A Different Kettle of Fish – Michael Barton
A book written in the “day in the life” style, and this book is a day in the life of a university physics student with autism. The book is somewhat of a continuation of Barton’s first book (which I have not read yet) “It’s raining cats and dogs”, and like the first book it has a focus on idioms and turns of phrase that are commonly used.
The problem with these commonly used idioms and turns of phrase is that their daily usage often adds to the difficulty many autistic people find in communication and socialisation. If you take things very literally then idioms can be at best confusing and at worst terrifying.
Barton’s day starts with someone on the radio asking an interviewee, “Didn’t you smell a rat?”, and from there we follow Barton through his day. He visits the Alan Turing exhibition which includes a brief discussion on the suspicions that some people have that Turing may have been autistic. From there Barton moves onto Denmark Street to buy a guitar strap and then back to university.
It does not seem like an exciting day, but what makes this book interesting and worth reading is the way Barton talks about all the idioms he hears around him all day. At the least it might cause you to stop and give some thought to how often you say things without actually using the most straight-forward words, or even words related to what you’re trying to say at all. It’s not just idioms Barton discusses either, although they are the most frequent and come with illustrations of the images conjured up in Barton’s head when the phrases are spoken, he also talks about other components of speech and communication that he finds difficult.
Indirect requests have caused me quite a lot of problems in the past. As with idioms, my brain processes the request literally (i.e. logically). So if I didn’t realise that a question was an indirect request, I would answer directly. For example, if someone asked, ‘Can you pass me the salt?’ my immediate thought was ‘Of course I can’ (I have the ability to pass them the salt), I would reply ‘Yes’ but not actually pass it to them!
Barton talks about how, in order to fully understand what people were saying, he often had to just learn the meanings and rules behind what people really meant. I can relate to this. I had to learn the meanings of all the idioms I know because I could not draw their meaning from context as a child and teenager. Even now I still find idioms that I have never come across and if they happen to come up during conversations I will often find it difficult to continue the back and forth of conversation as I struggle with the meaning of the idiom. This book does a very good job of putting into straight forward writing just how this can impact the day-to-day life of an autistic person.
Is it worth reading?
It’s not a very long read (34 pages) and it’s RRP is £9.99 which is a bit steep for such a short book. If you can borrow it or find it for cheaper then yes, it’s a concise series of examples of where daily language can cause problems for some autistic people.