My son does not enjoy reading fiction, which is hardly surprising to me, considering his autism. He struggles to understand social interaction and it’s only in the last couple of years that he’s started exhibiting and enjoying his imagination; both social interaction and imagination feature prominently in fiction. Getting him to read the fiction books that get sent home for homework, is hard work, getting him to read the occasional non-fiction ones that turn up is a lot easier.

By Eunice, via Flickr

I was generally OK with his strong preference for non-fiction since I figured he’d learn more from it. I was aware though that the fact he found fiction more challenging was itself a good reason to press him to continue with it; that it was a way he could perhaps learn more about people’s interactions and other less-familiar topics. But now, thanks to a couple of very recent studies out of Canada, I have more concrete and highly relevant reasons to push him to engage with fiction, and I think they are reasons worth sharing.

The two studies used a group of 100 university students, but the researchers consider the benefits they found would apply to those both younger and older, and I think that is a fair assumption. The first study replicated previous findings that cognitive empathy is higher among regular readers of fiction; in particular, it found that there are significant boosts in empathy for those who are closed to experience and not particularly curious. Though it is not true of all autistic children, it is true for a significant portion (including my son, particularly when he was more severely autistic) that they are “closed off” and generally anxious about the world and change, preferring the familiar and predictable where-ever possible. It is also true that autistic individuals frequently struggle with cognitive empathy.

So on both these points – the tendency to be closed off and the need to develop cognitive empathy – there are good reasons to encourage my son to engage with fiction according to this first study. My son has had huge growth in cognitive empathy and his interest in the world over the past few years regardless, but if reading fiction will contribute to this growth, then all the better.

The second study found that “[a]fter you read a piece of literature, it seems your discomfort with ambiguity lowers, and your need for order lowers.” This also apparently bodes well for decision-making abilities. Again, it is a common feature of autism to struggle with situations that are ambiguous and out-of-routine, both being areas that my own son still struggles with. That’s a few more good reasons to encourage him to read fiction, both because he has autism, and frankly just because he is a human being – we all could benefit from such outcomes of reading fiction.

Neither study or the article specifically mention autism, but as a mother steeped in autism literature on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but see the links. The broader message about the benefits of fiction for everyone, is a good take-home message, and gives me one more excuse to now go bury myself in one of the fantasy books piled on the side-table.

Happy (and beneficial) reading. 🙂

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10 Responses to BeneFiction

  1. nostromo says:

    While reading the paragraph about the 2nd study, it occured to me that a piece of fiction is a narrative of a sequence of events involving entities, motivations and rules. As these are established (e.g. in this story there are creatures that can fly and can breath fire but NOT do magic) the story unfolds. Events that happen earlier are not necessarily expicable at the time until other events or revalations later in the story. So it makes sense that reading a fiction “acts as a kind of dress-rehearsal for real life” and could improve someones ability to adapt to change and deal with order/disorder.

    All very very interesting 🙂

  2. Lisa says:

    My oldest son has significant ADHD and some speech/language issues. He, too, is a mostly-non-fiction reader…although, as of late, we are seeing more interest in fiction. This is a good piece..and I also see the links. Thanks for sharing.

  3. excellent and I couldn’t agree more with this.

  4. He will find the fiction he likes, it may just be less frequent than normal.
    When I was little, my dad would read me ‘Famous Five’ books before bed. One day he cam eto read me the next instalment and I informed him that I had actually finished reading that book on my own and so his services were no longer needed 😉 I graduated to ‘Secret Seven’ but couldn’t find a book about a gang of 9 kids by Enid Blyton so I graduated to Tolkien, which is full of innofensive numerology and memorable characters and, most importantly – enough description! We can’t ‘fill in the gaps’ like NTs do!

    I have no ‘aversion’ to fiction per se, just the normal autistic lack of interest in ordinary people and their everyday stories. I read Starship Troopers and it was good – it’s about ethics.
    Fiction masquerading as spookumentary is best. Carlos Casteneda or Robert E Svoboda 😉

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences and views on fiction cannabisforautism, I think your point about filling in the blanks is a really interesting and important one; my son definitely struggles to understand fiction where it expects him to read in so many details that other readers naturally fill in. Thanks for commenting.

  5. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    Ben is adopted…and enjoys certain fiction a lot. But my husband didn’t talk until he was 4 years old and was thought to be intellectually impaired by his kindergarten teacher. He NEVER used to read fiction, thought it a waste of time from his history books.BUT…he writes wonderful fiction stories, although he’s never been published.
    I’m confused…

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