But I Don’t Want a Comic Book!
Posted by Neal on June 29, 2004
As I’ve noted in a previous post, my son Adam has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of whose manifestations can be linguistic difficulties, in particular in dealing with non-literal uses of language, such as catching on to jokes, or dealing with figurative language, or “reading between the lines” when talking with other people. This trait, along with difficulty in recognizing and responding to social cues, is a hallmark of one ASD known as Asperger syndrome, though it is not limited to it.
This is information that my wife and I got when we started researching the subject of autism about 2 years ago. As I read the various diagnostic criteria, a thought that kept occurring to me was, “Nevermind Adam, what about me?” Tendency to take things literally, difficulty in reading social cues … it seemed to me that both of those could apply to me. On the other hand, you can also read your horoscope and find that it fits you pretty well, too. And you can read someone else’s horoscope and find that it fits you. So I couldn’t make the call with certainty. Still, I especially remembered one time when a literal interpretation and obliviousness to the nonverbal cues and context worked in concert to get me in trouble. In fact, I’m remembering it right now…
One day in 4th grade, we’d just finished watching the educational TV program “Mulligan Stew,” all about nutrition. As Mrs. Schoggin turned off the TV and turned on the lights, she mentioned that there was even a “comic book” that went with this show. She had a legal pad that she was going to pass around; if we wanted one of these comic books, we could sign up.
I couldn’t get too excited about a comic book based on “Mulligan Stew.” Any comic book based on that would have to be pretty lame. In fact, it probably wasn’t even a real comic book at all … more like a workbook, probably. No, thank you! When the legal pad came my way, I passed it on.
At the end of the day, Mrs. Schoggin observed that I hadn’t signed my name, and she handed me the pad so I could do it before dismissal. I explained that I didn’t want one. Then all of a sudden several classmates were saying, “Just sign it, Neal!” What was the big deal? Why did they care if I signed it? Hadn’t they listened to the instructions? You sign up if you want a comic book. I didn’t want one, so I didn’t sign up. Pretty soon the bell rang, and that was the end of it.
Or so I thought. A few weeks later, Mrs. Schoggin received the box with all the comic books in it, and as she walked around the class passing them out, she put one on my desk.
“Oh, I didn’t order one!” I said, handing it back.
“I put your name down,” she said, as if it were just some oversight of mine that she’d corrected.
As I flipped through the book, I could see that my suspicions had been right. There were assignments to do in there! I didn’t object to doing them so much–if she had simply told us that we were going to have this workbook, I would have accepted it like any other assignment–but the fact that the choice had all been a sham really ticked me off. If she was going to order one for everyone anyway, why give us a choice? But I wasn’t articulate enough to say that. Instead, I just said, “Aw, heck!” and got sent to the office.
Dad got mad at me that night, and said the lesson I should learn was that when a teacher suggested doing something, very often it was not optional. This was my first lesson in pragmatics, the branch of linguistics that deals with (among other things), reading between the lines.
Anyway, it may well be that Adam came by his ASD through me. Whether he has or not, at least I’m in a good position to know how it feels not to understand what someone’s saying, even though you think you’re following all the rules, and perhaps can give him some tips like this one that I had to learn the hard way.