The funny side of autism
Local authors offer a unique perspective in new book
By Joan Trossman Bien 10/06/2011
Have you ever had an experience like this? I had a job where I was tooling around in a bus quite often, carting the traveling press from place to place. During one ride, I chatted with a new reporter.
Afterward, my boss asked me, “How did you find him?”
I replied, “There was an empty seat next to him.”
Long pause. “Nooooo. How did you find him? What was he like?” I have never forgotten that exchange. We had a hearty laugh about the misunderstanding.
For people with autism, it illustrates a common experience, taking a phrase literally when the intended meaning was quite different. But it is rarely funny to them. It is a cause of frustration, and a typical day is usually full of frustration.
Linda Gund Anderson and her adult son Brent, who has autism, decided to have some fun with this problem. They teamed up and wrote a book that takes a humorous look at the literal meanings of common idioms.
People on the autistic disorder spectrum — which can range from Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning to very impaired — struggle with humor. So much of what is considered to be funny turns on double meanings of words, misunderstandings, unintended consequences and other forms that play off the literal and nonliteral meanings. For someone with autism, the subtlety is incomprehensible.
That doesn’t mean, however, they can’t laugh when something is funny to them. Linda and Brent have nailed that sweet spot in their new book Unintentional Humor: Celebrating the Literal Mind of Autism.
Imagine what phrases like “cutting a rug” or “hit the sack” or ”car pool” would conjure in the mind of someone who takes the words literally. With Brent in the lead, a professional illustrator translated what Brent described as his literal version of a phrase. A second professional illustrator put the finishing touches on the drawings, and Linda served as the writer and editor. This group project took years to finish but now they are already thinking ahead as to what might become their next book.
Linda said that Brent was born in an era before autism was widely recognized by pediatricians. His birth was traumatic and Linda was thankful that he survived.
“My son was born a little preemie. He weighed two pounds and had a twin who didn’t survive. Brent had all the issues of a preemie.”
Linda said that, as a baby, Brent seemed to be hitting all of the milestones but it didn’t feel quite right. “It wasn’t until my daughter was born 23 months later that I just knew he wasn’t developing normal language. As he got older, he was taking everything that people said to him literally,” Linda said.
It was another 20 years before Linda actually wrote the book.
“My belief is, if we share the stories, we can make people aware of the differences. It’s almost a different language. I don’t think people on the [autism] spectrum would ever in a million years use an idiom. Brent would never come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mom, you let the cat out of the bag.’ He would never say that. He would say, ‘Mom, you’ve told a secret.’ He would get mad. The way he sees the world is very literal; it is very black and white.”
Linda hired an illustrator to translate Brent’s interpretations into pictures so that others could understand what he imagines. Linda said that Brent and the illustrator got along famously.
Brent agreed with his mother. “My favorite part was my bond with the illustrator,” Brent said. “All the humor that’s in there. Everything I saw, he understood.”
But Brent also sees the benefits for others who read the book. “A lot of people with autism aren’t really happy about it and are kind of sad just thinking about it. I hope this adds a little spark.”
The response has been nothing but positive. “Every one of my friends, everyone that I’ve shown it to, really enjoyed the book,” says Brent. “It feels great that everyone supports the book. No one thinks that this is a stupid idea.”
Linda said that the book has helped Brent embrace a larger life. “I would love nothing more than for this book to open up the world for Brent to feel confident enough to do things.”
The book has changed Linda’s life, too. “This book means everything to me. It has been my life’s passion to make a difference and, hopefully, to give my son a purpose for helping others. I think it is not only changing my life, but I hope it will change a lot of others. I really do.”
Linda knew that this book would be different from most of the books that she has read about autism. “I didn’t want to write a book about my son, I wanted to write a book with my son.”
Unintentional Humor: Celebrating the Literal Mind of Autism is available for purchase through the website: www.CelebrateAutism.com, Amazon.com, The Bank of Books in Ventura and Quick Printing Plus in Ventura. Linda and Brent will be signing books and speaking at The Bank of Books Children’s Book Festival Oct. 8. 748 E. Main St., Ventura, 643-3154.