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.
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.
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?
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.
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.