A Matter of Perspective

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Posted by justinemusk | Posted in Writing | Posted on 20-07-2007

–Justine Musk

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My 3 year old son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. At that point my understanding of such things began and ended with the movie RAIN MAN, but it turns out that autism falls along an entire spectrum, from very severe to very mild. My son falls into the mild end and, thanks to early childhood intervention in general, and speech, play, and occupational therapies in particular, gets more expressive and interactive all the time. One day he might fall off the spectrum altogether. He might become this kid who’s just a little bit odd, gets hopelessly lost in his own thoughts, processes the world a bit differently than others.

Like most autistic people, he shows signs of being highly visual and detail-oriented. Words seem a touch alien to him, as if his brain has to twist itself through some yoga positions in order to accommodate them (but yoga gets easier with practice, especially when you’re so young). By two, he could barely talk. Although he seemed to largely understand you, he would not answer a simple yes or no question. He could, however, identify every letter in the alphabet, both upper and lower case, and count to twelve — things he learned off one of those “make your baby a genius who gets into Harvard and rules the world!” DVDs when we were still allowing him screentime. (His fraternal twin brother also watched them, learned nothing, and requested Power Rangers instead.)

He has a collection of stock phrases he’ll use to mean different things, as if playing the same tapes for different reasons. Recently, though, as he becomes more comfortable with language, his language is slowly but steadily turning more spontaneous, flexible, and individualized to the situation at hand – and I expect one day he won’t sound that much different from the kids on the playground. I also suspect that he’ll have trouble following a long string of verbal information until he sees it written down. Abstract concepts might prove difficult for him. He’s quick to learn nouns, the names of things: he can identify a staggering number of animals, and seemed to learn colors and shapes overnight. Ask him to point out the hexagon, or the cylinder, and he can. But ask him if he had fun at the park, and he’ll turn blank. He knows what ‘park’ means, but ‘fun’ is a bit of a mystery.

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My husband also seems to be a highly visual thinker. He writes and speaks extremely well, but on the whole he’s kind of a quiet guy whose mind ruthlessly orients him towards logic, pattern and detail, whether it’s large scale (building a company, building a rocket) or somewhat smaller (noticing the clothes I left on the closet floor).

Most people – or so I’ve read – are not like my husband and my son. Most people are verbal thinkers.

There was once an experiment called Gorillas in Our Midst. The psychologist, Daniel Simons, showed his subjects a video of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of passes made. During the game, while the viewers were watching and counting, a person in a gorilla suit walked onto the screen, faced the camera, thumped her chest several times and walked off.

Half the people in the experiment did not see the gorilla.

And I don’t mean they saw and then forgot the gorilla – the gorilla simply did not register on their visual radar. When the interviewer asked them, “Did you notice the gorilla?”, it wasn’t like the question jogged their memory (“Oh, right, the gorilla!”). Their reaction went more along the lines of , “Gorilla? What the hell…?”

I would have been one of those people.

For all my interest in art, I’m verbal, perhaps to an extreme. I have never managed to develop the habit of taking photographs. I do, however, have a knack for remembering movie scenes and conversations nearly verbatim. I can hold the dialogue in my head, complete with dramatic pauses — which comes in handy when I blog (and disconcerts my friends).

When you pair a verbal thinker like me with a visual thinker like my husband, you get some frustration and argument, especially in the first years of learning how to live with each other. My husband finds it impossible to believe that two weeks have gone by and I still haven’t noticed that one of the outside lights has gone out (“…gorilla? What the hell…?”) And I can’t figure out why he cares.

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As writers, we understand the importance of empathy – of being able to slip inside someone else’s skin, view the world through a different set of eyes. So much of our craft depends on it. But when we talk about taking on different perspectives, chances are we’re talking about gender, culture, race or class, or perhaps sexual or political orientation.

It never occurred to me that there might be different kinds of empathy until I came across this paragraph, written by a woman who herself is autistic. People who claim that autistic individuals can’t empathize, she says, have a limited idea of what empathy even is:

“I have observed that normal people have bad visual empathy. They are often not able to perceive how another person would see something. Many people leave out essential details when they give driving directions because they are not able to imagine what they other driver would be seeing. People have told me that they do not get lost with my directions. Normal people have emotional empathy but some of them lack empathy for sensory over sensitivity in autistic people….Some of the best therapists who work with [autistic people] can empathize with these difficulties because they themselves have struggled with sound, touch, or visual oversensitivity.”

(Temple Grandin, “Thinking In Pictures: My Life With Autism”, Vintage, 1996)

So learning about my son also turns into a lesson about writing, as lessons about life tend to do. When I ask the question, How does this character perceive the world? I have to remember to consider not just belief systems and upbringing and personality, but to bring the question into the body itself. How does the character absorb the sensory world? What does she notice – what does she not notice? How does this shape her life, the kind of profession she goes into?

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Considering the perspective a character takes on the world – without even realizing she’s taking it – reminds me of something urban fantasy writer Holly Black once said. She was speaking about the nature of urban fantasy, how the genre itself is defined by an abnormal slant of seeing:

…most urban fantasy puts the fantastical in the margins and interstitial spaces of life. Therefore, lunatics, drunks and the like–people that are also on the margins–often are portrayed as having greater access and understanding of magic…It, like film noir, is home to flawed and damaged characters and often a troubled loner of a protagonist. There is a sense that beneath the veneer of “normal” life, there exists another world and that to know its secrets is to sacrifice normalcy. That there is an upside down world where the runaways and the disaffected, the criminals and the drunks know the truth but truth’s price is a kind of exile.

And so, the world gets turned upside down, the fool is king, and the structures of everyday life become unstable…

One of the reasons Holly’s words struck me when I read them was because I had deliberately tried to write against the tradition of ‘troubled loner of a protagonist’ in my YA novel UNINVITED. I made my protagonist, Kelly, a likeable, well-adjusted, popular teenage girl. Except as the story worked itself out, Kelly got pushed more and more towards the margin. By the final draft, she had turned into a girl who had once been popular and at the center of things, but no longer. Now she was out at the edges, positioned to see things that would destabilize the structures of everyday life and push her outside ‘normalcy’ altogether – into the place where my story needed to happen. It’s also the place that allows, as Holly puts it, “the possibility of possibility” — which is the true magic.

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There’s always that threat of exile.

The danger of an unusual perspective is that you might get trapped inside it, unable to understand other, more ‘normal’ people or enable them to understand you.

I look at my small, happy son and think about this.

My son will grow up noticing things most people miss. If he doesn’t grasp the big picture — the overarching idea of things — quite as well as those around him, he’ll specialize in a piece of that picture and learn it more deeply than anyone. It’s my job, as he grows up, to help him bridge his private world with the structures of everyday life, so that he can explore the reaches of his own perspective and share with us the strange magic he finds there.

Comments (9)

Justine,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with your son and your thoughts about how different persons percieve the world around them. You provide additional important factors to keep in mind as one develops characters.

In my excursions into scientific literature, I have noticed an ever-increasing suspicion/awareness of scientists of how they interpret what they observe in nature could be flavored by their own experiences and expectations. The individual perspectives you described would also seem to play a role.

Fine piece.

R C Jones

This is an amazingly complex, perceptive piece. I wonder, though, if it is your son…or us…that doesn’t really grasp the larger picture…which picture is larger? Is majority analogous to “correct”? I tend to think not. I fall in the middle ground, somewhere, and I’m often shocked at the lack of perception of others around me of things that seem glaring to me…like when I visited ruins in Israel and Italy, for instance…or when I’m staring at a piece of art for WAY too long…seeing things others miss even when I point them out…

I loved this, and it should be required reading for anyone working in genre fiction because that bit from Holly is dead on.

There’s a guy in our town named Coleman. We call him “The Coal Man” – very tall black man, always wears the same red cap, camouflage pants…always give the backward peace sign to anyone that meets his gaze and babbles loudly … usually the same spiel…”She were MY wife. They said I killed her…” and onward…but he’s never been married.

He lives in that “zone” where things are different…and it’s what makes the magic real…

DNW

Dear Justine –

It is beautiful to watch you figure all this shit out, in precisely the ways you should.

I love the whole “visual empathy” thing. Experiential empathy is HUGE, in terms of sussing the lives of others, and perspectivizing ourselves.

And, of course, your writing is amazing in its thoughtful construction, as usual.

Big love to you and your family!

Yer pal,
Skipp

P.S. — Living on the margins, where shit gets weird and deep?

Jeez, I wonder what THAT’s like!

Yer cacklin’ pal,
Skipp

Excellent insights. I’d bet many of us who take pains to know our characters well enough to understand the filters they have based on personality, cultural factors, prior experience, and so on, don’t think of their basic perceptual wiring.

And, Justine, for whatever it may be worth: You might want to look into the life, the early years especially, of Gary Numan. Well on as an adult, he was diagnosed as having a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, itself a milder form of autism. Some things you mentioned about your little boy sounded similar.

It certainly explains much of what was remarked upon about Numan when he first emerged: his reputation for being socially distant, as if he didn’t quite know how to relate; his at-the-time unprecedented (in pop music, at least) fascination with/use of synthesizers and machine-like rhythms; the preoccupation in his early work with futuristic isolation, etc.; and the android persona he affected.

I have no idea of ANY of it would be relevant, but it’s at least a good case study of someone who took what made him different from everyone around him, without even knowing where it came from, and made it work for him.

Excellent, perceptive essay. I was personally interested in reading it, as my 28-year-old son has mild autism. I remember when he shredded books, drooled on the walls, and ritualistically devoted himself to excessive detail. I’d take him to McDonald’s, and he usually wouldn’t even notice the kids. Now he’s graduated from college with a degree in Mathematics and packages and delivers uniforms in a warehouse. He drives a car and is learning to drive a forklift. David’s also been a cashier at Farm Fresh and a dishwasher at IHOP.

Yes . . . we have to consider the perceptual wiring, the matter of perspective. And our quotidian, matter-of-fact, SANE AND CULTURALLY APPROVED mode of seeing and interpreting reality is not the only way to see it. Who knows what reality is anyway? George Bush sure doesn’t.

Oops, sorry about that last part. I couldn’t help it. Really enjoyed your thoughts on your son and husband.

Justine,

This is one of the most insightful posts I’ve ever read. My nephew and the son of one of my closest friends are autistic, and recently we hired a young man with Asperger’s syndrome to work at our bookstore. Interestingly, the latter is a voracious reader, and two of his favorite authors are Richard Morgan and Harry Potter. When he discusses his favorite books with me, he does so in intensely visual language. His mind translates the stories into a vivid progressions of tableaux, with a staggering recollection for detail about what he “sees,” but little reference to “favorite” characters, or comments such as, “I was so sad when that character died,” or “I hated that bastard.” The young man has a wicked sense of humor, but it comes without emotional context or sexual inuendo. In some ways he reminds me of the character Data on STTNG. He has shattered the verbal barrier, but not the emotive one. He lives inside but not through his body.

Your insights into perceptual and emotive frames of reference are fascinating. With my own writing, the visual descriptions are my strength, but capturing the emotive reality of my characters proves much more difficult–it’s easier to see my way through a scene as opposed to feeling my way through it. But as you’ve pointed out, good writing is a synthesis of the two.

The art of writing is like building a chambered nautilus, constructing frames within frames of reference, spiraling out as the narrative unfolds. We must see, feel, and *experience* from expanding frames of reference, all anchored to the story at the center.

When I put the shell of your writing to my ear, I hear the ocean of humanity. There is more than there, there. Thank you for sharing this, and helping me understand.

Much love, Rob

How embarrassing! Meant to write “J.K. Rowling,” not “Harry Potter.” Harry-brained after twelve hours working the release party. ;-)
–Rob

Great article, Justine–combines the deeply personal with the insightful.

I read somehwere that when S King was asked why he wrote horror, he replied, “What makes you think I can write anything else?”

But there are other writers who seem to be chameleons, who can write pretty much any genre, style. Although I suppose it could be argued their world view remains consistent.

Richard L

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