Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What to do with a fish kettle

I am always interested in books about autism, in part because like most people with a scientific background,  I share some traits with those on the spectrum. I've previously reviewed, for instance Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference, and most fascinatingly, if rather hard work, Richard Maguire's I Dream in Autism. So it was with real interest I agreed to take a look at a copy of Michael Barton's A Different Kettle of Fish, in which he, a physics student with high functioning autism, describes what it's like to take a trip into London.

My first opinion was that it is a very slim book at just 80 pages of large, well-spaced print, which for £10 seems a little skimpy. Nonetheless I would recommend it to get some insights into a different way of looking at the world. Our biggest difficulty in sharing the world with people on the autistic spectrum is understanding why and how they see and feel things differently. It is partly about the way we so often say things we don't really mean, and partly in the sensory overload they can feel with the need to process everything that most of us ignore or don't notice in the first place.

One thing that did irritate me slightly was the constant mention of strange sounding euphemisms and idioms. Time and again, Barton tells us he doesn't get what is being said, because it sounds weird. But we all think this the first time we hear such an expression, then we assign a meaning to it, just like any other vocabulary. 'Sausage' sounds weird if you don't know what it means. It would really have helped if Barton could have explained why someone with autism can't learn what a euphemism codes for and assign a meaning to it. Unpacking the experience and explaining would have meant so much more than coming up with more and more examples with no context. Later in the book he does admit to learning them most of the time, but notes he has to learn them first, where most people seem to pick them up naturally - I'm not sure this is true. I think we all think 'What???" the first time we hear about a red herring, say. What is more interesting and informative is his failure to understand indirect requests like 'Can you pass the salt?' (Response: 'Yes.')

I was also slightly suspicious that the author was trying to find 'funny' meanings in announcements to the extent that he at least once created one. I can absolutely understand being amused by an announcement saying 'This is an announcement,' or a sign saying 'Dogs must be carried' - plenty of people who aren't on the autistic spectrum laugh at this kind of thing too. You regularly see them on Facebook and the like. But when Barton tells us a tube announcement says 'Please let other people off the train first,' with its implication that no one will make the first move, it smacks of constructed humour - because the actual announcement is 'Let customers off the train first, please.' (You can even hear it by clicking the play button at the top of the post.) The exact wording, by not having that 'other', and the fact that the announcement is on the platform speakers, not the train speakers, makes it much clearer that this is addressed to people who aren't on the train. The announcement makes perfect sense.

Overall, the book is still quite a good way to get the message across to some who aren't aware of people on the autistic spectrum. The bumf says the book is aimed at everyone from children aged 8 plus to adults, but I think it would be best confined to the 8-12 range (in which case, the pricing should be seriously reduced).

You can find out more about the book, or purchase it, at and

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