Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Academic well-roundedness, fiction, and autism

Recently, I've watched my 13-year-old autistic son struggle through a couple of 4th-grade-reading-level novels, getting almost nothing out of them.  This has made me wonder how reasonable it is to insist, as J's teachers do, that someone like him read fiction.

Here's a child who readily reads technical manuals, does pretty well with grade-level science texts and with 4th-grade-level history books, but who misses most of what matters in all but the most simple, basic, character-driven fiction.  

After all, he's autistic.  Empathy, perspective-taking, social reasoning, socio-cultural background knowledge--all of these to some extent elude him.  So do character's motivations, author's intent, theme, tone, and the emotional effects of literary devices.

On the one hand, carefully chosen fiction might help him with his social reasoning skills by giving him opportunities to see characters interacting.  To this end, however, I generally prefer movies and TV shows: audio-video venues capture many more of the cues of real-life social interaction than does printed text (though we keep this channel open as well, with captions turned on for extra feedback).  

But if the goal is the "well-rounded" liberal arts education that comes from appreciating literature, I'm not sure it's a realistic one when it comes to those children whose social deficits are as extreme as J's.  I'm all in favor of a well-rounded education for most kids, and wary of underestimating potential and prematurely shutting off opportunities for academic development.  But it seems to me that, for kids like my son, by the time they reach middle school, the benefits of eliminating literature from their academic portfolios may well outweigh the costs. In particular, it would free up time for activities specifically targeted to improve social skills.


RMD said...

I agree with your points, and suggest that you may be illuminating more general problems with literature instruction.

I found when I was growing up that literature instruction was poorly taught. We were asked to read books and then divine the general points from the books, with little or no specific instruction about the time period or other context that would help understand the book. As a pretty literal kind of person, I had a hard time figuring out what they were talking about.

Now, as an adult, I can search the internet and find books that talk about plots and other devices so that I don't have to divine meaning anymore . . . I can use models that will help me interpret the book and understand it better.

I get the feeling that literature instruction is similar to math instruction . . . the teachers don't really understand the underlying structure all that well, so the blame for any failures is placed with the students.

Anonymous said...

As someone on the spectrum I can relate. I consume technical manuals like water. History is hit or miss; if I find the particular subject interesting to me then I’ll tear thru the book. If it’s not interesting I wouldn’t be able to read it to save my life.
I have never been found of fiction in a typical setting. I had to Cliff Notes my way through classic literature. But I was drawn to fiction outside ‘our world’. Dune & LoTR were easily consumed during high school and that is when I found my true love of reading.
My eldest will not read any of the popular books that girls read (or boys). But right now she is reading the Beast Quest series and pretty much anything Pokemon.
For me I think I don’t watch or read much (if anything) related to the ‘real world’, because I get enough of that every day. I don’t really want it for entertainment. It needs to be far enough removed from reality in order for it to hold any interest for me.
Sometimes the motivation of the characters still eludes me, and often takes reading a book more than once to really start to grasp the character’s motives. It helps that science fiction and fantasy characters are often a bit more contrasted and easier to dissect.
There is one rule about staying up past bedtime in my house and it’s ‘only if you are reading something’. Making kids read books they don’t like is a sure way to turn them off to reading. I won’t say there is no value in having them read ‘normal’ books now and then, but honestly, anything I needed to learn from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ I got out of the Cliff Notes.