Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why Tell Stories

1989


One evening I was, as usual, running late taking young Elizabeth to Awana, and it'd been raining all day, so the roads were wet. I was going my usual running-late speed when I approached the Yield sign where there was NEVER anything coming-- so my habitual concession to it was to ease up on the gas while taking a quick look to the left to make sure nothing was coming. Only this time there was something coming: a pickup truck.

So I slammed on the brakes. But instead of stopping like cars are supposed to do, always do, and therefore have to do, this car skidded right through the Yield sign into the intersection, where it began spinning in a circle. This was disconcerting because in my experience, elements of scenery-- like green foliage and red pickup trucks-- are supposed to whoosh by on the sides of our vision; they are not supposed to cross the front of our vision from left to right, and certainly shouldn't soon thereafter put in a second appearance. I hate new experiences. A person cannot know what to do in a situation they've never experienced before. Well, neurotypicals often manage it, but that's because they have some kind of magic or something.

While the scenery was behaving so incorrectly, I was drawing on my memory for any kind of help understanding this, and I remembered having read something in a magazine about driving a car in a skid. I remembered it was a small-format magazine like the aptly-named Guidepost or better yet Prevention, but more likely it was a Reader's Digest. The passage had been on the left-hand page, right column, near the top. It said "when you're in a skid," something something "take your foot off the brake." I thought, "It could hardly be any worse than this," so I took my foot off the brake. This made the dreadful noise and spinning stop, which initially was a tremendous relief. But then I realized that the car was slowly rolling toward a deep ditch.

I had plenty of time to choose whether or not to re-apply my foot to the brake to prevent our going over the edge of that ditch. I definitely did not want to go into the ditch, but the directions had said to take my foot off the brake. We're always supposed to follow the directions. In fact my last coherent thought as we went over the edge and plummeted down was, "BUT I'M FOLLOWING THE DIRECTIONS!"

We weren't hurt, just-- terribly wrong. Gravity was pulling us forward instead of down, at least it seemed to me, in a manner that was most ungravity-like, and the children were now dangling over my head in their carseats, their little legs swaying in the air. After a moment of stunned silence, we all started talking at once.

Toddler David was shouting, "That was FUN, Mommy. Do it AGAIN, Mommy. 'Specially the DOWNHILL part!"

Young Elizabeth was muttering that this was like something she'd seen on Granddad's TV; she thought it was called "Demolition Derby."

And I was yelling, "I WRECKED THE CAR! I WRECKED THE CAR! I WRECKED THE CAR!" This is what I always say when I drive into something, or fall into something with the car. It's just a public service for the passengers, if any, in case they have not been keeping up with events.

The man in the pickup truck, who had realized even before the bad parts started that I was going too fast to yield, had slowed to a stop to watch from a safe distance, and when he saw that I was finally done, he walked over to tell us that he'd go to the little gas & grocery up the road to call for help. Then he came back to make a statement for the police, which turned out to be unnecessary because they said they don't have to file a report for a one-car accident. I looked at the poor car, nodded ruefully, and said, "Yes, I did this all by myself."

Or did I? While we'd been waiting in the ditch for assistance to arrive, I remembered that what the magazine article had said was, "When you're in a skid, don't panic and take your foot off the brake."

I submit that I did not panic. Don't you think it was pretty darn level-headed of me to remember as much of the article as I had? Clearly the problem was with the directions-- they should have been more memorable. And the thing that makes directions memorable is a story. That's one reason why your pastor tells stories during a sermon, to help you remember the point. So if the magazine article's author had given the directions and then told a story, (perhaps one about a wild woman in a station wagon running a Yield sign in the rain, taking her foot off the brake to stop a skid and consequently rolling forward into a ditch), and then reiterated the directions, that I might have remembered and been able to pull from memory in its entirety even when under duress. So this whole thing was obviously not my fault.

All right, so the next time I was in a skid, things went much better. We'd been caught in a snowstorm in Chattanooga. The highway was still fairly clear, but the exit I was taking wasn't, and I was going too fast for the conditions. The car skidded and slipped around in all kinds of different directions. I kept my foot firmly on the brake this time, having memorized the directions, though whether the directions applied to snow I wasn't sure, and I searched my memory in case there was further assistance available there. I remembered reading an article about an early airplane pilot who found himself in a spiral dive towards the ground.

The article had said that early pilots were taught that a downward spiral was a hopeless situation because a man cannot turn a wheel hard enough to fight against the pull of an aircraft and a planet. But this pilot acted against instinct-- instead of trying to fight the spin, he turned the wheel the other way, into the spin. Instinct says that this should make the plane plummet toward the Earth faster, but it also put centrifugal force in his favor and threw the plane outward, out of the spin. So he lived to tell the tale, and pilots ever after were taught new directions about what to do in a downward spiral.

It was a well-written article, with a gripping story that cemented those directions in my memory. So when I tried to exit the highway too fast in the snow and lost control of the car, I remembered quite clearly: when your plane is spiraling towards the ground, turn into the spin. If those directions had been relevant to my situation, they would have been enormously helpful.

Fortunately the car eventually stopped moving, all was well, and I sat there gripping the wheel recovering my wits and wishing someone would write an article of directions, with stories, about everything I was apt to do wrong on the road and everywhere else too.

To make the directions memorable, include a story.

And when you’re dealing with a person with Asperger’s, you might later tell a story or two about someone having to adapt the directions to changing circumstances. For example, when the sign says "Don't Walk," we're not supposed to leave the sidewalk. But after the person with Asperger's has mastered that direction, you might show them the scene from Rainman in which Dustin Hoffman's autistic character is already in the crosswalk when the sign changes to "Don't Walk." He stops walking in the middle of the crosswalk despite the car horns and shouts for him to get out of the street. I did much the same thing when I thought the directions said to keep my foot off the brake, so I did it even when I saw that following these directions was about to cause me to wreck. I'm not sure why I have this imperative to follow the directions. Maybe it's to compensate for lacking that magical element neurotypical people have. Maybe it's part of the compelling drive for everything to be Right and Good, or maybe it's a way of dealing with a world that is otherwise just too darn confusing. Certainly it shows literal thinking. For whatever reason, we Aspies can get ourselves into trouble when we try to follow the directions to the letter in all circumstances. So after an Aspy has mastered the directions, perhaps the next step should be to start telling stories about how people have to alter those directions when the conditions change.

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