It’s Autism Acceptance Month and I’d love to be talking about a real-world-setting comic featuring an autistic protagonist’s experiences written by an autistic person, but I don’t know of any. Realizing that has kind of made me want to write one, but that’s a topic for another day. Today we have Cece Bell’s El Deafo, a fantastic semi-autobiographical children’s comic about a little girl who gets sick and loses her hearing. Also, the little girl is a bunny (so are all the other characters), which isn’t relevant at all but it is really cute.
I’m going to state up front that I’m a little nervous to talk about this. Parts of it overlap with my own experience and I want to discuss that, but at the same time I don’t want to act like they’re the same or imply I understand the deaf experience because of my own totally unrelated disability. It’s a tricky line to walk, so I’ll do my best and try to err on the side of caution. Apologies in advance if I don’t quite manage that.
Cece starts off as a hearing child but gets meningitis and has to be hospitalized. When she’s sent home, no one’s aware anything has changed at first. Cece knows something feels different but can’t quite understand what it is. One day when she loses track of her mom and calls out but can’t hear her mom calling back, they both realize what’s happened and Cece has to go to another doctor. She gets a hearing aid and eventually something called a phonic ear which lets her better hear her teachers through a microphone they carry. She attends a school for the deaf before the family moves to an area that doesn’t have one so she gets mainstreamed.
I love the way these things are communicated throughout the comic. The fading speech bubbles so that the reader understands what is being said but also that Cece doesn’t know. The big blank speech bubbles later on where people are clearly trying to talk but we have no more idea what’s being said than Cece does. Her anxiety about looking different from everyone else followed by relief and excitement when she realizes everyone at her school is like her and no one is paying attention to her hearing aid. And also the explanation of all the things that can make understanding people difficult when trying to read lips and why the ways people try to help really don’t help at all.
A common misunderstanding in the book is that since Cece can’t hear, you just need to make everything LOUDER. In reality, thanks to the hearing aid she can typically hear the noise just fine, it’s making sense of it that’s hard. Things come through loud but not clear. So being louder just creates more noise, not more understanding. I could relate to that a lot. I’m sure it’s not a perfect comparison (to start, the problem in Cece’s case starts outside her head with the hearing aid’s limitations, in my case it’s about the processing that happens in the brain), but I also have trouble making sense of what I’m hearing and rely on both lip-reading and external clues to make a good guess about what people are trying to tell me. I liked Cece’s explanation of things that can make this process more difficult, as well as the frustration of not knowing how to voice those things so she couldn’t help people communicate with her better.
Another interesting thing about this book is that it takes place over several years. This means we get to see the ways Cece adapts to her disability, how the technology adapts to help her, how the community around her adapts to be more welcoming. We get to see different teachers, different friends. A major theme of the book is Cece trying to find the perfect friend, being disappointed and trying to figure out what people are really thinking of her and who she can trust. Common struggles that will be familiar to most young readers, I think.
I think it’s a good introduction to interacting with people who have disabilities. While some of the examples here are very specific, there’s also a general message of “don’t make assumptions,” which is very important in dealing with anyone really, but particularly useful for people with different ability levels. I love the way Cece’s mom responds to her when she makes a scene. They attend a sign language class at a church – mom’s idea, Cece has had enough change and really doesn’t want to stand out any more than she already does. But the other members of the class (most if not all adult women) keep singling out Cece and trying to get her to sign, until one day Cece snaps at them and she and her mom leave the class.
It would be easy for the mom to just get angry at her behavior and for embarrassing her in front of friends. But there’s a frequently-used saying in the autistic community: “Behavior is communication.” This is in contrast to the idea that autism treatment should focus on eliminating or controlling “problem” behaviors and increasing compliance with the norm or parental expectations. I’ve seen parents involved in this sort of therapy refusing to help their child unless and until they can force out the actual spoken word for what they want. The idea that behavior is communication means that every action is an expression of an inner thought. Kids who have trouble communicating what they are feeling might act out in ways that are frustrating to adults around them, but that should be understood in context and the thoughts and feelings below the surface should be considered.
In this case, Cece’s been quiet about this for a long time, the way many of us keep our thoughts to ourselves to avoid offending others or making waves. When it finally spills out of her and she explains what she’s been feeling to her mom, her mom listens. And while she still thinks learning sign language would be helpful, she respects her daughter’s feelings and takes them out of the class. At the same time, she communicates back that the people in the class were only trying to help and suggests that Cece not be so hard on people who are doing their best even if their efforts are frustrating to her. It’s an important learning experience all around, and I like the respect shown on both sides.
Overall, it’s a very entertaining read with a good message. The author/narrator’s voice seems realistic and her active imagination is fun to follow. It’s easy to relate to her, to want her to do well and to cheer her on at every stage. There was some content that might be inappropriate for younger readers, though on the other hand they might not understand it. Probably best for 5th grade and up, Cece’s age at the end of the book.