Tommy Smythe disappears one Friday night, and even after weeks of searching he can’t be found. This is the story of a rural community’s search for Tommy, and the complicated social networks created by wrongdoings and secrets in a small town.
Each chapter is from the point of view of a different person in the community; some are third person prose while others are first person interrogation-by-police style. This is made clear in the very first chapter, so readers aren’t surprised when the viewpoint shifts often. It was a clever way to show the situation of Tommy’s disappearance from as many perspectives as possible, though I admit it could be a jarring shift for most readers who aren’t used to that kind of storytelling.
Another aspect that may make the book difficult for some readers is that the writing style feels more like a middle grade book, while the content and subject matter are definitely young adult. There is domestic violence, alcohol use, and even murder. The contrast between the level of writing and the mature content, combined with the ever-shifting points of view makes Evidence of Things Not Seen incredibly interesting; however, some readers may be turned away by the unique format.
The specific aspects of Tommy’s disability are quite detailed, and well-understood by his peers and the rest of the community. Tommy is a strange kid who obsesses over his interest in physics and patterns. He doesn’t understand niceties or politeness, is intelligent but not street-smart, and has almost no friends. Tommy has a way of seeing the connections between things, the little details that no one else noticed. This often led to Tommy wandering off, chasing answers to the questions he asks about the world that no one else seems to consider. For example, while going home after school Tommy would stop to admire the dappled shadows beneath a copse of trees at the side of the road. He would become entranced by the shifting light. Is there a pattern in the way light falls through the trees? Where does the light come from? Tommy would wander into the trees, chasing the light, getting lost in his curiosity.
Tommy was liked by his peers, and mostly respected by the community. He was seen as a quirky but harmless kid, and everyone knew he had a tendency to get distracted and wander off on his own. Unfortunately, the way that Tommy’s peers and the rest of the community don’t take his symptoms seriously leads to Tommy’s disappearance.
The issue of diagnosis is a still-debated topic among parents of children who exhibit symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. While many of the people close to Tommy suspected that he had Asperger’s syndrome or autism, no one at all thought he would benefit from a diagnosis. In fact, his favorite physics teacher, Mr. McCloud, comes right out and says, “I don’t think it would have made a difference if he were diagnosed.” Tommy’s father also expresses distinct disdain for the need for a diagnosis. It’s clear that the author disagrees with this view, and so do I.
At the beginning of 2014 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (AS). As an adult receiving this diagnosis, I was frankly appalled when I spoke to my mother about it and she told me how she always knew I was different from other kids but that she just didn’t say anything to me (or anyone else) about it. What if she had said something to my family doctor, who had asked me a few questions, and then referred me to a psychologist? What if I had started going to a counselor/clinical Psychologist as a child, instead of as an adult in college? My life would have been irrevocably changed for the better. I don’t blame my mother for not getting me a diagnosis, but because of my personal connection with AS and the importance of a diagnosis, I felt strongly about Tommy’s father’s neglect to seek out a diagnosis for his son.
I wholeheartedly believe that cases like Tommy’s could be avoided if a diagnosis, and subsequent treatment and education, is given to children and teens on the autism spectrum. I really think that if you don’t allow a child the opportunity to be diagnosed and given a way to fully understand themselves and to learn how to cope with their disability then you are neglecting that child. Tommy’s case is clearly one of neglect, and I hope it makes an impact on someone who cares for a child on the spectrum, just one person.
The verdict? Evidence of Things Not Seen is a great book to send the message that kids on the spectrum need everything they can get out of a diagnosis, and that neglecting their mental disability can have serious consequences. It’s a well-conceived book with a unique style, but is probably not for everyone. It would be best received by adult seeking to understand how a teen on the autism spectrum fits into his or her community.