More than a place--it's a writer's muse.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Autism Taught me about Writing.

It's so easy to talk down to a person with autism, in much the same way as one might feel the urge to shout in the presence of a non-hearing person. Even now, thirteen years after my oldest son's diagnosis, he remains mostly nonverbal (except when reading out loud, but that's for another blog, another day).

I sometimes find myself directing David in baby sentences, making the presumption that if he cannot answer me, or show me with eye contact or via gesture that he is attending to my voice, then he does not comprehend.

And it drives him nuts. There is no better way to insure David's non-compliance than talking to him like a baby. And yes, I've kept data charts on this, so I know what I'm talking about here.

I've gotten a lot of flak from fellow behaviorists and special education teachers for the choices I've made to read age appropriate material to David. I feed him these age appropriate works of literature because the truth is, we have no standardized way of verifying his intellect, or his lack thereof.

So, in the measurable absence of intelligence, I have chosen to presume his intelligence, and give my son the benefit of the doubt as far as literacy is concerned. After all, who am I harming?


Nobody.

And if I'm right, and he does understand every word I say? Then failing to do so would amount to outright intellectual neglect.

When my son started reading out loud after a couple of years of this, and becoming able (on his good days) to answer multiple choice tests on information I'd read out to him, I realized that my son had an awful lot more going on inside his head than any of us could ever imagine.


My sons, they teach me. Not just about raising kids, but about writing better books.

I'm beginning to learn that one of the biggest mistakes I've made as a writer has been to risk spoon feeding information to my reader on the assumption they won't follow if I force them to depend on subtleties in character actions and dialogue.

I was watching the movie "UP" with my kids this weekend.

The movie took a lot of risks, and let me tell ya, I like risks. In killing off a beloved character as the inciting incident, the movie gave it's young audience an awful lot of credit for both emotional intelligence, resilience, and empathy.

It was a good gamble. It was also the right choice for that particular story. And it got me to thinking about my own stories.

In the future, I'm going to treat my readers with the same presumption of intellect and emotional depth that I give my children.

Readers are smart.

And so are people with autism.

Failing to presume as much bears far greater consequences than presuming illiteracy.

What about you? How do you feel when you're being spoonfed information? How much is too much--or too little?

8 comments:

Robin said...

It is a rule to live by: Expect more, you will gain more. You expected from David intelligence level. He expects more from himself. He rose to it. Good for you. Good for him. I use "big words" with my toddlers. People scoff and snear "They don't know what that means." Well, no, they won't unless I teach it to them. So, I'm teaching them. Our society will be a better place when we expect more from ourselves and others.

Gail Hart said...

This reminds me of a line from page 283 of "On Writing" by Stephen King, where he's explaining why he cut certain language from a first draft: "I'm doing a lot of the reader's thinking for him here. Since most readers can think for themselves, I felt free to cut from five lines to just two."

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Robin, you have lucky children. :) Thank you!

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Gail, that's a fantastic book, and one I truly need to revisit!

Shannon Delany said...

Very interesting, Liane.

I applaud your choice to read David age appropriate material. We have so little information on autism... We barely are starting to understand the workings and potential of so-called "normal" brains.

Spoon-feeding readers has been frowned upon especially in the picture, MG and YA levels where readers are very blunt about their feelings of being talked down to.

Expectation often directly influences results--you see it in classrooms (and families) all the time.

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Interesting point about classroom expectations, Shannon. That can work two ways, I imagine. They can color results both positively and negatively.

You always make me think. I like that about you! :)

Saranna DeWylde said...

I talk to my own children with age appropriate terms, but I never talk down to them. Even when they were tiny. Both of my children, even my daughter with dyslexia, they both have astounding vocabularies.

I think it's wrong to assume what people can learn or what they know by a standardized set of limitations. The human brain is an amazing thing that seems to adapt to almost any situation.

I'm so proud that you're my friend.

I also agree on the writing. It's wrong to assume that our readers are stupid. If we do, we're buying into that stereotype that smart women don't read romance. And where did we begin? We were readers first. *wink*

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Amen, Saranna!!!! And I'm proud to be your friend, too. My Divas...they complete me! :)

 
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