Much has been written in the last seventy years or so on the specific social and communicative impairments present in individuals with autism, particularly concerning the deficit in the ability to see the world from the perspective of another person, or theory of mind. Much has also been written on fiction and how it is somehow connected in a deep and pervasive way with humans’ exceptional social cognitive capacities. Recently, novelist and developmental psychologist Jennifer L. Barnes (2012) has explored what the reading preferences of individuals with autism could reveal about fiction and the way in which it is processed in those not affected with this condition. She discusses why fiction researchers should be interested in autism, reviews studies on narrative production, story comprehension, pretend play, and imagination in autism, and presents an empirical study she conducted to explore the connection between fiction processing and autistic impairments.
Autism, she claims, may provide an ideal test case for current hypotheses concerning how and why humans process fiction in the ways they do. Because this disorder inhibits attention to social and mental content in interpersonal contexts, finding either that persons with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) attend to such content in fiction or finding that, as in interpersonal contexts, they do not, could further understanding of both the condition and the fiction-reading process. More specifically, she inquires whether the variability in cognitive capacities within the autism spectrum and correspondingly differing profiles of fiction reading might not provide a valuable framework for understanding and contextualizing preferences in fiction more globally. She further notes for the benefit of others interested in this area that there is a large extant set of data collected from ASC participants in which fictional narratives were the stimuli and which could and should be reconsidered in terms of cognitive reception of fiction.
In the empirical study presented in the article, Barnes hypothesizes that (1) typically developing undergraduates will be more interested in stories that contain social content over those that are focused on objects, and that fiction or non-fiction status of reading material will not affect reading preference; (2) that ASC individuals will prefer true stories over fictional ones; and (3) that ASC individuals will be less interested in social content than non-ASC individuals (the other type of summary of narrative was about objects). In line with her hypotheses, typically-developing undergraduates preferred descriptions of narratives about people, but didn’t prefer descriptions of fictional narratives over descriptions of nonfictional narratives; and the ASC group showed no such preference for people over objects in the descriptions. The ASC group also preferred nonfictional to fictional narrative descriptions per one main effect, but this effect was rendered uninterpretable in the presence of the significant interaction between fictionality and the content variable. The most that one could say, it seems, is that the ASC group preferred nonfiction about objects to fiction about objects. We can’t know then if fictionality made a reliable difference in this study.
Notwithstanding the strength of the original suggestions for research, the strong literature review, and the originality of the hypotheses themselves, in addition to this inconclusive finding, I found the empirical study somewhat weak. The ASC group was sampled through an autism research centre participant base in the UK, while the typically developing sample was drawn from an American university. The groups represented males and females equally, but the ASC group was older than the control group; we do not learn by how much. Further, to assess whether readers would prefer fictional or nonfictional, and person or object content, short descriptions of the narratives were presented. I’m not sure whether there is any data out there concerning readers’ ability to predict with any accuracy what they will actually enjoy reading based, for example, on the blurb on a book cover, but I would suspect that summaries and actual narratives would elicit quite different levels of anticipated engagement. (Participants were asked to rank the summaries from 1 “the narrative they would most like to read” [Barnes, p.309] to 4 “the narrative they would least like to read”). More worrying is the conversion of the (inter-item dependent) rankings into reverse-scored values which are then used in a repeated measures analysis of variance. While I would hope to see a more ecologically valid set of fictional texts presented to ASC readers, and a more conservative approach to the assumptions of the statistical tests used to assess effects in studies of this kind, I find exciting and original Barnes’ proposition to examine extant databases on fictional narratives created for particular experiments to examine various ASC skills, and more generally her proposition to rigorously explore how research on ASC might enhance understanding of fiction processing.
Barnes, J. L. (2012). Fiction, imagination, and social cognition: Insights from autism. Poetics, 40: 299-316.
Image: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Image: Jennifer Lynn Barnes