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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Autism / Aspergers Question

   
Author Topic: Autism / Aspergers Question
Doc Brown
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My current WIP has a (non-POV) fifteen-year-old boy who is somewhere on the Autistic spectrum. I have worked out many details of his character, but something has me stumped.

I know that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders are often poor conversationalists, yet some can talk for hours about a certain favorite subject. I want to give my character such a subject; something about which he is obsessively knowledgeable.

But I don't know how to pick a logical topic.

My question is: At what age does the fascination with a subject begin?

Related questions: Does the subject need to be something he knew at age three? Or can it be something he learned about at age ten? Can an ASD person develop multiple topics of expertise, or does having one preclude the development of others?


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TheOnceandFutureMe
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I have an autistic cousin who loves the nintendo pantheon. He can go on for hours about what happens to mario or luigi in which game, or which turn in Mario Kart is most dangerous. I'm fairly sure he wasn't introduced to these games until he was five or six.

He also definitely picks up interests. He knows all about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for example.

Hope that helps.


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KayTi
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I think it depends on the person.

But instantly when I read this I thought of cars. A 15 year old boy might normally be obsessed with cars and know the makes and models of a bunch (or of a subset, like 1970s muscle cars) but a child with an ASD might know the model numbers of all the parts to a 1973 aston martin, or the exact color numbers/names that the cars rolled off the factory line painted. He might also speak in run-on, without breaks the way a 15 year old would to stop to allow the other person to speak, or allow the other person to express their awe at his knowledge.

A child with ASD isn't boastful about their knowledge as far as I know, but would rather rattle off detail after detail after detail, all of which would be fascinating to him but perhaps not that interesting to others. He could have a little obsessive compulsive component too, where he would have to finish listing all the parts before he could talk about or do anything else. I don't know if that's at all characteristic about ASD, but I've been playing with an OCD character for one of my stories so it's fresh in my mind.

Good luck!


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Doc Brown
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Thanks TheOnceandFutureMe and KayTi.

Perhaps I asked the wrong question. Maybe I don't want to know when the expertise develops, I want to know how it develops.

Your responses make me suspect that the character needs to learn autonomously by reading or doing things for himself. If so that is a critical thing about autism that I had not realized.

My problem comes from my setting. It isn't modern-day America, it's a fictitious country around the First World War. The character has spent most of his life in an asylum with little exposure to information. He is out of the asylum now, and he recently learned to read.

If he needs to learn his expertise autonomously (like reading or playing a game) then my question is answered. My character must have developed his expertise very recently, within a year of the story's beginning.

Does that sound right?


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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From what I understand about ASD people, if your character is functional enough to learn to read, he has probably managed to obtain information from his surroundings, bleak as they may have been, and could talk for hours about things like the way cracks form in ceilings as opposed to how they form in walls, and about how ants (or mice/rats) move about in his room and what their habits are, and so on and so forth.
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Cheyne
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My experience with ASD children has shown me that they are often OCD like in their obsession with the numerical. Perhaps he could obsess on box scores and stats from American baseball or some other (closer to home) sport. The environment is often critical as well perhaps an intimate knowledge of their surroundings would develop. Work the obsessions together and they may know how many floor tiles are in each room of a large building.

I have only worked with teens thus afflicted so i don't know the timeline of the development of special interests. They come fully loaded when i get them.


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Bent Tree
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Perhaps classical music? Did it play in the assylum? could he have come to understand notes and how they must be represented on a piano in order for the pianist to be able to play them as he heard them? Upon entering could he then sit at a piano and play every song he had heard?
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JeanneT
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Just wanted to mention that if you want to see how it has been handled in recent fiction by a knowledgeable author (her son has autism), you might want to read Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. She does a masterful job of writing about a difficult subject and won a well-earned Nebula for it.

[This message has been edited by JeanneT (edited March 13, 2008).]


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darklight
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Ok, from experience with having an autistic child: in matters of communication, she will speak only to people she wants to speak to: Family members such as myself and a brother, a maybe a couple of friends. Where interests go, over the years, it has been different things. From about age seven, it was dolphins. That changed three years ago to horses, and as she works with them too, she talks often about them: different types, colours, feeds, tack, anything really.

Also, she has obessions with watching certian TV shows, and will often watch the same episode many times a day, as with movies she likes. The key is, not to clump all autistic traits as the same. There are many types of autisitic children, and only a few, savants, have the ability to real off tons of information on a certain subject or have a special ability such as being able to draw from memory or some such. As, in the case of my daughter, she has a great ability to remember places she has been to before, even if she hasn't been there for years, if she goes again, she will know exactly where everything is.

If you want any more info, let me know and I'll see if I can help.


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Doc Brown
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Kathleen: I'm sure you are right, but I don't believe that an expert on the cracks in his childhood walls will suit my story. This is an adventure. I want him to know about something that might come in useful someday.

Cheyne: do you find that they are capable of loading new ones after you get them? Or are they truly "fully loaded?"

Bent Tree: I've already built in that this character can sing with excellent pitch. But someone must teach him each song, he cannot compose a song.


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Bent Tree
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How about an interest in the stars? Did he look out the window watching them? is there apossibility he might have come across a telescope when he got out? If there is a musician in the house, maybe there is an astronomer? I'm not sure what you are looking fo as fas as the adventure goes?
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djvdakota
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They will pick up interests mainly from people around them they respect--who often are few due to their lack of ability to relate socially to a more general group.

An ASD friend of mine--who is currently 13--loves textile arts: weaving, crocheting, knitting, etc. He picked them up from a grandparent, I believe, then obsessively began learning about them. He doesn't read well. His mother recently told me she believes he's learned much of the added information (over and above what his grandma taught him) by looking at the how-to pictures in the books he's looked through.

He also enjoys gardening, which he learned from another grandparent. He collects information largely from talking to other people about it--me included.

He's funny in that he doesn't like to be proven wrong or doesn't like it when someone else knows more about him than a subject he loves, but he'll still take the information he learns from the know-it-all and add it to his body of knowledge.

Hope that helps.

ASDs often have a hard time learning to read--and I suspect it would be more difficult to do so as an adult, but I'm not sure--unless, of course, that becomes one of his obsessive endeavors. Your character might better learn in other ways, especially in light of the relative unavailability of information during that time period. He had no internet, probably not much info available in libraries--at least not NEARLY as much as is available today. Where is he getting his information? Is he writing to people to find it out? That was a fairly common mode of learning information during that time period. How does he know who to write to? How does he know how to write? How does he learn to read? How has he learned to communicate with people so he can learn anything?

Sorry to put so many questions out there, but they're questions that I'd want answered if I were reading a book about such a person.


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Cheyne
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Perhaps my "fully loaded" comment was a touch glib. I teach middle and senior high school and the ASD students I have encountered are all high functioning and already teens. I meant to say that many of their interests are in place by the time I meet them.
But yes, they do pick up new interests. In my experience they are often related to earlier interests, such as shifting from an interest in trains to automobiles. Art tends to expose a lot of the interests to me as an art teacher (No little savants though).

Another aspect of the disorder that I noticed was that when not in a social group situation they tend to be very much more communicative. A student who will not talk in class may talk your ear off in a car. So your character may really clam up when someone other than family is around.


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debhoag
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maybe the question would be, what type of information he could pick up in his environment. Stars from the windows, stories from other people - patients or staff, which could give him an interesting mix of real and imaginary information. I really did like the mice thing; you can never tell when a couple of well-trained mice can come in handy during an adventure. Obscure books, articles stuff from the doctors medical journals? If the asylum was ever used for something else, who knows what could be stored in old dusty rooms that he could learn from - diaries, paintings, etc. I think ideas people get interested about in autistic folks is that they seem very unaware, and then they unexpectedly produce fonts of very specific knowledge. So it might not be a question of what they are capable of learning, but what you want your character to learn and how are you going to supply him with that information?
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Elan
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I saw a recent television news report on ABC World Tonight about a girl named Carly with autism, and her parents had been working for years with her to use a communications device not unlike the one used by Stephen Hawking. One day she just started typing out her thoughts, and they were stunned by how coherent she was. She told them how difficult it was on her side of things; one thing I remember is that she explained why she spontaneously slapped herself at times: she said it felt like her legs were on fire and a million ants crawling up her arms.

I've found a related link to this news story:
http://abcnews.go.com/WN/Story?id=4323585&page=1

It's a fascinating report.


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AndrewR
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I've heard that children with Aspergers often are obsessed with maps. That could be useful.
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Doc Brown
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darklight, we crossed posts last Friday. Your daughter seems like exactly the sort of person about whom I wish to learn.

It is important that my character display a little savantism so that he can play a role in the adventures. But he is not Kim Peak. My character is closer to the center of the spectrum. I want ASD teenages and their parents to relate to my story.

Without giving too much away, the character lived in the asylum through age 12. At age 13 his family "bought" him a job in the Navy. The Navy is stuck with him until he dies. Now he is 15 and living on a battleship.

Assuming that he can read, could he obsess over the naval manuals and handbooks? Or must I find something from an earlier age?

I have much latitude with his backstory, but he did not see naval manuals before age 13.


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shimiqua
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I don't know where you want his adventures to go, but depending on where you want the story to go there are several options that came to my mind.
For example he could be obsessed with H G Wells for the time machine, or Jules Verne, 10 000 leagues under the sea, books avaliable from that time might be an interesting way to go.
or if he can't read very well I thought of games like chess, or maybe tarot cards would be interesting.
I think researching things available at the time that could make the story interesting, Star charts for example. Then figure out how to bring them into the assylum, or Ship.
Hope that helps,
~Sheena

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Doc Brown
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debhoag and shimiqua, thank you for your input. Very imaginative.

Because this is a ficticious country with a ficticious culture, any literature he is exposed to will be things I make up.

This really is just a question about the development of ASD teenagers.


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Doc Brown
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debhoag made this comment:
quote:
He's funny in that he doesn't like to be proven wrong or doesn't like it when someone else knows more about him than a subject he loves, but he'll still take the information he learns from the know-it-all and add it to his body of knowledge.

Wow! This is a great bonus detail for me! It fits my understanding of ASD, and it would be a nice characteristic to incorporate. Thanks!


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JasonVaughn
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If you haven't already, I'd read 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.' The main character has asperger's syndrome and, although I don't know from experience, I've heard it is an accurate portrayal.
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rickfisher
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My daughter, 18, has Asperger's. This is something she said that you might find interesting. (The most interesting part to me was the part about savantism in normal people.)

quote:
I think that we should make a distinction here between savantism and special interests. A special interest will develop, may change over time, and there may be more than one. Savantism is an innate ability to process a certain type of information, that improves only marginally, if at all, with practice, although it may not be apparent until a suitable situation presents itself. To the best of my knowledge, you can only ever have one savant trait, although it may be an odd category that appears to be more than one. The way I think of it, normal people have savantism in certain aspects of people skills. People with autism are missing this, and therefore often have another savantism instead. Also, to the best of my knowledge, people with an active savantism will always have at least one related special interest. Also, while musical and mathematical savantisms are most common, it can be just about anything. For instance, my savantism is in a certain type of analysis--seeing the most effective way to approach a problem. Any problem. For example, while I am not a math savant, I have never had to practice any kind of math in order to learn it; and often, when there is a disagreement, I can find a solution that will give both sides exactly what they're asking for.

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darklight
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Hi, I think you're asking if an interest or obsession can be come about as a teenager, rather than in early childhood. The answer to that is yes. Three years ago, my daughter knew nothing about horses, now she knows just about all there is.

quote:
Assuming that he can read, could he obsess over the naval manuals and handbooks? Or must I find something from an earlier age?

It's intersting that you say, assuming he can read. In the case of my daughter, reading came late to her. She didn't learn properly until she was around fourteen or fifteen. Until she was given one to one learning, she found even simple words difficult, and would rather have someone read to her. Also, now she can read, and writes at lot on texts and MSN, she is obsessive about every word being spelled correctly.

If you want any more help or info, feel free to email me. Hope I've helped.


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oliverhouse
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My autistic son doesn't appear to have any tendencies like that, although some of his behaviors seem a bit OCD-ish.

A friend of ours has a son who is higher functioning than ours is, and he obsesses about the weather. I mention it because weather can fit almost any story. This boy focuses on weather reports, the internet, etc. etc., but you could just as easily direct your character to weather-related adages ("Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight"), animal behavior patterns, Groundhog day, umbrellas brought (or not) to work...


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akeenedesign
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My dad has Aspergers, but he's highly functional. He's very intelligent, and because of it, he considers himself above a lot of people which is where the social dysfunctions really come out.

He's impatient with ignorance and will talk down to people without realizing that he's using an insulting tone of voice. He has harsh prejudices against unintelligent people in the lower-class, which often comes across as racism even though he will respect a person of any race if they are intelligent.

He had to learn a lot of social cues that are natural to everyone else, such as sounding happy or looking interested in what another person has to say. While a normal person would show interest in their face, he would look bored, even if he was really interested.

He has a horrendously embarrassing belly laugh, which makes a very funny situation into an awkward one immediately. He gets VERY angry and shuts down in an argument because of his all-or-nothing mindset.

If I ever told him that his laugh was embarrassing, he would probably get angry and then promise never to laugh again when I'm around. To him, he would feel hurt that his daughter is embarrassed of him, and feel like the only way to solve the problem is to never laugh again. He wouldn't consider that it took courage for me to say that to him, and wouldn't see it as me trying to help him in social situations, and wouldn't think of my feelings being hurt by his response. He only sees his feelings being hurt, and an all-or-nothing solution that solves the problem.

It's extremely complicated, because he will also comfort me when I'm sad and give me good advice. He's not completely socially inept, but there are habits there that keep him from having many close friends.

I hope that sheds a bit more light on the high-functioning side of Aspergers =)


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Doc Brown
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JasonVaughn: yes, I have read Curious Incident. I have also read [i]An Anthropologist on Mars[i] and read a lot about Kim Peak and Temple Grandin.

While my research has helped me depict the world of the ASD character, I have found very little about how such a character can change over time. Their own accounts have depicted them as relatively static and unchanging, as if they are unaware of their own personal growth.

Thank you all for your wonderful help.


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Doc Brown
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rickfisher, your daughter's insights are great.

She makes me reconsider the nature of savantisms. Suppose someone were predisposed to savantism in computer programming . . . but they were born before computers were invented?

Perhaps every autisitic is a savant of some sort, but sometimes humanity has not yet discovered the area of that would attract their attention.


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Elan
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The topic of autism seems to really be in the news right now.
CNN has devoted an entire page of articles and links to the topic:
http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2008/news/autism/

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