Week 7: Read books, read faces

Reading has always been Logan’s favorite activity.

In early October the New York Times ran an article about a study that shows certain types of reading can help improve emotional IQ. In other words, reading books helps with reading faces.

I’m fascinated with this—a bridge joining my two current obsessions (and blogs): literature and autism. Of course, the study does not address autism in any way, but as a large part of autism is having the inability to identify emotions in others and empathize with them, I see an interesting connection. As the mother of a 3-year-old son with autism, my first thought after reading the article was of course, “Ah! Maybe reading more to Logan might help!”

And also of course, my second thought was that the study doesn’t apply to people with autism—in fact, my son must be proof that it doesn’t. Logan has been read to every single day for at minimum 30 minutes since he was a day old. And that’s at minimum. He has more than 50 books on his bedroom bookshelf; there are about 100 more scattered throughout the house. I even read My Secret Book by Francis Petrarch to him out loud when he was one month because I was in grad school and I had to read it for class (Petrarch, by the way, is the 14th century father of humanism, father of the Renaissance, and inventor of the Italian sonnet form.). If I were a betting man, as they say, I’d put money down that Logan is among the most-read to kid ever. And yet he barely registers when another person is angry or sad.

My third thought? But maybe more would help … As every parent of a child with autism knows, you at times feel so despondent that you start believing anything might help. I think even parents of normally developing children relate to this—we all want to do whatever we can for our children. It’s simply what parents do.

The study, by researchers Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, concludes that reading literary fiction leads to higher empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. Note that was literary fiction—not all fiction, not all reading produces the same results. While I read to Logan, and he himself is beginning to read, too, he’s certainly not reading Chekov or Dickens. Even the Petrarch I read to him wouldn’t count—that’s an example of literary nonfiction. His books are more in the popular fiction category, which focus more on delivering a plot rather than exploring facets of reality or moral issues. I think it’s safe to say The Cow Loves Cookies posits no ethical statement.

But it gives me hope that when Logan grows up and becomes able to read more challenging texts, perhaps his reading list might help with this characteristic of his autism. Perhaps if he can read Of Mice and Men one day, he’ll be able to recognize jealousy, kindness, and fear.

And there are lots of books aimed at helping children with emotions. Logan really likes reading How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad?, No More Hitting, and I am a Rainbow, about the different colors of emotions we feel.  Even silly  books like Llama Llama and the Bully Goat teach about emotions to an extent. It’s possible reading these helps with not only the typical things reading is good for (language development, vocabulary, comprehension, curiosity, love of learning, etc.) but also social interactions.

Can you read my face?

I do have one quibble with the study: Researchers tested readers of nonfiction and specifically chose works like “How the Potato Changed the World” to maximize the contrast between fiction and nonfiction. For the initial study I suppose that makes sense. But what about people who routinely read literary nonfiction (aka creative nonfiction)? Are they more attuned to reading others’ emotions? I just can’t believe someone who’s read Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty or The Latehomecomer by Kalia Kao Yang wouldn’t have a high emotional IQ.

But again my own life might be proof I’m wrong. My husband and I both took the test given in this research study, which asked participants to observe 36 photographs of eyes and determine which emotion each was displaying. My husband has not read a piece of literary fiction in probably 20 years—the only book at all he’s read in the past eight years was The Book of Poker Tells. Nonfiction, and not exactly literary. I, on the other hand, was just accused by my students of being a “bibliophile,” which our class textbook defines as someone who reads more than 50 books per year. Of course, I expected to kick my husband’s butt on this test.

We scored the exact same. 29/36, which falls in the average range. (It is, though, the highest score in the average range.)

So maybe reading literary nonfiction does not count; maybe if I had taken the fiction track rather than the creative nonfiction track in school, I’d have scored better. Or maybe reading one measly poker book is equally helpful as reading an armload of literature. I suppose the goal of playing poker is to read someone’s cards by reading his or her face, after all.

Maybe we should start teaching Logan poker …

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