A Field Guide to Earthlings by Ian Ford
In December I read something unusual for me. Not fiction, but rather a view from an autistic man with the Asperger syndrom on NTs (Neurotypical people, meaning “normal” people). I’ve become more interested in the Aspergers syndrom some months ago for personal reasons. I’m generally interested in the human psych, so it’s not that far off the things I read and research about from time to time, but I’d not looked into autism before.
I’d found out about the book through my research and decided to take a look at it myself. It was a very interesting experience and I definitely learned a lot. If you’re interested in autism, know some autistic people, or are autistic yourself, this book can provide some explanations and an insight into the minds of different kinds of human beings.
The book is divided into categories loosely belonging together. At the start of each of these new section, there’s a part of a play which gets explained later in the section. The play is about a seemingly normal wedding with some complications. It’s mostly people talking with each other about the wedding and what people talk about normally. These “normal” interactions get explained from the view of an Aspie later in the section. These explanations are academically constructed, both in the structure and the prose.
“Our [autistic] thoughts appear to be less encumbered by emotions, and we intuitively know that language is an invention. We cannot lie as easily.” – Simplicity and authenticity
That’s both a boon as it’s my main issue. These explanations are easy to understand and comprehend, but they lack an emotional component. I’d have liked a more personal touch from the author; more about his experiences and not only the fruit of his many years of studying NTs. Don’t misunderstand me, these fruits were delicious. They taught me a lot about humans in general. Still, I’d have preferred a more personal connection to the author at times.
Another part I’m still unsure about, but thought I should at least mention, is that I had problems understanding the people in the play. They seemed erratic, unable to concentrate on what was actually important, often unable to actually talk to each other, though talking was all they did. Now, this could simply be because the play tries to emulate real human speech. Fiction (which I mainly read) doesn’t do that. In fiction, you have unrealistic human speech, with many of the small mannerisms cut out (like “hm” or “ähm”), with people who talk to and with each other, not over each other etc. So, my problem could simply stem from this change in directions in regard to the dialog.
“The part that can be false for autistics is the inevitability of crossing paths and making contact with those millions of other balls [people].” – Loneliness
Or it could be because the dialog’s used like this precisely to highlight these problems in NT’s way of communicating. It could also be my lack of experience with similar situations that makes me unable to understand the protagonists of this play. I think it’s one of these reasons, not that the author has created a play that’s too far away from realistic interactions. Still, I thought it prudent to include this problem I encountered in my review.
What I found to be the most interesting part of the book were the sections on group mentality and ranking. The competitiveness of NTs in all situations seemed to baffle the author and shows the difference between autistic and NT persons. What struck closest to home and actually explained some things I’d agonized over for long years was the part about how people ascribe specific characteristics to other people, which objectively speaking fit the speaker more than the described.
For example, that means that if someone describes many others as pedantic there’s a high chance he/she is the pedantic one. On the internet, there’s the saying that if you’re always complaining about dating “crazies” you might actually be the “crazy” one in the relationships. For me, that explains something a girlfriend many years ago did which I could never understand. That made me really question myself and my view on myself and what I saw as reality. I sadly don’t remember the actual name of the psychological theory behind it (if you know it, please tell me!).
It might not be that important, but I thought I should at least mention that the book, especially the play, is full of errors. Having it proofread by a professional would have been preferable. That’s not something that makes me throw a book out, but it was noticeable enough to hamper my reading flow.
Conclusion: I enjoyed the read. It gave me a lot to think about and even helped with some things I’d struggled to understand. The play often proofed confusing for me, but i’m not sure how that will be for you. If you’re interested in autistic people or want to learn more about NTs, this is a book you can definitely pick up.