On Reading and Writing with Asperger’s

We people with Asperger’s – that form of really high-functioning autism that basically programs us for geekiness  – are not crazy about labels like “disability” or “disorder.” A description of Asperger’s that I’ve heard, and like, is “a different wiring of the brain.”

Actually, according to the famous Temple Grandin, we “Aspies” have one of a few different wirings of the brain.

Some think in numbers and patterns. Some (including Grandin herself) think in pictures. Some parents create pictures of their child’s daily schedule, because pictures are the child’s “language.”

But some Aspies, like me, function entirely on words. Yes, I need to-do lists, but I write them in words.

I find words   ̶  puns, rhymes, similes, clichés, and even some ordinary phrases   ̶  entertaining and fun to use.  And I love stories. I am always thinking about stories that I have read or created.

Yes, I’m a reader and a writer.  But I’m still an Aspie, and here are just a few ways that shows in my reading and writing:

My interests and emotional needs are “behind” my chronological age, so I enjoy books that by most typical standards of development I should have outgrown.

I sometimes take figures of speech too literally if they are not familiar. The first time I read Cheaper by the Dozen, when the narrator said the youngest child “upset the apple cart,” I pictured the child knocking over an apple cart while speaking. Of course, the phrase meant she said something that gave away her siblings’ trick.

When I read, the pictures in my head of physical settings fade in and out, or remain blurry or incomplete – with some patches vivid and others covered by blackness – especially if I have never in real life seen the setting described. Sometimes my brain substitute a setting familiar to me but less appropriate to the story. It’s like my brain can’t translate the words into pictures. Noise and activity around me make this worse.

On flip side, I often can’t translate a picture into words. One of my college classes debated whether pictures or words told a story better. I argued that a picture couldn’t tell a story. I just couldn’t “read” the story without a written context.

And I may sit down to read with absolutely no memory of what I previously read from the same book ̶  because real life since I last read has cluttered my brain.

Asperger’s is most of all the inability to appreciate social cues, the obliviousness to unwritten social rules. Well, fiction employs social cues and rules. Authors depict their fictional societies using social cues to oppress, reject, or hurt someone who is different, and sometimes I just…don’t see what the problem is. When my eleventh grade English class read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I just could not see how Edna was being “oppressed” to the extent that death became a triumphant escape. She wasn’t forced to return to her marital home, and as I recall she wasn’t even ostracized or made the subject of gossip. And in The Trouble with Patti, #22 of the 1990s tween series Sleepover Friends, when a substitute teacher singles Patti out as a model student whom other students should emulate, I was unable to sympathize with Patti’s mortification – I was sure I would have been thrilled.

Looking back, I realize that when reading great works of literature heavy with social commentary in both high school and college, I was confused by a great deal of what I read – not just what the social commentary meant, but even the descriptions of what actually went on.

Even when a book clearly depicts people talking about the non-conformist, I have trouble understanding why “They’ll talk about me with less respect if I do it,” for many people equates to “They won’t let me.”

Through Aspies are thought to lack empathy and to never conform, we have a chameleon-like power to absorb emotions, desires, and even writing style. I have cried with vicarious remorse after reading of a teen character doing something unsafe at bidding of peers. I have brooded extensively about why I’m not doing something a character did – even if said character belongs to a completely different demographic or culture, or their activities are well beyond my resources or abilities. And my “creative” writing tends to channel my reading material of the moment. The story that got into my high school’s literary magazine my junior year was eerily derivative of Agatha Christie. I’m not necessarily proud of this phenomenon because – and this may be telling regarding how much brain works too – I feel pressure to be creative. Another thing I can’t relate to is an author or artist feeling pressure to suppress their story because it’s too creative or original – such as the creator of Peter Pan apparently felt, as depicted in the musical Finding Neverland.

I don’t mean to whine about any of the above, or seek pity.  I do intend to educate others about how Asperger brains are “wired” differently.  Just as we Aspies see and interact with the real world differently from how you do, we also see and interact with worlds created on a printed page differently.

Would any other “Aspies” care to offer perspectives about our different reading experiences?




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