Thursday, October 20, 2011

NeurAtypical Readers (Getting Inside Our Heads)

A few weeks ago, I opened up a conversation in my post that I wasn't quite ready to deal with in detail. It's not that I wasn't comfortable talking about using a culture-context method of interpretation when teaching literature to autistic kids. It's just that it's a pretty dense topic, and I had a few other themes to touch on, so I didn't have enough time to totally spell it out. I'm going to try today, but Ihave a feeling I'll need to go further with this at a later date.

In that other post, I pointed out thatI didn't find it easy to approach mainstream literature. At least, I didn't find it easy to approach certain kinds of mainstream literature. Dickens and Twain stuck out as being particularly attractive to me because they plotted stories instead of impressions, and they tended to either spell out the thoughts of the characters in a clear way or to focus on events and actions, allowing the characters to be defined by their circumstances.

You see this especially in Dickens, where his focus on children and their attempts to understand the workings of the world they are thrown into shows how their lack of maturity can undermine their best efforts. I'm thinking specifically of Great Expectationsand David Copperfield, but the theme plays out to a lesser degree in other stories and novels too. I think Twain does something similar, especially when he deals with characters like Huck Finn.

Huck's “outsider” status as a child who has basically had to raise himself while avoiding the excesses and angry outbursts of his alcoholic father really spoke out to me. On top of the parental issues, which I'm not ready to open up about in this blog quite yet, there was the stark independence of Huck Finn. I found his irredeemable honesty, lack of attention to social proprieties, and complete bewilderment when confronted with the rules and expectations of the responsible adults around him to be quite attractive.

Knowing what I know now, I think it might have been my neurAtypical mind responding to the portrayal of my own kind of person. After all, if Huck Finn wasn't an Aspie or some other kind of ASD, he was at least associally isolated as one of us, and as unable to bridge the gap between the expectations of mainstream society and his own upbringing.

I think that looking at my own choices in literature—both at what Ienjoyed and what I avoided--as well as gathering opinions about the literary choices of others, can help to build a sense of the kind of literature that is appealing to an autistic mind.  I think that when dealing with hero figures, we might have an easier time understanding characters like Pip, Huck Finn, and Celie (The Color Purple), because of their “outsider” status within their own societies. It's not that I'm claiming that these characters are autistic, or even that I'm making the argument that autistic people necessarily perceive themselves asabused. Instead, I think it's because these characters have experienced isolation, social bewilderment, and an impaired understanding of the motives of others that they might be easier foran autistic reader to comprehend.

By now, I'm guessing that at least a few of you are excited about the idea of finding literature that appeals to the neurAtypicals in your life, but you're wondering where this is going. After all, it's great to reach out to people through literature, but what is the pragmatic value of this? Where does this become anything other than English class for Aspies?

Here's what happened for me. I loved writing, because I had a lot of thoughts and I had a hard time verbalizing. Somehow, no one figured out that I wasn't shy, I wasn't distracted, and I wasn't daydreaming. I was paying close attention to everything, even when I didn't look directly at it, and I was crowded in with thoughts that kept me from engaging my mouth. When I did get started, I either needed the security of knowing I would have the floor for as long as I needed it, or I needed to be with friends who were used to my circling back with a response to a topic long after the conversation had moved.

I also loved reading, because it was my chance to know the thoughts of other people without the agonizing social pressures that made me uncomfortable and caused me anxiety. Literature, though, was hit-or-miss. When I found the stuff I really identified with (like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn),people tended to think I misunderstood it. For instance, when Iwrote my first book report on Mark Twain's work, I shocked the teacher with a thesis that centered around the obvious moral superiority of Huck Finn and his role as a social revolutionary.

Literature became useful to me as therapy at the point where I was pushed to interpret the motivations and intentions of others. The first teacher to really engage me with this was Mrs. Larson in my 9th grade English class. At the time, I hated her for it. To be honest,now that I'm an English teacher myself, I still find a lot of her method wanting (especially her closed-minded approach to rhetoric,which is my specialty), but I have to give her credit for pushing people on literature, which I suspect she liked a bit more than essays.

By forcing me to engage with the interpretation of character motives,she forced me to attempt to look closely at the events in the books we read and to discuss possible causes and effects of various points of view. It didn't take, I'll admit it. At least, it didn't take well when dealing with most of the literature she wanted us to read (Great Expectations was one of her assignments, though, an the exception to the rule). That wasn't a failure in her method, though, it was a side effect of the complex process she was pushing me to engage in.

Being that I didn't have a clear understanding of how people formed motives, and I wasn't mature enough to understand myown motives half the time (I was 14), teaching me to walk in the shoes of others could not have been an easy task. Still, as I worked with her and puzzled over questions such as why Mrs. Havisham would want to manipulate Pip or why his benefactor dedicated so much of his own life to Pip's upbringing, I was forced to acknowledge that sometimes other people did things that I had no ability to puzzle out. The very notion of the kind of Machiavellian manipulations executed in that book were just foreign to me. Not because I was innocent, but because I could not see how they could confidently employ those plans and schemes. It just seemed to me like they were hoping people would do what was needed to alow their plans to bear fruit.

As I applied thatkind of questioning to other books, though, I came to realize that characters in general seemed to act with a great degree of confidence in their ability to guess at the behavior patterns of others. Even in situations where they could not know the individual ticks and neuroses of their subjects, their trust of certain shared processes stuck out. It always seemed to me that these shared thought processes were hokey crutches when I first examined a text, because every writer relied on them to some extent, but none ever examined the assumptions behind them.

What I lacked,what would have underscored the meaning of this... structure... I was unearthing, was a guide who understood that I was autistic, and that there were certain conclusions I would simply never draw naturally. If I had had that kind of close mentorship, it is possible that my own Theory of Mind would have developed before my middle twenties. As it was, I was just bright enough to discover that these characters had a more detailed grasp of human nature than I did. I just couldn't understand that this was something that I could see in the literature and not in life—instead, it seemed to be something that was inserted into literature.

What I did notice,though, was that these isolated characters—Pip, Huck, Celie, and others—they often had the same baffled response to the machinations of others that I did. They often felt perplexed at the demands placed on them, or persecuted, and I took comfort in that. I also learned from it. I saw what these characters did that was more or less successful, and I mirrored it. I worked to blend, misdirect, and even to just plain get away with doing my weird things in orderto go around the demands I didn't understand.

The reason I put this out there for you is because I feel that what I lacked most in my life was that close mentor who could have helped me to connect the things in the literature that I was beginning to see to things in my life that I was blind to. I strongly believe, and I'd love to have some parents try this and send me responses, that Theory of Mind can be developed in the same way that social skills are taught to us—by slow, careful examination and memorization. What those kinds of tools—our best tools—require is a laboratory forthe observation of social behaviors. We have hundreds of thousands of laboratory-level simulations at our fingertips, though. Tens of thousands of books, dozens of scenes per book, scores of characters of all kinds... we could use literature as our lab. We just need mentors who can help us interpret the data.

I don't think this is a magic bullet... obviously, the more pronounced the learning difficulties, the more work that child will need to do in order to apply these ideas. But these ideas don't require the literary canon, either. They can be applied with basic YA and children's literature, and we can work forward from there and work at our own pace.

The key to this is identifying literature that has the characters we can identify with—the social outcasts, weird geniuses, and quiet outsiders—and mix it up with the kind of literature that shows NTs in their bestlight, and then to use our understanding of one personality toilluminate our understanding of others. To help with that discussion, I'm throwing out a few of my favorite books and authors, and I'd love to see you add and criticize this approach (and these books) in the comments section below.

For Kids: Really,anything you can get really young kids interested in will work. I was an advanced reader, so I was into Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Arthur C. Clarke. Out of all of these, Sherlock Holmes stuck out to me as the character I was most fascinated with. I just seemed to understand why he did what he did. His obsessions made sense.

For Adolescents: You can disagree with this—everyone is entitled to his or her own view on family and what's appropriate, and I'm not out to judge. From my own perspective, though, the idea that we need to keep adolescents away from sexual themes or mature situations is absurd. We're learning to handle our own feelings about complex subjects during adolescence, and literature helps us to explore the range of human responses to those experiences and to put them into context.  To that end, I like(d) literature that provokes the budding adult intellect of teenagers. Vonnegut, Twain, Dickens, Orwell, D.H.Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Tom Wolfe (early works), and Anthony Burgess were my favorites during this time. All of them wrote about outsiders in their own way.

For Adults: While I think there are a lot of things that can help teenagers sort out their budding intellectual and sexual adulthood, there are a few writers that I'd save for the over-18 crowd. Generally, this isn't because I find them objectionable, but because my perspective on their works changed so much during my 20s that I don't think I really understood them when I read them as a teen. Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk, Vonnegut (Again), Orwell (Again), Tom Wolfe (later works), Clive Barker, Sapphire, Charles Bukowski, and Alice Walker come to mind here.

**Final note: If these writers are disproportionately white and disproportionately male, I don't apologize for that. I'm a white male. The literature I was exposed to as a young man was recommended to me by other white males. I know full well that this list is not exhaustive, but it's the list that reflects my tastes and upbringing. I want other people to add to it so that other genders, ethnicities,and outlooks are reflected.**