Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

10 Responses to “But I Don’t Want a Comic Book!”

  1. I don’t think that’s a problem with you not reading social cues. I think that’s a problem with your teacher being an idiot. If she wanted to give everyone a workbook, she should have done so. I would have interpreted her request just as you did: as an option to sign up for a lame promotional workbook that I wouldn’t want to own.

    I wonder to what extent people who have trouble reading social cues tend to blame themselves for not understanding other people’s poor communication when in fact, the other person is at fault. I would guess it’s probably fairly frequent for people who know they have a problem to over-attribute their difficulties to that problem. That certainly can’t help but make the problem seem more daunting, which probably makes it harder to overcome.

  2. I’m with Amy. There’s a difference between social cues and subtle manipulation. If the teacher had said, “I’d like you all to sign up for this comic book,” and you interpreted her as making a statement of fact about her preferences rather than a request, then I think you would indeed have missed an important social cue. But if the wording you gave was her actual wording, then she wasn’t making an indirect request — she was trying to fool a bunch of ignorant kids into thinking an assignment was a fun option.

    If this had happened in high school, I’ll bet a lot more students would have done what you did. You were just precocious!

  3. Ellen said

    I think this is going to register my name, but I’mnot sure…Neal, this is Ellen. Of course, I’ve heard this story numerous times but I’ve never once thought you were the weirdo. I always wondered what was wrong with the other kids that 1)they ALL wanted the comic book and 2)couldn’t figure out that it was okay that you didn’t. This seems exactly like something that Dad, Glen, or I would do also if we were on top of things enough to realize that the comic book was *not* a comic book. (After all, I had a teacher who DID give us the option of reading quietly or something like that OR going to the “surprise box” and getting something out of it. The surprise box turned out to be filled with folded up worksheets!) You were just too young to have gotten the lesson from Dad about teachers being manipulative, etc. and you had to get it after the comic book incident.

  4. Anonymous said

    Grig here…

    I was in that class with you. I remember it slightly differently (not to say I am right, I have learned my memory is not the final word anymore), although the lesson and basic theme of the story remains the same.

    As I recall, we were offered the comic book BEFORE we knew it was educational (or saw the video). I refused because you refused, and comic books were “not my thing” (and still aren’t, for the same reasons as back then: not worth the cover price for the scant reading material). But I was bullied (maybe too strong a word) into signing by the teacher and all the kids tricked into it like a bad “Say no to drugs” educational video. I did suspect a rat, because why would a teacher offer us comic books? It felt like a trick. But I was a wuss, and signed the pad due to peer and teacher pressure.

    Then when we got them, I recalled your response, and the dismay of the class that it was actually a workbook/video combo. I was appalled at the terrible stereotypes presented, the generic token racial and cultural sidenotes (which were often incorrect), and the just plain bad acting (cheerful optimism bordering on psychosis) and background music which sounded amusingly enough like bad 70’s porn funk music.

    “Here, let me help you with your … ‘sausage’ … [bong chicka-chicka bwang]…”

    For those of you reading this, here’s a link that has some panels from the “educational material” we suffered through:

    To this day, I still think you did right. Why give us a choice? Yeah, yeah, “between the lines…” it was outright illusion of control, IMHO.

    Oddly enough, it also reminded me of how f**king stupid some of those kids were in anti-drug videos around the same time period. In all my life, I have never been told to smoke pot “or I won’t be cool.” No one ever forced me to drink, and if they had, I would have said, “Uh… no.” I didn’t hang around losers like that, and I didn’t care if they made fun of me that I didn’t do drugs (which even my bullies never brought up that topic). The “Mulligan Stew Incident,” as it’s known in my memories, showed me just how little many adults thought of our own feelings and moralities. Like we were pathetic sheep driven to the next social trend, bowing to peer pressure like reeds in the winds.

    Maybe they were. Maybe kids did force them to smoke pot with 70s porn music in the background.

    But we didn’t.

    And as a side note, is “Aw, heck!” really that bad a statement?

  5. […] Posted on January 9, 2008 by Neal Readers who have been with me since 2004 may remember this post; if you found that one interesting, then you should have a look at this article from The New York […]

  6. lou said

    That story would not convince anyone you had Asperger’s, but would cause them to question your teacher’s manipulative approach (And it proves P.T. Barnum’s idea that most of us are suckers). Now there is no denying there seems to be a genetic component to Asperger’s, my family is packed with them, but it is also clearly recessive. First of all, though your children are not the topic of this blog, you mention them more frequently than I’ve ever seen on any blog by a parent with Asperger’s– they generally never mention anything about their children even when they are writing parenting blogs. However, some of your literal mindedness could be a mirror syndrome if one or both your parents had Asperger’s– part of the challenge with Asperger’s is determining if the child really has Asperger’s or just has had a parent with Asperger’s telling them how to do things.

    If you genuinely had Asperger’s (and one of the unfortunate trouble with Asperger’s and Autism is that there are services available so children with problems that don’t quite fit get diagnosed to give them access to services), you would have had trouble understanding imagery and metaphor your whole life. Try reading Alisdair Gray’s “Lanark– A life in four books” where understanding the plot requires understanding of metaphor– if this book seems disjoint and you don’t get it, then you should seriously consider that you might have Asperger’s.

    (P.S. I don’t know if you end up seeing my e-mail address, but feel free to contact me if you have questions).

    • Neal said

      Hi Lou,

      Thanks for the insightful comments. You raise good points, and I am wary of self-diagnosis. That’s why I have tried to be careful and not claim that I definitely have Asperger syndrome, but only note my own tendencies and their similarity to some known symptoms of Asperger’s. Further, if there were no other reason to think about Asperger’s or other ASDs, this story would be nothing but a story of a manipulative teacher or a troublemaking student (depending on your POV). Still, I and others had noticed my tendency to literalness, or toward finding ambiguity where others didn’t perceive it, before I ever heard of Asperger syndrome, and when I did hear of it, I couldn’t help being reminded of this tendency.

  7. lou said

    Diagnosing adults is always hard, and I have to admit the one linguistics major I knew in college seemed to have Asperger. If you do have Asperger there would be other things going on too– a history of poor hygiene (if you didn’t like to bathe during your teen years and are still iffy on bathing, you might be an Asperger, but if bathing was actively discouraged or questioned by a parent, you might just have mirror issues from having a parent with Aspergers), a history of obsessive interests and a tendency to talk about them at length while oblivious to the boredom of others, serious challenges understanding things as a whole (an ability to learn minutia without the ability to synthesize and come up with a thesis), trouble with abstract thought, and many more little things add up to Asperger. Seeing the ambiguity of language, while a possible symptom, may just be a symptom of being smart.

    Again, looking at you as an adult blogger and some of the awareness of your children that you have expressed on your blog makes me doubt that you have Asperger. I do not mean to imply that Asperger’s are self centered and don’t like their children, just that their perceptual differences make it hard for them to know their children and think of their children as separate from them. As parents Aspergers tend to have trouble with flexibility, free-form play (as opposed to games and structured activities– my mom and my sister did not know how to play and thought I was strange for being so creative), storytelling (a deficit that starts in childhood, but lasts forever), expressing affection (physically and verbally), and defining the emotional boundaries between themselves and their children.

    From what you say, you see the ambiguity in language, but you don’t have real trouble understanding. An Asperger doen’t see the ambiguity, they just don’t understand it (And it is clear you understood exactly what your teacher was trying to do, but rightly doubted that such a comic book would be any fun).

    The book I mentioned in my previous post is a good test of the reading comprehension deficit, if you were to read that book and have real trouble understanding it, then you might consider Aspergers much more strongly. However, you seem to function well enough, so the only reason to probe this further would be a concern that you may have deficits that are impacting your family (Catch-22 here, a true Asperger would never consider the possibility that he was having a negative effect on his spouse or children).

    • Neal said

      Obsessive interests: check. I’ve never told you about my attempt to learn the scientific name and classification of every known member of the animal kingdom when I was in junior high. And of course there’s linguistics. I’ve gotten better about detecting boredom and altering the conversation accordingly, but it’s an acquired practice. Being flexible (especially as a parent) is something that’s taken conscious effort, too. As for truly understanding the teacher back then, I didn’t. Although I did realize that the comic book was probably a workbook, as I wrote, when she presented it as an offer, I took it as one, even while being surprised that she was (apparently) giving us a choice. Again, I neither claim to have Asperger syndrome nor claim not to have it, but some of the symptoms I read about remind me of myself.

  8. Neal, you may have chosen an example that doesn’t make it easy for your readers to make the jump to a self-diagnosis, but I for one want to say that the autistic spectrum is just that, a spectrum. It’s a cluster of traits and it’s also a continuum. Not everyone in the spectrum has hygiene issues. That’s a crazy statement that you can rule out ASD by asking that question. I don’t have hygiene issues and three of my very Asperger friends do not.

    I did not stumble upon that “what about me?” question until I was sitting in a talk by an autistic woman who is now an ND who helps people in the autistic spectrum and we went around the room saying why we were there. Everyone attendee was either a parent of someone with ASD or was himself/herself diagnosed. Except me. At my turn, I explained I just had a lifetime fascination with it, my best friend was self-diagnosed, as was my boyfriend. The speaker looked right at me and said, “birds of a feather….” She pointed out some things about my posture that screamed ASD to her. Yes, I have obsessive hobbies. Yes, I had to teach myself and continue to train myself to make eye contact, ask people how they are, make small talk. But I cannot read between the lines, even at age 46. I simply warn people that I am very literal-minded and to please bear with me. I can dance “detail” circles around others, but you have to explain the “big picture” to me many times…even with my Mensa level IQ.

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