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.
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. 🙂