a good person, which implies a moral judgement. Ah, I could write another whole PhD on this topic, honestly!
As for why I included it... it's just how my brain works so I thought I'd write down each motion instead of skipping the process I go through after each interaction. Apparently readers find it quite exhausting. Lol.
Adriana: Looking at the reviews for your book, one thing that readers love about Peta is how authentic her struggle with masking feels. So much of what neurotypical people know about autism is based on external traits - like stimming, a lack of eye contact, not speaking, etc. Many older books about autism (especially those written by neurotypical authors) focus solely on these kinds of autistic behaviors, without providing any context or explanation for why autistic people do these things. By giving readers a first-person view of how Peta's mind works, your story illuminates so much of the internal struggles that neurodivergent people face.
If you're comfortable sharing, can you talk about how much of Peta came from your own real-life experiences?
Anna: Peta is quite different to me as a person, in her presentation to the world, but the way she processes that world is close to my own. She faces anxiety and depression, as I do, and this is truly the crux of her journey in my mind. I also drew on moments of intensity from my teenage years - such as that crushing moment you realise you've hurt someone you love, or the thrill of being lost in the beauty of a person or even just snow. In these ways she speaks straight to my heart, but I also do think of Peta as Peta, not secretly Anna.
Adriana: Another part of PETA LYRE that I personally love is the LGBTQ+ representation. (Sidenote: This is something I also loved seeing in the TV show "Everything's Gonna Be Okay.")
Researchers have found that autistic people are more likely to be queer - and many in the autistic community do proudly identify as such. What was your thought process when it came to developing this aspect of the story?
Anna: Peta has many labels, and her sexuality is one thing I didn't label. This was mostly because it's not a diagnosis and I didn't want it to be read as a medical condition in any way! She doesn't question her queerness, and feels no shame for her attraction to Sam or Angelo. As I said earlier, I didn't choose, she did! I also didn't want to sugar coat being queer, and Sam talks about the issues she's faced, allowing me to acknowledge the difficulties Peta had been spared through her alternative schooling.
Adriana: To sum up: Is there anything you want to tell readers who are interested in reading your book? Especially readers who are interested in learning more about neurodiversity?
Anna: Read lots of books! Try to find as many representations in all your media because no one has the one 'truth'. I'd recommend Kay Kerr's novels especially, and not just because she is an awesome friend but because she writes autism so well. Question representations on television, always. They often reproduce stereotypes without consultation with an actual autistic person, let alone the community as a whole. We aren't all white boys, Sheldon, or Good Doctors. There's Saga in The Bridge - a great addition. But we need more and more, so the assumptions can be dispersed through the multitude of characters.
Australian author Anna Whateley writes young adult and children’s fiction. She holds a PhD in Literature from Queensland University of Technology, and has studied and worked in both in Australia and the UK. She also enjoys teaching future teachers, parenting future adults, and reading her work to two exceptionally patient dogs. Find out more at annawhateley.com.