Friday, February 12, 2010
The Asperger Fiction Reader: Not a Contradiction in Terms
From the moment I started reading Michael Makovi's blog, I suspected that he had Asperger syndrome. This was someone who wrote about theory and was willing to follow theory to its practical implications without concern with making friends. His focus on political theory, particularly within the context of the minutia of early modern history, as opposed to practical policy could not simply be a coincidence. This was someone who did not fit into the obvious political and religious categories and who clearly formulated his view of the world from reading and not from some social group. Once he started talking about his failures with women, I was convinced. So I asked him if he was familiar with Asperger syndrome and pointed him to the Simon Baron Cohen quiz. Makovi has now posted his results. Normal people usually score a sixteen. People on the spectrum usually score above thirty. Makovi scored a 37. I would like to hereby welcome him to the club. I take this as a testament to my ever increasing power to infect people with Asperger syndrome. I usually have to bite people, I guess now I can infect people through a blogospheric evil eye. Mothers lock up your children and be afraid; I am autism and I am dangerous.
The Baron Cohen quiz is useful, though I have one objection to it. It assumes that people on the spectrum would have a problem with fiction. The quiz asks how well the following sentiments fit:
20. When I'm reading a story, I find it difficult to work out the characters' intentions.
21. I don't particularly enjoy reading fiction.
The idea here is that fiction requires the reader to consider other people's motivations and emotions. People with Asperger syndrome are not supposed to have a theory of mind, to understand that other people think differently from them, and have a difficult time putting themselves in other people's shoes. Our Asperger book club in Columbus was started and received funding to study the relationship between Asperger syndrome and fiction reading, precisely on the assumption that we would have a problem with fiction. One of the ground rules, which we were placed under, was that we had to choose works of fiction for the club and could not do non-fiction. Ironically enough they were not able to put together a separate control group of neurotypicals to see how our reactions to the reading material differed from theirs. They could not round up a group of neurotypicals to participate in a book club.
I certainly have not done a full study of this, but in my personal experience it is not so simple. I, for one, do enjoy fiction. I would argue that my interest in reading is not despite my Asperger syndrome, but is one of the ways that I manifest Asperger behavior. Obviously I take to books much easier than people. Books are much better friends than people; they are easier to decode and you can open and close them as it suits you. Books do not misunderstand you and try to hurt you. Fiction provides precisely the sort of "human" relationship that I can deal with. The motivations of characters are written in words that I can decipher, as opposed to facial expressions.
Among the members of the group, there were quite a number of readers. Even one of the more "non-readers" is a big Tom Clancy fan. I would argue that Clancy is a good example of fiction that would be a good fit for Aspergers. It has lots of technical details, plot driven stories and characters whose motives are fairly simple to follow; there are the bad guys out to unleash some global calamity and the good guys trying to stop them. There are a number of hard core science fiction and fantasy fans in the group. Again these are types of fiction that would seem to be very well suited for the Asperger mind. The focus is less on forcing the reader to grapple with figuring out the character's emotions and motivations. Instead we have world building, where the reader gets to explore the rules of a different world and what makes it work in all its technical detail, and an action centered story, where people do things.
I am not suggesting that all Aspergers like fiction, let alone Tom Clancy, science fiction and fantasy. I do wish to argue that the fiction/non-fiction model is too simplistic. There are types of fiction that may appeal to Aspergers precisely because of their Asperger syndrome. Thus I would emend the questions on reading from simple a matter of whether someone likes fiction to whether they like non plot oriented fiction in which the point is to guess at character motivations that are never explicitly put onto the page.