NeurAtypical Learning and the Arts (a personal view)

Michael Scott

In my last post, I asked the question “what is neurodiversity?” and followed it up with “what can it become?” Today, the question that weighs most heavily on my mind is “how can neurodiverse individuals learn how the world looks from other neurological perspectives?” This is, to me, an important question not only because I wish to understand people with conditions other than autism, but also because Aspies and autistics are often described as lacking a “theory of mind”.

It is my belief that part of the reason I “passed” so successfully as an NT for so many years is because schooling in the U.S. is a rigidly hierarchical process with explicitly taught rules. It's also my belief, though, that I would not have “passed” as successfully if not for my early exposure to the arts. The more I reflect on my learning process and try to understand the different points at which I acquired social and life skills that were difficult for me, the more I realized that it wasn't just that I was exposed to the arts, it was how I was exposed to the arts that helped me.

You see, I come by writing as a natural outcropping of my deeper fascination with story. The formulaic structure and commonality of story across human cultures, with all of its subtle variations and moral shifts over time and disparate civilizations has always fascinated me. Being an analytical type, I saw from a young age that the stories in the Bible, the Greek myths, and Star Trek had a common trait--a central character/hero that went through a series of escalating trials which had some allegorical, moral, or emotional weight.

I could not always understand the moral choices of characters—except in a few basic cases, such as “honor” stories and/or stories predicated on the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” premise—but I always understood the process, because there was little deviation from its core formula.

When I learned literary interpretation, I was often frustrated by the focus that my professors and the other students had on seemingly trivial details that the writers of stories had barely mentioned in the text. This kind of close examination was not beyond my ability to perform, but it was beyond my ability to understand its purpose. Who cared if Jane Austen's lead character might have had a passing lesbian attachment to another character? It didn't affect the outcome of the story. Why was I supposed to worry about the role of peaches in digestion in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?”

After years of struggling through stories from our dominant Anglo tradition, I gave up. It came to a head during a class on Modernism that focused almost entirely on the tightly introspective (I say self-obsessed, narcissistic) British side of the tradition. The type of fears and worries exhibited by the characters in almost every story were dependent on the ways that others perceived them, and I had no idea how to connect to the texts. This was, actually, the first time I became aware of one of my “blind spots”--the first time I asked myself if I might have a deficit of some kind. All of the characters' worries seemed to be based on something that they could not possibly know—at least, I didn't think they could know it.

The obsessive discussion of social norms, body language, possible interpretations of facial expressions—it was all so much meaningless, plotless crap to me. I had absolutely no way to make it make sense. I came to think that the writers were either paranoid or they were asking me to take some kind of psychic power as granted--otherwise, how could these isolated, self-absorbed characters just look around a room and assume that they could know how others would see them?

Some time after that class, I happened across some essays on post-colonial literature and on helping white students understand African American literature. In both areas of study, I found that teachers were called on to explicitly lay out the historical and social contexts of the text, in order to help students who had no cultural frame of reference to understand the norms and expectations that the writer and his/her characters shared.

As I read and reflected on this idea, I realized that my favorite literature courses had professors who would do just that. They would go to great lengths to make sure that every student understood the difference in cultural outlook and social pressures that faced, say, African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance or Scandinavian pioneers in the middle nineteenth century.

Similarly, my professor in Western World Lit (basically non-English literature) had felt the need to explain every little cultural idiom and insight to us. This made the texts very accessible, and I had never had trouble in that class, despite the texts being from a very different tradition and culture.

As I did more reading, I discovered a few different Feminist theorists who taught texts to men in the same way that the post-colonial professors were urged to present them to their students.

The tumblers in my brain finally fell into place, and it was as if some great secret had been unlocked. I realized that the reason why I did not understand a whiff of the texts that had given me trouble was that the professors had presented them with a certain core set of assumptions about what we as students would and would not instinctively decode from the texts. Just as a professor would not need to explain the core cultural values of African American churches to a room full of churchgoing black students, my literature professors from had not necessarily felt the need to explain the bizarre narcissistic social fascinations of the industrial-age characters in stories to a room full of self-obsessed, 20-something internet junkies.

At the time that I had this realization, I was engaged in degree work on my MFA, and I was doing a lot of work in the theater. The rehearsal process for my plays really reinforced that I had some differences in perception from most of the people around me. Actors and directors would come to me and ask questions like “Why does this character say this here?” or “What does it mean when they do this?” and I could not conceive of an answer.

It's not that my characters had no reason for what they did. It's just that, to me, the reason was “because he is the person who does that”. My ability to draw conclusions about why someone would do such a thing and to articulate those decisions did not exist. I had no true theory of mind when I created characters and it showed.

For three years, I struggled to make sense of social nuances and behaviors that I could not discern the cause of by doing work in the theater. I acted, dramaturged, and wrote. I volunteered to help out as much as I had time to. I read and commented on the work of others. In the end it was frustrating, exhausting, and crazy-making, but I learned two important things. First, I learned that I definitely had some kind of social-sensory combo pack of problems, because the only way I could deal with the reality of the lights/sounds/close quarters backstage was to be medicated, which also made it slightly easier to wrap my mind around what the actors were asking me to explain to them. Second, I learned that because of this difference, I could not handle working in the theater as a career. I wish I could, because I love the theater, but it just doesn't work. I need to be doing something that does not require me to either drink four beers or pop a Xanax before going to work.

I know that there are many, many great groups out there providing drama therapy for autistic children, and I love to see it. For my part, work in the theater not only helped me to learn the things that I was not naturally equipped to deduce about human behavior, it was also able to help me learn to present a more “acceptable” face professionally, and that helped a little in my teaching career. It allowed me to turn social interaction into a performance, and it gave me the tools to commit to that performance.

Even though I ultimately could not continue with the theater, the mistake I made was mine. If I had not committed to it as a lifestyle and attempted to turn professional, I might have avoided a lot of trouble, and I might have continued to be involved in theater. As it is, I have a standing agreement that I will write/act/whatever for friends on specific projects. I just can not take the pressure of being engaged with it at a higher level than "hobby".

Between my experiences with theater and my experience with literary interpretation, I have come to the conclusion that the arts might just be the best possible therapy for ASD individuals, and I would bet that the same principles would hold true for other NeurAtypicals. The arts are essentially social forms of expression, but they free us in many ways from the social norms that we have trouble with. They give us an outlet for sharing our experience, and a way to attempt to render our sensory reality to NT individuals, in order to help them understand the differences between us. It is my belief that the discussion of our mutual differences is the first, most important step toward coming together and accepting one another as we are.

I think that it goes both ways, too. I plan on expanding this in additional posts (one per week) over the next two months to continue thinking about how we can use the arts to learn, and I want to start by discussing how ASD individuals can use the tools from literature I outlined above to understand what we don't understand about our friends and neighbors. After that, I will be continuing the conversation by exploring Neurodiversity IN the arts, not just Neurodiversity AND the arts.
--Michael Scott, the NeurAtypical

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