Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Theory of Autistic Texts (The 3 "E's" of Autistic Literature)

When contemplating the question of what constitutes an autistic literature, I gravitated toward a "theory of three" model as a satisfying means of laying a working foundation.  I developed what I refer to as "The 3 'E's' of Autistic Literature," which are sensory, modality, and affinity.  (The "E's" are named as such for the common terminal sound in each word, which also nods to the concept of modality that I will discuss later).

Autistic texts would be those created with deliberate consideration of how the sensory, modality, and affinity aspects combine to create a literature most respectful to the needs and desires of neurodiverse readers.


Along with social/communication deficits and repetitive behaviors/interests, autism also manifests as sensory-based issues.

Non-autistic people often have a difficult time imagining what an autistic sensory reality might be like.  Compare the typical non-autistic, public movie-going experience (lights down, volume up) to a typical autistic, public movie-going experience as offered by AMC Sensory Friendly Films (lights up, volume down).  It's the complete opposite!  The autistic preference is counter-sensory (and I'd stretch that to say counter-intuitive) to the non-autistic preference.

I want to posit that a loud and dark movie theatre can bristle the senses and sensibilities of an autistic person just as much as a book's high contrast, text-only (no images), neuro-normative narrative can.  I believe that the "environments" of most books cater more to non-autistic readers than to autistic ones.

If this is the case, then how can we create a sensory experience more friendly for autistic readers?  Again, I must take the opportunity on this blog to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to solutions for improving life experiences for autistic people.  We can, however, work with data provided by research and anecdotal evidence that seems to indicate positive outcomes for segments of autistic people.  And, of course, no single book can be all things to all people.

Many of the literary-sensory features I am about to discuss are already in use and available for autistic readers.  Usage and availability is not necessary widespread or consistent, however.

Intra-book:  Autistic readers can benefit from books full of images, including illustrations, photographs, and/or infographics.  Graphic novels and comics are popular among the neurodiverse crowd.  Some visual processing difficulties can be minimized through the reduction of high contrast design (i.e., black type against a white background).  Typography should also be taken into account, specifically typefaces designed for high readability (e.g., sans serif fonts designed for dyslexic readers).
Extra-book:  Irlen lenses and colored transparencies mitigate visual processing challenges for some autistic readers.  Lighting is also important, as fluorescent bulbs are known to disrupt visual processing in some cases.

Intra-book:  Audio books, enhanced e-books, novelty books, books read aloud, and poetry all provide auditory experiences for readers. The musicality of language and its implications for the autistic
community are worthy of further study.  Temple Grandin notes in The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, "Again and again I've heard from parents and teachers that they taught kids to
talk through singing, and I wondered if there was a scientific basis for this relationship."  Research
indicates that the regions in the typical brain responsible for music and language appear to overlap.
Consequently, it makes sense to leverage this possible neural connection by increased exposure to language that is distinctly musical-- for example, poetry written with an emphasis on sound and rhythm, as opposed to form and imagery.
Extra-book:  The absence or presence of sound or a sound's quality/volume/frequency can either enhance or detract from the reading experience of an autistic person.  An audio environment can be experimented with in any number of ways for optimal impact on reading.  Different forms of white noise can improve concentration.  Musical instruments can be used to accent or "accompany" reading passages, supporting multiple pathways to learning.

Intra-book:  Novelty books are good at exploring the world in many textured ways and can be a virtual playground for the hands.  Even standard book covers and pages come in all different "feels,"
from slick and smooth to rough and scratchy.  A hand's imagination can run wild.  Some autistic readers may prefer the cool smoothness and interactivity that characterizes reading on a tablet.  An exciting and growing format of books designed originally for blind readers, the 3D-printed tactile picture book, has potential cross-over appeal for autistic readers seeking tactile stimulation.
Extra-book:  There are many ways to incorporate the tactile sense while reading, including offering fidget toys, utilizing a weighted vest or lap pad, positioning on a tactile therapy ball, or featuring a water-based setting that includes water-proof "bath books."

Intra-book:  The olfactory sense is uncommonly accommodated in the process of reading, but there are novelty books with "scratch-and-sniff" components.  Authors can also pack language with scent-based references.
Extra-book:  Although most books aren't designed with olfactory features, it would not be difficult to
introduce a scented experience for autistic readers.  Aromatherapy-based reading can be offered
through herbal beanbags, scented fidget toys, essential oil sprays, and scent inhalers.  When thinking of how powerful an impact scents can have on memory in a neurotypical brain (e.g., one smell can bring back summer/childhood/a favorite holiday), it seems like a worthwhile effort to explore how scents could possibly support learning, memory, and sensory stabilization for autistic readers.

Intra-book:  Despite the phrase, Reader's Digest, and the notion of someone "devouring" a book, there are obvious limitations to a book's ability to directly address the gustatory sense.  For the most part, an author's use of language would be the closest means of conjuring the sense of taste.
Extra-book:  There are ample opportunities to include the gustatory sense alongside reading.  I blogged about one such way in a post titled "Litereat, Literate."   It can be as simple as eating while reading, or eating what you read, as in the case of the Edible Book Festival.


Of the "3 'E's' of Autistic Literature," the modality aspect has the potential to be the most defining characteristic of neurodiverse texts.  If a book is a written record of a particular brain's approach to language, thought organization, and worldview, then an autistically-informed expression of language, thought organization, and worldview will appear necessarily distinct.

The modalities I describe below were first introduced in Temple Grandin's ground-breaking book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.  As one might expect, these are not mutually exclusive autistic brain types, and Grandin acknowledges that a blending and overlapping of thinking
modalities is probably the norm.  These dominant autistic-thinking pathways parallel Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, but differ from the latter in their full consideration of how an autistic neurology can impact the process of thinking.

Picture Thinker
Visually-appealing books for all readers have gained steam in the marketplace in recent years.  While once enjoyed primarily by young children in the form of picture books, readers of all ages/abilities can select visually-friendly books in the form of graphic novels, comics, and manga.  There's still wide open space to support older/advanced readers with illustrated novels, however.

Visual books for picture thinkers can serve the neurodiverse population well by addressing visual-sensory issues, special interests common to the autistic population, and other autistic thinking modalities (i.e., pattern thinkers and word-fact thinkers).

Putting it all together, an autistic book well-suited to a picture thinker would be designed with sensory considerations (e.g., a legible-friendly typeface and low contrast setting), and might feature train locomotive schematics accompanied by a text either oriented to a word-fact thinker (e.g., a text focused on compiling, detailing, and cataloging information on a subject), or a text oriented to a pattern thinker (e.g., a text focused on uncovering and illuminating a subject's underlying structures, similarities, and symmetries within itself or when compared to other subjects.)

Pattern Thinker
Of all the autistic thinking modalities, pattern thinkers are probably the least served in today's literary marketplace.  My very unscientific speculation as to the reason why might have something to do with pattern thinking as being a cognitive pathway most divergent to those common in non-autistic thinking.  It's the "left-handed girl in a right-handed world" phenomenon.

Books designed for pattern thinkers would take sensory considerations in mind, while also addressing the manifestation and expression of patterns across a multiplicity of forms, including images, natural
objects, numbers, language, and data sets.   The visual content and text would work in tandem to support the revelations of a pattern-rich world.

One possible book for pattern thinkers could be a compilation of photographs of naturally-occurring
fractals accompanied by a text of highly-formalized poetry.

Word-Fact Thinker

Word-fact thinkers have far more options when it comes to book selection than do pattern thinkers.  This shouldn't come as a surprise, when considering that the strength of their thinking is rooted in language itself.   Even though autistic word-fact thinkers can feel quite cozy with nonautistic encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, compendiums, guidebooks, handbooks, and manuals, these materials can also be specifically designed with autistic needs in mind.

Whether addressing sensory issues, incorporating more visual content, or even including literary material embedded within the heavy "word-fact" text itself, informational books can definitely be designed to be more neuro-friendly.

I will borrow my example of a possible book for pattern thinkers as a possible book for word-fact thinkers, with some modifications.  Along with the compilation of photographs of naturally-occurring fractals (something like a fractal handbook), the book would feature a factoid-rich text that could be
presented either relatively "straight-ahead," or more literarily/poetically.  The more "poem-like" the text, and the more formalized the poetry, then the more likely the book will appeal to the pattern thinking modality, as well.


The final "'E' of  Autistic Literature" addresses the need to respect and incorporate the passions and special interests of neurodiverse readers.  Books for autistic readers must connect with affinities, instead of hiding from them, or worse, denying them.

For a particularly eloquent rationale, I want to quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind's book, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.  Suskind recounts the story of how Disney films provided a template and framework that enabled his severely autistic son to communicate his thoughts and feelings.

Here are Suskind's words: "There's a reason-- a good enough reason-- why each autistic person has embraced a particular interest.  Find that reason, and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacities.  Authentic interest will help them feel dignity, and impel them to show you more, complete with maps and navigational tools that may help to guide their development, their growth.  Revealed capability, in turn, will lead to a better understanding of what's possible in the lives of many people who are challenged.  Affinity to Capability to Possibility."

Plugging into autistic readers' special interests establishes a personal relevancy and meaningfulness that can support literacy development and real-world connections.


In conclusion, the "3 'E's' of Autistic Literature" are presented as a starting point, not an end point, in what I hope will be an ever-evolving conversation on the exciting possibilities of autistic literature for young people-- a literature that respects the needs, concerns, and desires of a neurodiverse readership. I look forward to many more voices rising up to offer commentary and insight.  Please feel free to send me an email with your thoughts.  Thank you for your interest!

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