Reading Against the Grain
If there’s one thing, and only one thing, that I’m going to talk about with regard to autism and communication, it has to be the way that it changes the context of what I’m reading when I read literature. For me, almost every story I encounter is multicultural literature, since almost all of them have either been written by allistic people or for allistic audiences.
It might seem like this is a small thing, or overly obvious, but it’s not. Consider this: that every time you are about to read a story from 50 or 100 years ago, or from a region of the United States you’ve never lived in, you are actually reading about another culture, another people, and another set of social assumptions that you don’t really understand.
Most of us latch on to this and do the work of cultural translation when the break between ourselves and the characters we’re reading about is obvious, like when we read work that is translated from another language or by someone from a different racial or ethnic background. Sometimes, our teachers try to remind us that the social and cultural realities that books respond to are not the same as the ones we are experiencing, but more often than not, they do so in a way that still attempts to make the story’s message meaningful to our immediate circumstances.
That’s not how reading works for me. Unless I’m reading work by other Autistic people that is intended for an Autistic audience, I am constantly caught up in an attempt to understand the context of the intended reader’s experience. To me, as an outside observer, the enjoyment of the story is equal parts what is actually in the story and what the writer’s choices say about zir view of the “average” reader of zir time and place. Each book is an argument about what a writer thinks the commonly held beliefs of zir culture are and what that writer’s attitude toward said beliefs are.
I am never closer to another human being than I am to the writer of a book while I am reading it. If I were able to coast along on the assumptions about motivation and priority that govern most people’s approaches to storytelling, I would not find myself looking so deeply into each story. If I did not have to struggle to understand why characters would care what other characters think about them, then I would miss out on the varying levels of cultural conformity and the diverse ways that deviance has been policed across different societies.
If I thought like allistic people thought, I might have missed the fact that Dickens’ London is absolutely not the same place as Woolf’s London, and that the entire social ethic of the two writers’ times has changed to the point where the decadence that lies between them is not merely an artistic change, but an actual death and rebirth of a national identity.
I’m not saying that allistic people don’t do this. English departments exist in colleges because they do. What I’m saying is that they have to be specially trained to do it, and they usually only apply these skills and methods of thinking to literature. For me, these skills are a natural part of my communication process, because the act of close reading is the same as the act of translation across languages and cultural contexts. Since almost every conversation I have had in my entire life has involved this kind of translation, every communication I have is roughly following the same process I use for unpacking literature.
Because the way that I read and understand stories is tied in to the way that I navigate communication in everyday contexts, people think that I have a special insight into the things I read. This is often reinforced by the fact that I have so much to say about so many things when I read, even if I only read something once. What they miss, though, is that the effort I save by being able to close read something in a single pass is not really energy saved. It is counterbalanced by the fact that every communication I have with other people is just as taxing to me as doing full-on literary interpretation.
The result of this uneasy balance is a tendency to communicate in parables. It is much easier for me to tell a story and then to wait for someone to unpack its meaning than it is for me to have a straightforward discussion with someone. This is an extremely helpful thing to me when I am working, but it can be frustrating when I am dealing with people in a face-to-face setting. When I find those communication partners that can recognize it for what it is, though, then I have some of the most rewarding conversations I’ve ever had.
When I can’t communicate in stories, analogies, or parables, then finding words becomes much, much more difficult for me. Luckily, as I produce more and more creative work, there are less and less people demanding that I talk to them in their own ways. They are learning to switch into my vocabulary, to view my less direct communications for what they are.
My need to deeply interrogate everything I read has not always been met. There was a long time in my life when I struggled so much to grasp the basic point of character behavior that seemed utterly inane to me, and I was not mature enough to accept that behavior I did not understand could be motivated by honest and worthwhile thought. I was nearly thirty before I found the maturity to see that the world was not divided into cultural contexts that I could decode and banal ramblings by people with empty lives, but that it was instead simply full of cultural contexts that could be decoded if I had the right scaffolding.
Stories are the textbooks to our theory of mind. The important thing to remember is that not everyone will read a textbook and develop the same theory. If we did, then there would never be controversy and debate, and our discourse would be nonexistent.
Please remember this article the next time you hear someone call another person’s communication “nonsense”.