Nonfiction, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

In two past articles, I have argued that autistics don’t typically like fiction and that we tend to prefer science fiction and fantasy over more mainstream fiction. This seems to be contradictory, but I would argue that both are true.

Autistics tend to read less fiction and to not like fiction; however, if they do get turned on by fiction, it’s likely to be either science fiction or fantasy. I suspect that more “mainstream” fiction is too ambiguous for autistics– that is, the boundaries between the real (nonfiction) and fiction is too blurred and thus a bit confusing–or perhaps it’s that science fiction and fantasy are more focused on plot (action) than on character development. The characters in science fiction and fantasy are less “human” so to speak, than in mainstream novels. We have a hard time relating to characters in the latter than in the former, as a consequence.

With science fiction, at least, there is also a tendency to have a focus on science and technology, two areas of particular interest to many if not most on the autism spectrum. While I always wanted to read, I have discovered many on the spectrum do not care to read all that much. But really, it’s like almost anything with autism–find the right topic, and it’s easy to get them to read (or talk). I recently got a 12-year-old autistic boy to read a book simply by finding a book about sharks (like Daniel, he’s interested in sharks). Until then, getting him to read was like pulling teeth. Without novocaine. And without strapping the patient down.

Part of the problem may simply be that many on the spectrum simply don’t see the point of reading fiction. If it didn’t happen, if you can’t learn something factual from it, why read it? Combine that with the typical autistic problem of understanding metaphors and other issues of literalism, and it might make sense why many autistics avoid fiction.

Science fiction can of course help with these matters, because science fiction involves science and technology, meaning it’s rooted in things autistics tend to like. The preference for fantasy among fiction-reading autistics, however, is a bit more of a mystery. Perhaps the fact that it’s so obviously untrue makes it attractive. It’s all so outlandish, outrageous that we’re comfortable in it.

Nietzsche, who I suspect to have been on the autism spectrum, argued that art is true because it doesn’t pretend not to be untrue. He was talking about how we believe science to tell us what is true, with scientists themselves presenting their findings as true (when their findings are ultimately falsified into theories and generalities that cover the variations among all things), but we can perhaps see how this attitude, when applied to literature, would make even more obviously “untrue” literature, like fantasy and science fiction, more attractive. Surely the more untrue art appears to be, the more true it really is.

Science fiction, fantasy, and video games are all plot-driven and do not focus much on character development. The internal goings-on of the average person is a mystery to us, and so it’s also possible that science fiction and fantasy are comfortable to us because these genres tend not to focus on those things. We see people acting, and we supply our own interpretations of why they act that way; we can do the same in plot-driven fiction.

All of these are mostly preliminary thoughts on this issue. I like fiction, but if the books I’ve read are any indication, I like nonfiction books more. Yet, I write fiction. But the reason I write fiction–especially short stories–is that I am typically trying to figure out what people were thinking when they did certain things. And of course I read fiction because I write fiction, as any moderately decent artist would. I haven’t written any short stories in a while, and I have several unfinished novel manuscripts, but I am now working on a fantasy epic, so I guess I’ve learned to become who I am.

A Clash of Cultures

Do you have trouble keeping secrets? Do you find you typically tell the truth, even when it’s socially inconvenient? Do you tend to over-share with everyone, including complete strangers? Are you direct and to the point–to the point that people often think you’re rude? Are you unsure what is or is not acceptable joking? Or what is or is not an acceptable comment? Are you unsure why people want to talk about the same daily nonsense and don’t understand why they don’t want to talk to you when you’re the one with something interesting to say?

If this sounds like you, you may be part of a small bioculture people call “autistic.” I say “bioculture” because it recognizes the fact that culture has its roots in human biology, in neural structures. All of the normal things neurotypical humans do are part of the broader underlying human culture, of which there are many variations. Those underlying patterns on which cultures develop–which include keeping secrets, having privacy, being indirect, engaging in small talk, and understanding the social rules of appropriate comments and jokes–are simply not the natural patterns of autistic people.

I want you to imagine for a moment a culture of autistics. Imagine, if you will, a culture where everyone means what they say and say what they mean, sugarcoat nothing, are always direct, rarely if ever lie, consider fixing problems to actually be a demonstration of empathy, engage in almost nothing but in-depth conversations about a wide variety of topics, do not typically fear death, value rationality and evidence above everything else, simultaneously respect other’s privacy while also being an open book themselves, consider science fiction, fantasy and video games to be the height of culture, are science and fact-oriented, and almost everyone has perfect pitch.

How would you feel? If you’re on the spectrum, it sounds like heaven. (Would we be as anxious as we are now?) But if you’re not, how socially awkward would you be? Remember what I said about if we pathologized neurotypical behavior.

A Literature of Autism for Empathy-Creation

On one of my other blogs, Interdisciplinary World, I wrote about a CNN article that discusses some of the more recent work that has been done on the connection between fiction and empathy-creation. This connection suggests several things to me regarding the gulf between autistic and neurotypical people.

One of these is perhaps very obvious, which is that autistic people need to read more fiction, and neurotypical people need to read/view more fiction with autistic characters. What is perhaps less obvious is that autistic people don’t actually seem to read much fiction or be all that interested in it (perhaps because too many works of fiction do not have many characters to which they can connect). Further, there is probably not a lot of fiction out there with explicitly autistic characters.

This means that autistic people cannot create the anchor needed to become interested in fiction and thus be exposed to other minds than theirs, and neurotypical people cannot delve into the fictional minds of autistic characters to develop empathy for them.

Meaning, we need a literature of autism. Or, at the very least, a reading list of autistic authors and fiction with autistic characters. Anyone care to contribute to creating that list?