After a verbal exchange, we often think of what we might have said—the comeback that would have been so clever, but turned into a wasted afterthought. Worse than that are the inadvisable things we wish we could unsay, the statements we think we can never live down. The beauty of writing is that we actually can go back, deliver that comeback, erase that blunder, and flaunt our charm and wit.
Yet, while writing, we feel the heaviness of a hammer and chisel in our hands, as if we were engraving the law of the land in bedrock. Written words feel so permanent, of such monumental significance—we must choose them so wisely that we find ourselves paralyzed, unequal to task.
If what we write is reversible, and what we say is irreversible, why, paradoxically, is writing so arduous, and speaking so effortless?
We were primed to learn speech from the day we were born. If this were also true of writing, we wouldn’t need to go to school to learn how to do it. Literate people, while staring at the paper with “nothing to say,” forget how difficult writing was to learn in the first place. Despite or because of the rewind and revise advantage of writing, writing is certainly less natural than speech.
Email to the rescue. Communication through all kinds of social media is an ideal compromise between writing and speaking. Because of email’s conversational style, most of us don’t use the unnatural, uncomfortable rewind feature as often as we do with more “serious” writing. But it’s comforting to know that rewind remains at our disposal, until we hit “send.”
Pretending that we are writing a quick email, post, or the like, even if we’re writing a sequel to Gone with the Wind, loosens our pens. Then, because writing forgives, we can revisit our work, whittling and polishing, then revisit again, and again . . . until we are satisfied, maybe even proud of making a monument out of an email.
Why are thoughts constantly in motion, slippery and irregular, swimming around in your head like schools of fish? How do you capture swirling thoughts and fit them into neat little rows across the lines of a writing tablet? Using the lines on notepaper, can you reel your thoughts in, like a fisherman using a line to reel in a fish?
Writing can’t faithfully capture the life and motion of schools of thoughts. But writing makes thoughts more permanent, portable across the reaches of space and time. Like the fisherman who carries his fish home in a basket to feed his family, a writer carries food to others—food for thought.
The first thing a writer does is fish for an idea. Like a fisherman waiting for his first fish to bite, a writer waits for the first idea he can catch. Ever stare at the paper, pen or computer mouse in hand, just waiting?
Sitting and waiting for an idea to bite gets pretty boring. To take the boredom out of waiting you can go about your normal activities while you wait. That’s why it’s best to choose your topic early, giving it a few days to swim around in your head, taking shape and settling down, becoming less vague and easier to capture.
Now that you’ve made an idea easier to capture, how can you shorten your time staring at the paper, trying to hook the idea and reel it in so you can write about it? Ever talked obsessively to someone about a topic you’ve been thinking about for, say, a week, then, in the next breath, told him that you couldn’t think of a way to write it down? This someone probably said, “then write down what you just said to me.”
Do it! And do it fast! Talking (even to yourself) about your idea, then writing your words down immediately, can make this intermediate, staring at the page stage faster. Sometimes it’s easier to record your spoken words, then play them back, transcribing them onto the page.
Now you have something on the paper. Doesn’t that feel good! Maybe it doesn’t at first. What you put on the paper was not what you planned! But if you look closer, the stuff on the paper may surprise and delight you. So forget your plans and focus on what you actually wrote.
At this point, not sure how to develop these surprising ideas, you might be better off putting your paper and pencil (or computer printout) into a drawer for a while. Let this exotic idea swim around in your head for a bit. When you are ready, fish out your idea, use it as a premise, and start building it up. You might find it useful to draw a “mind map,” with the main idea at the center and its tentacles stretching out.
At some point, it’s time to arrange the idea and its extensions into a logical sequence. This leads to that, which leads to the next thing and so on, down the line. You might benefit from another, more linear “mind map” at this second intermediate stage.
When you’re done arranging, you can begin to dress up your idea and polish your language, fussing over word choices, expanding, reducing and reordering sentences and paragraphs as you please. Then decide what you wrote about. Now write a few sentences in conclusion, reminding the reader of what you have written about. Then write a few sentences of introduction, to let the reader know what you are going to write about.
When I started this piece, I didn’t know what I was going to write about. I’m not sure why, but I thought about similarities between writing and fishing. So how do I bring this bit of writing to a close? I summarize what I’ve already told you about—fishing for an idea, waiting for it to settle down and take shape in your head, capturing it, writing it down as fast as you can, looking to see what it actually is, putting its components into a logical sequence, polishing it, and concluding it and introducing it. And now I have to go back and write an introduction to my silly main point—writing is like fishing.
Why is writing so hard for high-functioning autistics? It requires skills that depend on second order thinking, the very mode of thought that is notably weak in autistics. But first things first, let’s discuss first order thinking.
First order thinking, based on objective observation, is the forte of the autistic mind. What’s there is there. And there you have it. How could what is obvious be anything otherwise? Activities are done as routines, one “thing,” followed by the next “thing” and the next and the next. The first order of “things” is to learn what function they serve, how they are assembled, which sequence they follow or even what color they are.
But, consider what “thing” the Mad Hatter asks in Alice in Wonderland: “How is a raven like a writing desk”? The famous answer: A raven is like a writing desk because Edgar Allan Poe wrote on both.
Poe did write on both, in a second order sense, where things are sometimes not what they seem. How do you determine exactly when “sometimes” is? There must be some way of knowing—some rule for that. A raven is a bird. You write on a writing desk. But how can you write on a bird?—never mind the prospect of writing on a bird and on a desk at the same time!
You need second order thinking to think about this. Second order thinking allows you to imagine that which is not, even though sometimes it is. And there’s no rule for that.
Thoughts are also “things,” that march through your head. As they parade by, you see what they are. Sometimes another person sees the same thoughts you see; sometimes not. There’s no rule for that. Are you supposed to just guess what another person is seeing behind his skull?
Much is made of the fact that a deficit in second order thinking results in difficulty imagining what other people think. Thinking about what others think requires two orders of thinking, and has a specific designation – Theory of Mind. Weakness in Theory of Mind is the most debilitating outcome of weak second order thinking. Theory of Mind is essential to social communication—a skill that is vital in everyday life.
Why doesn’t the world just show or tell you what thoughts people have? If given the facts, you’d master them easily. The problem with first order thinking comes when you must sometimes (and no one tells you when) imagine that which is not.
How does first order thinking make writing so hard for high-functioning autistics? To write an essay, you must let the mind roam, arriving at an idea or perspective that often deviates from facts. Instead of just thinking, you must examine your own thinking, from some indistinct outside perspective, rummaging through your thoughts, looking for something to write about. This is just more of thinking about thinking.
The second problem with writing is that you must figure out a way to share your thoughts, so that they become accessible to other minds, the minds of your readers. Another exercise in second order thinking—Theory of Mind.
Like many other hardships, the exercise of writing is just as excruciating as it is useful. It teaches Theory of Mind, the key to social communication. Many high-functioning autistics, determined to beat the odds, learn how to write well, breaking mental barriers that result in social isolation. And these secondary skills get added to the first ones, never interfering with an autistic’s primary strength: first order thinking.
The controversy over whether Aspergers syndrome and high-functioning autism are one and the same is apparently settled. Aspergers, as something distinct from autism, will be stricken from the DSM-V. Aspies have carved such a praiseworthy niche at the forefront of technology that it seems unreasonable to consider them “disabled,” branding them with the hallmarks of classic autism:
Problems with Speech and Social Communication
Lack of Imagination
Where does that guy with a kind of “quirky” charm and “mechanistic” approach fit in? Is Aspergers—with its touch of social inappropriateness, its somewhat rigid behavior, and its style of intellectualization at the expense of common sense—really autism? Whether we like it or not, the connections between autism and Aspergers are not a matter of kind, but a matter of degree.
Congratulations on being Aspies. This means you are smart enough to compensate for autism’s standard hallmarks: problems with socialization (you transformed into eccentricities), ritualized behavior (you transformed into formal affect), and lack of imagination (you transformed into conceptualization outside the “common sense” box.) Mild autism is confusing, to put it mildly. Are Aspies disabled, or are they representatives of an advancement in our species?
But, consider the heavy price Aspies pay for their gifts—the suffocating cocoon they inhabit as young children, before they emerge as butterflies. As “classic autistics” grow up in profound isolation, delays in their speech probably result from “thinking in pictures”—exactly the opposite of the stereotypical, bombastic Aspies whose mastery of English is light years ahead of other Earthlings. Are Aspies and autistics polar opposites, or opposite sides of the same coin? Both conditions result in communication difficulties, rigid behavior, and physical clumsiness. But the worst thing in store is the social isolation that can shake a person’s confidence for the rest of his life.
Should Aspies be happy about being reclassified as autistics? No and yes. No, because, like LGBT people, Aspies usually consider themselves different not sick. Yes, because, when the state classifies Aspies as different not sick, Aspies will no longer qualify for special services. Aspergers is high-functioning autism or nothing clinical at all. And, in clinical terms, true Aspies really do share the core deficits of autism.
Maybe, in the future, the “Aspie” label will become a more positive attribute, while the “autism” label (a handicap that comes with special services) becomes more exclusive and harder to come by.