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Grade One and Harry Potter

I've been absent for far longer than I intended, but while I was absent I made a little list of things that I wanted to write about, a continuation of the small posts about life with my ASD son.

I had been writing my way up to -- and through -- grade one, and I'll continue from there, although if anyone has any questions they want to ask, I'll also happily answer them if I can. I do want to make clear, though, that this is my perspective, my memories, and the things that I found either helpful or instructive; my son's memories of grade one are actually pretty dim at this point. He remembers Jane Fletcher, and he remembers his grade one teacher, but he doesn't remember very much with any specificity. So this is largely one parent's perspective. I know that ASD children frequently have many traits in common -- but those traits meld with personality, so some of the things that worked for us won't necessarily work for other ASD children.

With that caveat, I want to talk a little about Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Or the Sorcerer's Stone, if you grew up reading the US version.

In grade one, the first Harry Potter book hit the reading public with a large splash. All of the kids in class read the book, many with their parents.

My son's interest in popular culture was not in synch with his peers; if his peers had been fourteen, it would have been closer (Age of Empires, Diablo). Most of the kids in his class weren't actually allowed near computer games, so the computer games that fascinated my son didn't mean very much to his peers. He was always comfortable--even happy--in front of a computer.

By this point, we expected a lot of social divergence given the Asperger's diagnosis. But we were, in our parental way, really trying to encourage interests that would overlap with those of his classmates. So I went out and picked up the Harry Potter that everyone was so excited about.

He was interested in it, in theory, because all of the kids did talk about it--and so did their parents. So we sat down to read it together.

He found it confusing. It's not that he couldn't follow the plot; he could. What he couldn't follow was the Dursley's and their motivation. He could understand that they were being mean to Harry. He didn't understand why. He understood that they were not Darth Vader; they were meant to be an otherwise 'normal' family. (although he did ask me, upon viewing Star Wars for the first time, why Darth Vader was always so angry.)

In particular, he couldn't understand why they cared whether or not Harry was a wizard. I explained that they were afraid that other people would think badly of them by association -- and the explanation made no sense to him at all. Harry wasn't them; they weren't Harry. Why, then, would they care? He would have understood if they were afraid of being wizards themselves -- although even that was a stretch -- but every single thing they did (hiding the mail, etc.) stopped him dead in his reading tracks because he could not follow their logic.

Since I had never, ever been able to get through a book of any sort (even the Hungry Caterpillar) without a battery of questions about Why, this wasn't unusual. He didn't want to move forward while reading if he didn't understand what was happening. But he also had trouble accepting something that made no sense to him.

Harry's relatives, and their fear of social censure because of Harry -- who they clearly weren't -- made no sense. I tried several different variants on guilt-by-association, but it wasn't something I could clearly explain in a way that he could grasp at the time.

Was he afraid people wouldn't like him?

Oddly enough, yes -- but at the same time, he had no sense that changing his behaviour would change their reaction. I accredit this to the very slow pace at which he developed theory of mind. The same thing that prevented him from lying -- the certainty that anything he knew was known, period -- prevented him from understanding the ways in which social behaviour accrued social points. He was who he was. If people didn't like him, it saddened him - but he had no sense that he could change who he was, and at some base level, that's what he felt would have to happen to affect how people felt. That would come later; it wasn't even on the horizon at age six.

I think ASD children don't understand the amount of time and effort being popular in a social sense can take, and I think that inability is grounded in the late development of theory of mind. It would never have occurred to my son that it took time to look a certain way; he would assume that that's just the way children looked. Or dressed. As if it was a completely natural outcome of genetics.

Harry was a wizard. Hiding this or lying about it or suppressing the information didn't change Harry.

But he never finished the book. Or rather, we didn't. He gave up on it because he couldn't really follow the personal interactions around which the plot turned.

He then went and picked out Brian Jacques' Redwall and read that instead. That, even given that it was peopled by clothing wearing, weapon wielding, talking animals, made plot sense. He could suspend disbelief because talking animals figure prominently in children's stories (like the three little pigs). Suspension of disbelief didn't extend to the realm of the social.

ETA: for some reason my LJ defaults were set to screen anonymous comments - a setting I've never previously used. So I've fixed that.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 17th, 2011 09:05 am (UTC)
I struggle with the Dursleys, too, because they are so caricatured (I have this problem with Dickens, also). I can't relate to or appreciate caricature, because somehow in my head it disconnects from reality to such a degree that it loses all meaning. And the Dursley bits of the HP series are pitched at a different level -- and a younger one, I think -- than the rest of every book, which adds to the confusion. So I suspect the book itself may have contributed to your son's issues with it.
May. 17th, 2011 10:56 am (UTC)
I agree. I think she was trying for a Roald Dahl feel for the Dursley parts in Book 1. They did get a little more realistic as the series progressed, but initially they were just there to make Harry's mundane life really horrible.
May. 17th, 2011 09:46 am (UTC)
Did he ever return to reading Harry Potter? I'm curious whether he did once he was older and was better able to understand the human dynamics behind the plot.
May. 17th, 2011 11:01 pm (UTC)
No, he never returned to them. It's not because he'd then decided they were horrible or anything, and we did try with all three books to engage him -- but because he was so very focused on things that did interest him, that if something didn't grab him, he fell off the radar.
May. 17th, 2011 10:59 am (UTC)
I've wondered if I was on the spectrum, and tentatively concluded that I was on the low end of social skills combined with having had an emotionally abusive upbringing-- the thing is, once I was away from home and away from contemporaries who teased me, I became not just social, but comfortable with socializing, with a pattern that I'd say seems more like introversion than Asperger's. These days, I can even enjoy moderate amounts of small talk.

However, not understanding that changing my behavior might affect how I was treated does sound like my childhood. A difference from your son is that I didn't understand mean people, and I still really don't. I understand social fears much better-- after all, they're about being afraid of mean people.
May. 17th, 2011 11:33 am (UTC)
Don't get me started on the Dursleys. The fat hatred embedded in those characters sickens me to no end. There was never anything funny about them, and nothing human either.
May. 17th, 2011 11:34 am (UTC)
I first read the first Harry Potter book some years after it came out, when I was home on break from university (so around 2000 or 2001). In addition to having much the same reaction as your son (despite being much older than someone in grade one), I had the additional issue of "great world-building and story-making, but horrid-to-me writing style" which caused me to throw the book away--something I'd never done before.

Oddly enough, sometimes the Harry Potter books are the only books I can manage to read (due to attention issues), though I still can't stand the writing style. I find the audiobooks to be much easier to "read" in that regard, but getting the versions I want is difficult, as I want the ones read by Stephen Fry, and no where seems willing to ship them to Canada. Jim Dale does a fine job, but I don't want his version.
May. 17th, 2011 11:41 pm (UTC)
The writing style in the first three Harry Potter books was actually one of the things that attracted me to them. Most books I read have a style that envelopes you in the world of the book—the narrator is meant to disappear. The earlier Harry Potter books had a story-telling style, where the narrator is telling you a story and is therefore consciously present. It's a style that lends itself well to reading aloud, which is probably why you like the audiobooks better...
May. 17th, 2011 11:55 pm (UTC)
That is likely why I prefer the audiobooks, yes. I find it much easier to ignore the writing and get into the books, if that makes sense, when listening to them (despite severe auditory processing issues) than it is for me to do so when reading them.
May. 17th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)
I don't think JKR did a good job of portraying the fear the Dursley's supposedly felt at the possibility of social stigma (I think that's how I want to say that). She painted them with far too broad a brush in the first few books (and I agree, the fat hatred got to be a bit much) and honestly had trouble refining their characters at all as the overall storyline progressed. Which is why I think they only made token appearances in the last few books; JKR had made them too over the top and EVUL!!11!! to Harry that as the "real" evil of the book started to come out, she could do nothing with the Dursley's to make them actually believable, IMO.

Dudley suddenly seeing the light and shaking Harry's hand in the last (?) book didn't feel true to me because we'd seen little to no growth between the cousins to see why that happened. I guess it was to show that even someone as "dim" as Dudley could realize the world was at risk, so now Harry really did need to save everyone. I don't know. I think JKR needed a "petty" evil to start things off before showing us how little that mattered once the real big bad guy was brought on stage. And on a meta-level, it shows the difference between a first book and a seventh book in terms of writing style.
May. 17th, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC)
This is spot on, from my perspective: "It would never have occurred to my son that it took time to look a certain way; he would assume that that's just the way children looked. Or dressed. As if it was a completely natural outcome of genetics"

I was 40 before this light bulb came on for me fully. Sure, I cognitively understood earlier that social facades impacted others, but I didn't really understand how that worked. Consequently, I told myself people were stupid for caring about such things and immersed myself in things I did understand--putting my refusal to 'play the game' on other people and their own stupidity. At 40 I finally realized the impacts of some of my blind spots. It hasn't been easy to be diagnosed as an adult, but in some ways I think it's been easier, because my growth has proceeded at very organic pace. Makes me feel stupid sometimes, to be so slow at things others discover naturally, but I'm glad your son has you to guide and understand him.
May. 17th, 2011 03:57 pm (UTC)
I understand that people take time to look a certain way... but don't really understand wanting to take that amount of time.
May. 18th, 2011 12:13 am (UTC)
Consequently, I told myself people were stupid for caring about such things and immersed myself in things I did understand--putting my refusal to 'play the game' on other people and their own stupidity.

I think we all do this to a greater or lesser extent; it's why the phrase "get a life" is common. My son has a clear sense of perceived value for required work, though. He understands intellectually that a shift in his behaviour will shift the reactions of the people around him. This would be now. At six this was entirely beyond him.

He did once ask, while have a heated discussion with my sister, "Mom! Do I have to care about this?" I more or less said no, he didn't, since it wasn't a matter of safety, health or harm. But he came back to me later and said, "I want to make sure I understand this. I'm supposed to change the way I dress, speak and interact so that people I don't know will like me."

"That's the theory."

"But then it won't be me."

"That's the problem."

"So. I'm supposed to change things about myself so that people I don't necessarily respect and don't necessarily want to spend any time with will then want to spend time with me?"

I pointed out the ways in which this was the most extreme interpretation, but that, yes, in this case he hadn't misunderstood.

He decided at that time that the amount of work this would take for the amount of joy he would receive was not well-balanced.

And that's what I want for him. I want him to know what he can do to smooth out the rough edges, but I also want him to be aware that that's his choice. He can make it easier for people to be almost subconsciously comfortable in his presence - but sometimes that does take work; he can ignore this, but sometimes that causes friction and dislike.

I did point out that when he starts to work full-time, it's different. Co-workers are not expected to be his friends - although they can be - but the reason social normative behaviour is the rule is to deal with dozens of different cultural and familial contexts in a homogenous way in a place where in theory they're not the point of the gathering. He doesn't have to like his co-workers, and conversely, they don't have to like him - but he has to be able to get along with them, and vice versa. It's effectively part of his job, even if it's not part of the job description.

The goals and the reasons for behaviour choices are different in those two cases, imho. He could easily accept my explanation of social behavioural requirements as part of a business environment -- i.e. it's part of professional behaviour. But who betide those who attempt to force this on his personal life. (He was, at the time, fourteen, but it is a discussion we revisit).
May. 17th, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC)
I read the first 4 HP books to my son (he just turned 15, so he's younger than yours) and he was so unaware of social interactions that he never questioned those aspects of the books. He wanted to know when would he be old enough to go to Hogwarts, was I or his dad from a wizarding family, and why didn't wingardium leviosa work for him.

He still doesn't really understand social interactions, but he has become aware of them. He knows that people react to some things and not others, but has no clue about how to read their actions or guess at what might be their reactions in any given situation.

He's very good at learning what the rules are so he can figure out how to get around them or tell when someone else isn't following them. He wants rules in place for everything and if a specific situation hasn't been covered in the rules he sees that as tacit permission to do it.

I'm getting nervous because he's moving back home a week from Friday and there will be only me, not a staff of 5 or more all the time.
May. 17th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
I found the Dursleys more than a bit chilling because I have a dear friend who was treated pretty much that way by her own family; mom and older brother were ringleaders and everyone else relentlessly followed suit. Finally the bullying culminated in her mother locking her out of the house (permanently) when she was 15.

I see it as a sign of hope that kids from healthy families, even if they have other challenges, have no experience or understanding of that kind of cruelty.
May. 17th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
The Dursleys bothered me a lot too, but their fear started to make a lot less sense to me as the series progressed and the whole idea that the Wizarding world was really a secret began to seem more ridiculous. So much of the world-building was good and fun, but while I understand sort of what she might have been going for, I could just never accept that the Wizarding world would ever actually remain secret. There were just too many Muggles who had to know about it (IE, Hermione's parents) who couldn't be casually memory-wiped the way they seemed to do to everyone else. And she never really made the fear that the Muggles would be able to overwhelm the smaller Wizarding world if they chose to real.

Plus I couldn't figure out why they'd rather have people believe that Harry was a degenerate by sending him off to that school for troubled kids rather than just send him off to Hogwarts where no one would see him using magic. I feel like at the end of the series there was an attempt to redeem them, to make their fear less about the social implications and more about the fact that Mrs. Dursely knew about Voldemort, but it was too late by then for me to believe it.

But I read this series as an adult, possibly I would have had an easier time suspending my disbelief as a child.
May. 17th, 2011 11:58 pm (UTC)
Now, see, my son (high functioning moderate Autism, ADHD, and developmentally delayed) never had a problem with the Dursleys and why they did what they did: he just took it as them being them and the reasons never became an issue. What he does have an issue with is teasing—he doesn't always get that it's teasing because he takes people at face value, and he gets quite upset when someone is teasing him and it's not true. This actually has made me glad that we're not a Santa Claus kind of family: he'd take Santa to be a real person and trying to get him to realize he's make believe would be difficult.

Anyway, Taz, my son, has also become quite a reader, but we're not quite sure how much he "gets".
May. 18th, 2011 12:23 am (UTC)
re: teasing

We injected both teasing and sarcasm into our household in stages. The latter is a gift from my son's godfather, who, if told to cease using sarcasm, would probably die. It was confusing, for him, but the tone of the teasing was always hugely affectionate. (When he was very young, it would be of the "No, you can't have a cookie because they are ALL MINE", which he knew wasn't true.

He found it confusing to start -- but in this particular case, we thought it best to carefully continue because it was something he was likely to run across in real life, sans affection, and there would be some familiarity with the idea that people were deliberately misrepresenting fact.

Sarcasm was harder, and we frequently had to intervene to explain when something was, or was not, sarcasm, because the more extreme tone of voice wasn't there. I personally would have skipped sarcasm for at least six years -- but as I mentioned, his godfather could more easily exist without oxygen than sarcasm.

But...that's part of who his godfather is. His godfather did clearly love and adore him; he knew this. So if he found sarcasm vaguely threatening because it made no sense, he knew without any doubt that his godfather was one of "his" adult family. He came to understand sarcasm over time, and he can very, very easily be sarcastic now, but it was difficult.

I think, in retrospect, the best decision I made for my son involved the wide range of adult family figures, because it exposed him to different modes of speech and interaction and made it clear that regardless of differences, all of these people could care for him. But this meant that there were very few hard rules offered for those adults to follow, and we each had different priorities for what we personally thought was best. Which caused some adult friction from time to time *wry g*
May. 18th, 2011 03:17 am (UTC)
Teasing...I still have major issues with teasing. And with sarcasm--I can use it, oddly enough, but recognizing it when used towards me...not so much. Even now (and I'll be thirty come June seventeenth) someone generally has to tell me they're teasing, or I'm not going to "get it" and I'll be upset. You'd think I'd have it figured out by now, but I don't. Even among family, I don't tend to understand teasing, or the reason for it. At least it's apparently nice teasing now, rather than the "mean and meant to hurt" sort from school and my father, I guess.
May. 18th, 2011 12:50 am (UTC)
BTW - Glad to see you poking your head up again...Missed these discussions.
May. 18th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
re: possible discussion of siblings
I have been enjoying your view as a parent with a child on the spectrum. I was wondering if you would be willing to talk about sibling interaction. My older son is on the spectrum (high functioning) and my younger son is typically developing as far as we can tell. I'm trying to explain my older son to his brother and not having much success. I understand if this would be an invasion of privacy.
May. 20th, 2011 04:17 am (UTC)
Re: possible discussion of siblings
I understand if this would be an invasion of privacy.

It's not an invasion of my privacy - but at this point, my younger son isn't quite of an age where I'm comfortable accepting his permission to discuss parts of his life in a public forum. My oldest, yes, which is why I I felt I could finally begin to talk a bit about my experiences.
Jun. 9th, 2011 03:44 pm (UTC)
Re: possible discussion of siblings
Thanks for writing this. It definitely helps me try and rethink my initial reactions. Hopefully he can understand my explanations of his world a bit better.
May. 24th, 2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
I'm loving reading this blog! You're such a good writer and your insights are helping me reflect on my own parenting journey with my Aspie kid.

"Willing suspension of disbelief" does not come easily to him either.
Jun. 11th, 2011 07:05 am (UTC)
the rottten Durseleys!
I always thought that the fact that Harry went to public school and was chased by Dudley, and no one in authority ever found out about it absurd. I am American, and Childrens Services would have arrested a similar family for child abuse. I mean, a kid growing up in a closet? I though the Durseleys fears childish, if not simply insane. When does Harry interact with anyone but Ms. Figg, who turns out to be a Squib. They are paranoid lunatics, and Harrys Aunt a filthy bitch. I would have gone at Marge, and given her a bloody nose for here horrible vileness. And she is not censured for her insults, and Harry is, when he is driven to act.
Jul. 15th, 2011 04:51 am (UTC)
i agree
What do you mean?
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )