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 more easily 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 hardcore 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 amend the questions on reading from simply 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.


Clarissa said...

I'm a 38 on the Baron Cohen quiz. I am also a literary critic and a professor of literature. I read between 6 and 10 hours every day. I know that because, having Asperger's, I time the activities that matter to me.

I find that my Asperger's is absolutely invaluable to me in my profession. So I agree with your brilliant post 100%.

Anonymous said...

Who knew Aspergers could be this much fun.

Darn, maybe i got it too..

Garnel Ironheart said...

Ahhhhhh! I scored 36!

But I have ADHD and there's gotta be some overlap!

Izgad said...

I should point out that we are a self selecting group here. It makes sense that regular bloggers would be far more likely than the general population either to have Asperger syndrome or at least numerous Asperger traits. The defining characteristic of us bloggers is that, of our own free will, we choose to spend hours every day reading and commenting on other blogs and writing our own, time that could be spent engaged in regular human contact. It is reasonable to conclude from this that bloggers are more comfortable with and have a need to engage the world through the analytical written word as opposed to non-analytical body language.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

It's interesting that you attribute my iconoclastic and idiosyncratic philosophy (from books and not people, from technical details of history and not from contemporary reality) to Asperger's. I have long known about my idiosyncracies in philosophy, but I never would have attributed it to Asperger's.

Just for the record, however: my brother is a die-hard libertarian, and as far as I know, it is based entirely on his reading and his own personal experiences, with no input or influences from social circles. (He lives in Washington, D. C., the leftist capital of America, and so he is not influenced by his environment.) So, like me, his views are very iconoclastic and idiosyncratic. However, my brother has always been very popular socially, and he is also very adept at using others' emotions against them. For example, I have an extremely thick skin, and can withstand almost any criticism, but my brother is able to reduce me to tears within seconds, if he so desires. He is both socially adept, as well an expert at utilizing human psychology against others. He's also an excellent actor. Whatever is the opposite of Asperger's, my brother has it. And yet, he has iconoclastic views, just as I do.

As for fiction: I suppose that really, it's not so much that I cannot understand fiction, as much as that I don't like fiction. But the notion that I cannot (or do not like to try to) understand others' emotions and thoughts, provided the best explanation I've ever thought of, for why I do not like fiction. Also, I definitely am utterly incapable of writing fiction myself.

Also, there are a few pieces of fiction I have indeed liked, such as:
--- The alternate-history fiction of Harry Turtledove (such as his Great War trilogy, depicting WWI as if the South had won the Civil War - the Confederate States of America joins the Allies and opposes the Axis-aligned USA)
--- The Dungeons and Dragons novels of R. A. Salvatore (anything related to Drizzt do'Urden and Icewind Dale)
--- A Battletech / Mechwarrior novel I once read
--- The Air Force / air combat-centric novels of Dale Brown (such as his Flight of the Old Dog)

The common denominator of all those novels is that they are very action-based, with very little need for the reader to discern emotions and thoughts.

Whether I'm not able to understand other kinds of fiction, or whether I simply don't enjoy doing so, I'm not sure.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

As I recall, I also enjoyed the Odyssey. This would make sense, given what you (Izgad) say: see "Odysseus' Scar" by Erich Auerbach.

Izgad said...

I would argue that there is something about Libertarianism that would particularly appeal to those on the spectrum. For me Libertarianism allows me a consistent set of rules that I can apply across the board to set forth what rights people have in terms of society and government. When talking about your political ideology I was thinking about how you expressed yourself. For example there is your willingness to seriously contemplate theocracy with capital punishment. I have my rape and lobster argument that I have been debating for years whether to post.

I am familiar with the essay from a few years ago when I worked on a project on mimesis. If we are to follow your logic it would become a question of why either of us would like Tanach. I guess we would have serious need for Midrash to fill in all the gaps for us.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Maybe with Tanakh, because nothing is said about emotions and thoughts, it allows us to read the Tanakh according to our own opinions and thought-processes?

I.e., the Tanakh is so vague and open-ended - and this is of course what necessitated Midrash in the first place - that even someone with Asperger's can read it, and read himself into it, if worst comes to worst.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Maybe also those with Asperger's, being very individualistic, tend towards a political ideology that is also individualistic.

I've told people that democracy has no actual substantive opinions on anything, contrary to what leftists say. All democracy is, is a framework, a scaffolding, describing how the government is to mediate conflicts between people and oversee society. But everyone, or every society, or every community, can fill that democratic mold with his or her or their own personal beliefs. So it gives someone a lot of leeway to formulate his own belief system and then pour those beliefs into a democratic mold or hang them on a democratic scaffolding.

And since democracy tends towards anarchism, it resonates with anyone who is individualistic or asocial.

Anonymous said...

Since "the moment I started reading" your first line I was ROLLING...I had thought that myself about Mike's blog, even before I thought that about Mike himself - even before I thought that ABOUT myself. I scored a 36 on the B-C AQ test and have a nephew with AS (his dad scored a 32), and of recent have no problem getting myself professionally diagnosed. I think Mike should too, and post it on his blog so that he can both reach more people and be more understood by others in his blog. He may have already started on this, since this is an old post. If not - mike, please consider getting diagnosed and working on this.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Here, this neuroscientist speculates that there is an causal overlap between libertarianism and psychopathy. I wonder if there might be a similar link between autism and libertarianism?

Also, I remember reading once, that depressed people often have a more realistic understanding of the world than non-depressed people. If you think about it, life is tenuous and unpredictable, and the logical thing is to be depressed. Apparently, normal people aren't depressed because their brains ignore the terrifying truth about reality. I have wondered if perhaps libertarians are also more aware of the reality of government and politics than normal people, and if so, perhaps there might be some link between libertarianism and depression?

All this is pure speculation, of course.

Izgad said...

I did a piece on that.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Oh, wait, maybe you're the one from whom I learned about that video...