Sarah of Cat in a Dog’s World had a commentary on Simon Baron-Cohen’s Asperger’s adult criteria recently. I did not know anything about them except that they require Asperger’s people to have difficulty in all areas of daily living, rather than just one, and that they consider depression a mandatory feature of Asperger’s. Given that I was asked to fill out the autism spectrum quotient test, developed by Baron-Cohen, as part of my diagnostic assessment, I should’ve known what would come as part of a specification of diagnostic criteria, ie. the insistence on lack of what Baron-Cohen sees as imagination.
Sarah correctly points out many of the problems with the insistence on preferring non-fiction to fiction and preferring museums to theaters. Both of these questions were on the AQ-test, and I at least answered the former affirmatively and am not sure about the latter. I, for one, do prefer non-fiction. In fact, it’s been a year since I last read a work of fiction – and it was really a fictionalized account of something real -, while I’ve read tons of non-fiction books since.
However, I have the exact same problems as Sarah with Baron-Cohen’s categories of “acceptable” fiction. To me, preferring sci-fi or historic fiction does not indicate a lack of imagination at all. In fact, I for one believe it requires quite a bit of imagination not to go mad at the sheer impossibility of what goes into sci-fi books. I happen to hate both sci-fi and historic fiction more than any other type of fiction, for the very reason that I have no way of relating to them.
But apparently, it makes you imaginative if you can more easily relate to a novel based in real life – because, presumably, it isn’t your life, so you aren’t supposed to be able to empathize with the characters -, than to a robot in a science fiction novel. Am I somehow assumed to be more able to empathize with robots than with other humans just because these humans don’t share my neurotype? In that case, apparently Baron-Cohen has pseudoscientifically diagnosed all robots with Asperger’s. Otherwise, what sense would it make that I could empathize with a neurotypical robot but not a neurotypical human?
The one work of fiction I read last year, as I said, was fictionalized reality. It was Elizabeth’s Nickson’s novel The Monkey-Puzzle Tree, about the so-called Montreal Experiments, a series of horrific experiments in mind control carried out in a Montreal psychiatric hospital by well-known psychiatrist Ewen Cameron in the 1950s and early 1960s. In fact, when I wrote equally fictionalized stories in high school, they were not called fiction, but autobiographical, but maybe they had been considered fiction by people who didn’t know me. So, if you didn’t know that Nickson’s mother, like the protagonist’s, was a victim of the experiments, would the book be considered more fictional than now? Is it indicative of imagination that I was intrigued by the book, even though I don’t remember most of the fictional details and remember all of the details about the actual experiments? Probably, I get substracted some imagination points if you know that I would rather have read a purely non-fictional account, and didn’t like not being fully aware of which exact aspects are real and which are not. For example, in the novel, the protagonist’s mother goes to court to testify against the CIA, who were behind the experiments, and offered the breaking testimony that earned the victims much higher compensation; in reality, I don’t think Nickson’s mother testified before a court, and I find it annoying that I therefore am unable to tell how the victims got whatever compensation they did get. On the other hand, I am not at all interested in the non-fiction behind the previous work of fiction I read, the well-known Dutch novel Komt een vrouw bij de dokter, even though it is rather easy to look a lot of it up on the author’s site. The work was recently made into a movie, and I heard a lot of character discussion that I had entirely missed in the book. On the other hand, I still rely upon whatever I read in that book for anything I never wanted to know about imflammatory breast cancer, and have actually looked at the ACOR listserv database to see whether the E-mail list mentioned in the book exists (it does). Neither of these works are anything like sci-fi or historic fiction, but does it indicate fabulous imagination that I enjoyed them?
The museum vs. theater bit is equally strange. I am not sure how I answered the question when it popped up on the AQ-test (and which of the four times I took that test, by the way, since I took it online three times?). In real life, I like neither in general, since I pick both exhibits and theater shows individually and am very critical of both. However, when going back the last so many years to the outings I enjoyed, I have to say more are theater-based than museum. I am not sure though whether this indicates a preference, since most museums are inaccessible to the blind and the theater shows I tend to enjoy, are mostly particularly realistic. That doesn’t count though. Maybe if I enjoyed science fiction theater (if that exists at all), with as many spaceships and robots as fit on the stage, that would’ve made me unimaginative. Maybe then again I would’ve had some Aspie points substracted for not getting overloaded.
How is your interest in books, theaters or museums, indicative of imagination, anyway? If you still have some kind of fantasy world in adolescence or adulthood, you are considered childish or weird. If you have one in childhood, it is considered imaginative. Yet some Asperger’s girls (but Sarah points out correctly that Baron-Cohen doesn’t seem to care about girls) are quite known for this. I am no exception, notwithstanding my preference for non-fiction. Apparently, that makes me too imaginative to be an Aspie, right? Oh wait, that question wasn’t on the AQ-test so is apparently irrelevant. Imagination, after all, only counts insofar as Baron-Cohen can imagine it.