“Manga and the Autistic Mind”

manga motorcycle
From Jiro Taniguchi’s “A Distant Neighborhood.”

While comic books were once dismissed as junk, more teachers today recognize the value of graphic novels in the teaching of English language arts. In September’s English Journal, Robert Rozema writes:

 Graphic works have established a presence in the English language arts classroom, and a number of scholars have already articulated how works such as Maus, American Born Chinese, and Persepolis can be approached in literature, writing, literacy, and other instructional contexts. In this journal, for example, James Bucky Carter has argued that comics can transform the secondary English curriculum by appealing to student interest, narrowing the achievement gap between genders and social classes, and addressing social justice issues.

But as Rozema points out, manga (a Japanese form of comic book) is especially useful for engaging students with autism:

 [M]any autistic individuals are better at processing images than words. … [R]esearch has shown that many will pay more attention to small visual details than will their neurotypical peers, sometimes at the cost of the larger picture. As a medium, manga typically contains fewer words and more pictures than Western comics. Aarnoud Rommens notes, “The amount of wordless passages in any volume of manga may be striking to the Western eye. To ‘read’ manga is to read images—the rhythm is determined by the sequence of images.” …

Beyond appealing to visual thinkers, the unique aesthetics of manga may also provide adolescents with ASD with unambiguous social and emotional input, primarily through its exaggerated, stereotypical depiction of the human face. For many individuals with autism, the inability to recognize faces, differentiate between them, and identify facial expressions severely impairs social interaction. … [W]hen an angry character grimaces horribly (caricature) and grows horns (emenata), the emotional message is loud and clear, perhaps even to adolescents with ASD who typically struggle to interpret the emotional affect of others.

You can read Rozema’s full article free. And if you’re a current NCTE-member, you can read this discussion in our Connected Community where several teachers recently weighed in on the use of graphic novels in classes.

One thought on ““Manga and the Autistic Mind”

  1. I’m a former English professor who now serves on NCTE’s staff. I’m also an autistic with a son on the spectrum. I found Rozema’s argument for making special connections between manga and a pedagogy for students with autism very useful. I’m grateful to find articles being shared in NCTE publications about both working with students on the spectrum and exploring how we are represented in contemporary cultures of school, work, and society.

    Given the emphasis in recent writing about visual thinking in autistics, I want teachers to also be aware that some autistics, especially those who would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s historically (now folded in with the rest of the spectrum in the DSM-V and diagnosed as “autism without cognitive or verbal delay”), are quite verbal. For many of us within that subset, language itself is a delight and an interest. I myself prefer traditional, text-based novels to graphic ones (although I read those, too), because I find graphic novels don’t have enough language and images can seem to slow input and lack complexity.

    Then, too, not all of us suffer from face blindness or have difficulty identifying emotional expressions (I don’t have either of these, and neither does my son). However, as Robert Rozema suggests, even the verbal among us tend to have some visual dimensions to how we process. For example, despite being highly verbal, I have a kind of synesthesia where I see images and movies in my head when I hear words or phrases spoken or read them aloud in my mind.

    I think there’s rich potential for thinking not only about how teachers might compensate for autistic cognitive and social processing deficits, but also how they might appeal to the creative and systemic ways we tend to think. Some in our community have argued that there is an Asperger’s or autistic culture (or cultures, with gendered variations), which includes Legos, trains, Minecraft, science, comic books / graphic novels, sci fi, fantasy, and, of course, manga. Based on my participation in autistic communities online, I believe that we often do enjoy media that gives reality a twist. And, when you think about it, genre media tend to present creative and systemic alternatives to “vanilla” reality.

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