What is it like to navigate a world that isn’t designed for how your brain works? Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal looks at the impact of trying to be ‘normal’ for a neurodiverse teenage girl.
As always, please note that this post contains spoilers!
Topics covered: Autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, ableism, suicidal ideation and behaviour, parental neglect.
About the Book
‘I’m Peta Lyre,’ I mumble. Look people in the eye if you can, at least when you greet them. I try, but it’s hard when she is smiling so big, and leaning in.
Peta Lyre is far from typical. The world she lives in isn’t designed for the way her mind works, but when she follows her therapist’s rules for ‘normal’ behaviour, she can almost fit in without attracting attention.
When a new girl, Sam, starts at school, Peta’s carefully structured routines start to crack. But on the school ski trip, with romance blooming and a newfound confidence, she starts to wonder if maybe she can have a normal life after all.
When things fall apart, Peta must decide whether all the old rules still matter. Does she want a life less ordinary, or should she keep her rating normal?
About the 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.
Peta Lyre is a sixteen-year-old living with her aunt, Antonia, and Antonia’s toddler, May. Right away, we learn that Peta has several diagnoses: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). She is also gifted in terms of her intelligence. She’s ‘graduated’ therapy – in this case, it means that she’s learned a looooong list of rules to help her appear ‘normal’ to others. The story is told in first-person, which makes us privy to how these rules pop up as Peta moves through her daily life, indicating how ingrained they are in Peta’s stream of consciousness. This is known as masking – and it’s exhausting. The rules include instructions like ‘try not to answer back too much’, ‘a question shows you are interested in what someone is saying’, and ‘remove yourself from the situation’. Every now and again, Peta mentally plays out scenarios where she reacts to other people or situations according to her natural inclinations. Almost always (especially at the start of the story), she chooses to follow the rules instead. It is heartbreaking to see.
Peta attends The College, which appears to be designed for teenagers who don’t quite fit into mainstream education for one reason or another. She has a best friend, Jeb, and even though she’s honest about her diagnoses with him, she’s not truly herself with him either.
The role of trauma
Peta grew up with parents who, to put it mildly, were unsupportive. Her father was largely absent, and her mother appeared to be resentful of Peta’s difficulties and were constantly sharp and angry. By the start of the book, Peta’s care has essentially been handed over to her aunt, Antonia, and Peta has no contact with her parents. To have critical parents like Peta’s has instilled a sense that she is faulty and needs to be fixed.
On top of this, Peta’s experience with therapy is also somewhat traumatic. Peta’s psychologist, Fiona, focused on instilling neurotypical behaviours and changing Peta by providing her with rules. In the glimpses we get of their therapy sessions, it didn’t seem to us that they had a positive relationship. Peta also doesn’t seem to have any healthy coping mechanisms when she’s faced with stressful situations, which means therapy missed the mark. Therapy should be about helping people understand themselves, building up self-esteem, and developing healthy emotion regulation skills – not shaping them to meet neurotypical standards. This book has a great depiction of how therapy can be harmful.
Things go downhill after a series of challenging events on a ski trip. In one shocking scene, a ski instructor sexually harasses the underage and vulnerable Peta, leading her to experience a downward spiral – including withdrawing from her friends, negative thoughts, and struggling to keep up masking. She puts a lot of focus and energy into her skiing, but after returning home she lacks a coping mechanism and withdraws further. At the climax of the story, Peta is struggling to cope – to just exist – and begins to walk out into the ocean. This suicidal behaviour is a wake-up call for her, and leads her to reconnect with others and challenge her own perceptions of whether she needs to be ‘normal’.
Being true to yourself
With romance blooming with the new girl, Samanta, Peta starts to wonder if she can be her true self. Despite the important role Sam plays in Peta’s arc, we felt that the romance lacked strong chemistry. While it was wonderful for Peta to change her perspective and not allow the rules to control her life, we would have liked to see her reach out more towards the end of the book. We felt that while Peta built up a stronger support network and her thinking was healthier, in real life she may need some more healthy coping mechanisms, and ideally the support of a (more appropriate) mental health professional, or even some mentorship from others with ASD who have similar life experiences and ‘get it’.
Final thoughts and star rating
Elise: This book was a hard read at times. Peta’s stream of consciousness is intense, and the book interweaves topics like ASD advocacy, poverty, domestic abuse, and power imbalances masterfully. The strong themes of found family and acceptance were highlights. However, I felt things wrapped up a little too neatly at the end, and as a psychologist I was still pretty worried about Peta’s wellbeing. Her improvement at the end felt a little shallow, and though the book acknowledges she still has struggles ahead, maybe there was a missed opportunity to explore these while maintaining a sense of hope. Still, I enjoyed this story and would recommend it.
Priscilla: The representation of ASD/ADHD/SPD and the way they interact are the highlights of the book for me. The damage bad therapy had done to Peta was heartbreaking, and I appreciate the portrayal in that it made me reflect on my own work as a psychologist. I really enjoyed Peta and Jeb’s friendship, and I appreciated how they took care of each other. I felt that the romance could have been stronger, in that I thought it moved rather quickly and I didn’t feel the chemistry between Peta and Sam. Overall though, this is a book that I would recommend to others, and I look forward to reading more from Anna Whateley.
Relevant mental health info & resources:
- Amaze is an Australian organisation that provides information about ASD as well as about how to find support, whether you are a person on the spectrum, a parent/carer, educator, employer or a professional.
- CHADD and ADHD Australia provide information about ADHD.
- Autism Spectrum Australia has this fact sheet about ADHD and ASD co-occurring.
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not currently an ‘official’ diagnosis, in that it is not part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) or International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Edition (ICD-10). This doesn’t mean it’s not real, only that there are debates around it. Child Mind discusses this further here. Raising Children has information about sensory processing difficulties here.
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Voices from Lived Experience
- cake and madness on Goodreads wrote: “I was lucky to get an advance copy of this book, and dear God, I felt so SEEN. I have the same “alphabet” as Peta and the author (ASD/ADHD/SPD). I deeply understood every single “I have no idea what the social convention is here so I’m going to fall back on what my psych taught me” situation Peta went through, her anxiety spirals, and feeling like she can never quite get it right despite trying so hard to implement the lessons from therapy. “