Autistic People and Imagination

When they say autistic people don’t have imagination and don’t engage in imaginative play, what do they mean? I knew I had imagination, and that was one of the biggest things holding me back from thinking I could be autistic, because that was something always stated and listed and formalized. Autistic people don’t have imagination.

I never really was into playing school or house, like other kids were (why would you be a grown-up when you could be a HORSE?). But I would play all sorts of imaginative games with my cousins and my sister and myself.

I played Orphan Kittens. We played all sorts of games with our stuffed animals and model horses. Admittedly, we often wrote out the scripts before and they were usually similar patterns that happened… but that is a trait common to children. (You notice it when you babysit or have younger siblings or really just encounter things like that).

We played Lord of the Rings and went on quests where grapefruits or a pomegranate were palantir. There was a game where we were princesses that also involved horses and we would switch roles between them back and forth. We also played a lot of complicated games involving chickens and occasionally my cousin’s goat which we were all afraid of, but those were not always imaginative games–I don’t really remember the point of them, so they are a bit irrelevant.

In 4th grade, I made snail houses and fairy houses and for one brief moment, I was a trendsetter when everyone else in 4th grade also made “fairy friends”. (Although I was a bit upset that they treated it as a game, because I at least half–probably more–believed in it). I played games where the swings were the way to outer space and the only way back was to go down the slides. I was good at coming up with games and stories, so as long as everyone else was still young enough to play stories and pretend at lunch, I had company. They grew out of it earlier, so I switched to books.

And I lived in stories and books (and still do) despite the best efforts of literature analysis to beat that love out of me. And I still half-live in a world of stories, although I read much less than my high school minimum of a book a day. (I have a lot more reading to do of other materials than I did in high school.) (Also, I don’t like going new places myself which is why I haven’t been yet to the [non-campus] library even though I love libraries.)

Anyway, on any given day, I’m about 80% sure I’m autistic and I’ve had official professional people agree with me, so I just wanted to summarize this to say that autistic people can be creative too and that is a silly requirement to say they can’t.

Stories and science

When asked what she wanted do with her life, my cousin said she wanted to help people tell her stories. She loves stories. She wants a job where she can help more stories get out into the world. She’s thinking of maybe trying to get in job in publishing or some sort of media. 

My world is made of stories. Stories that piece together things from before I have memories and from before I was around to make memories. Stories of my family, of my parents, of my grandparents. Stories from distant lands and stories from nearby.

I consumed them wholeheartedly, indiscriminately. All types of stories were open to me. Space travel and magic and dragons. Talking animals and every day people just living their life. Articles in the newspaper, National Geographic, the Economist, Time. Before school every day in middle school, I read the newspaper cover to cover.

Any world, any stories, I would read.

Then I got to high school, and something happened to the stories. It wasn’t enough anymore to know the stories. To learn and to love and look at the details. To play with the beautiful words. To go explore new worlds and new people. They had to be analyzed.

And while analysis can fully and properly improve the stories, it can be a killer of stories. Analysis can tie things together and can reveal the strings. It can reveal hidden patterns. It can clarify. But mostly it destroyed the stories.

It had to be written, and the way it had to be written was so that you presented options as facts. And that was misleading and incorrect. And lies. And I was not prepared to write lies.

And the way I saw stories, the way the colors and the feelings and thought and ideas and the way the stories all played out in my mind, the logical connections which could not be explained in words, but just were, the same way that the sky is blue (and how most people know this, but they also can’t explain it), the way the stories all connected, were wrong. If they couldn’t be stated as fact in words in double-spaced Times New Roman size 12 font in essay with 1 inch margins, they were wrong. If I couldn’t state ideas as fact, opinions as fact, undoing the years we spent learning the differences, the ideas of logical discourse, then it was wrong.

The first paper I wrote about how mockingbirds kill other birds children failed because the facts were deemed wrong. It didn’t matter that I’d seen it happen, that it was something I’ve known all my life, that I was probably the only person in that classroom who could could pick out a mockingbird, who knew where they nested. The idea that something I had known all my life was not common knowledge failed me. I cried the whole class I got that paper back, quietly at my desk, unwillingly because I was in public and this was not supposed to happen.

And so I began to push back from the stories. I had learned, and this lesson was reminded with every tear-filled night of screaming that I wouldn’t write lies every time a paper was due, with my mother trying to explain that it wasn’t lies. But I knew the difference. I would not state opinion as fact. There is a difference and I would respect it.

English class, which was full of stories, stories that I adored, which made my life worthwhile, began to be my least favorite, my most disliked. Because it was illogical, and I was expected to know this illogical approach, and accept it and learn it. Stories were no longer safe. The girl who still read at least a book everyday no longer looked forward to a class dedicated to stories.

And so I began to specialize.

And there were science classes. Real honest science classes. And they were precise. It never asked you to lie. You suggested things and supported hypotheses. Data indicated that something happened. Nothing could be proved. It was exact and honest.

I was finally in a math class where I learned something new. It still moved rather slowly, with lots of reviewing, but there were proofs and beautiful fun patterns and numbers. And the beauty of math was that it could be proved. It could fit perfectly in the boxes. Everything was clearly stated and it was honest.

And so I pulled away from the lies that were expected of me in English, but never from the stories.  would still read and reread complete books daily. The stories were honest, the analysis was not.

Science gave me a new family of stories to study. It gave me a process for finding stories about the universe. Those strange, beautiful, unimagineable stories of how we were formed and how we work. The world is built on stories. I always knew the world was built on stories.

The stories in books are still there. I still consume them lovingly and copiously, and now that I have left all formal education that requires me to analyze literature, they are free. They are beautiful. But the world also has stories, beautiful strange amazing stories. Connecting and ideas.  They let you see the strings and the connections. But the stories in people are hidden, and people are often not amenable to processes designed to reveal them. There is a secret code, a way to analyze there, written in a way I do not understand.

Science tells us so many amazing stories.

There is a sea anemone that lives upside down in the bottom of ice sheets. The genetic code is so incredibly conserved and you can swap genes between species and they are still functional. We know how many cells C. elegans has (959), and the lineage of each cell. Planarians can pretty much regenerate from anything. There’s that new paper floating around which I haven’t had time to look at in detail that claims you can create stem cells by bathing cells in acid. In the first twentyfour hours, a zebrafish goes from a single cell to a mini-fishy. Watch it. It’s incredible.

And there are so many more amazing stories out there.

And science comes with a process for uncovering more.

And that is why I am a scientist.

Reading

I didn’t learn to read particularly early in life (nor particularly late).

It was probably around kindergarten.

I wasn’t especially good at reading when I first started.

In kindergarten, I had a copy of Black Beauty. And I was obsessed with horses. So I wanted to read it. My mother didn’t discourage me, but she was convinced I wouldn’t finish it. Because I wasn’t a particularly stellar reader by any means. She offered it to be a bedtime story, where she read a chapter aloud to me every night. But I wanted to read Black Beauty. And I wanted to read it by myself. It took months. But I finished.

And once I started reading, well, I never stopped.

It got to the point where we had to have rules about reading, or I would never get anything done.

Reading was the only time I would sit still. And I would sit still for hours. Because I was reading.

We* weren’t allowed to read before breakfast (or else we would never get ready for school on time.) We weren’t allowed to read when guests were over for a playdate (because then we would ignore them). We weren’t allowed to read more than a chapter after we were tucked in at night (because then we would read for hours and hours and never get any sleep).

When I read, I read in blocks down the page. When I read, I don’t see the words. I just see stories in my head. (There are several circumstances where I think I have seen the movie-version of a book, but really I’m just watching it in my head).

I’ve read classics and Tamora Pierce and Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett (currently obsessed with him) and silly books and books on the Civil War and every textbook my cousin had when I visited them as my freshman year of college.

Words words words.

I will read anything with words.

One time my older cousins wanted to play “School” (which I thought was a silly game). So they gave me a dictionary thinking that would make me play instead of just reading the book. That was the day I realized how fun it can be to read dictionaries and look at all the organized, beautiful, alphabetical lists of words.

I read ridiculously fast as well. Something like reading the sixth Harry Potter book twice between 1:30am when I got home and 6 am when I went to sleep. (Because once you’ve read through a book once, it’s fun to reread it with the knowledge of the ending, to look for hints along the way.)

Reading quickly has helped me so much in school. Because I read so much faster than average, it gives me more time on the actual work/writing the answers. It adds up over multi-page tests. And it helped me with reading comprehension.

(Especially standardized tests.)

E. from The Third Glance talks about reading comprehension here.

I survived “reading comprehension” by reading and thinking about the questions FIRST, before reading the text. I would try to understand what it was they were asking in my own words. I would rephrase things I perceived as “important” parts of the question multiple different ways, so it was in my brain. Why? Because then I knew exactly what I had to look for in the text. I could then read, looking for the keywords I knew would be relevant, and answer the questions as they came up. I hated doing this, because it meant that I was missing most of the point of the text. I could understand a sentence, maybe two at a time, tops. I would be able to process almost nothing. Yet I could answer most (but not all) of the questions. Those questions of “what was the author feeling when s/he wrote this passage?” and “what value is the author trying to portray in line 12?” will always be a mystery to me. Sometimes I can guess right, but seriously, I have NO IDEA if the author was trying to tell me something or not. My absolute “favorite” of this type of question is “would the author of passage 9 agree with the author of passage 12 on some topic that is only vaguely related to either topic addressed in passages 9 and 12?” 

And these questions are frustrating. And they are ALWAYS on standardized tests. I think the only reason I did so well on these was that I was good enough at reading that I could read the passage through every time multiple times during the test, and still finish before everyone else, because I was just lucky enough to read that fast. And we had some of these during class and everything I got wrong in school, my mom would go over with me at home and explain WHY it was wrong and have me do sample problems sometimes until I knew how to do things correctly. So I learned the tricks for these problems and got much better at guessing. (But I still feel like I’m lying on things like this and still feel like I’m lying when I write English essays on topics like this, so I suppose I should be glad that I am probably done with this FOREVER). Because I LOVE stories and I LOVE facts but I do not like the essay version of interpreting them at all.

And I always read all the assigned readings for class. And I never understood why they would say to study from notes instead of the book, because it would take me less time to reread the chapter instead of my mostly illegible notes. (And even now, I still remember all the diagrams from my AP Biology textbook.)

Also, when you read you don’t have to talk to people.

And that is quite nice as well.
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* I use we because this applies to both me and Medium Sister.