Monday, March 16, 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

March 16, 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

I've always been interested in the way people's brains work. I don't mean the scientific logistics of the process; I mean the way in which we process information, and how we select the information we choose to recognize and interpret. In any given situation, two different people will take in a scene and retain differing bits of information.

My daughters' brains tend to interpret information in a similar way to mine. It makes it fairly easy for me to predict the way they might react to ideas or places or experiences. My son's brain, on the other hand, is wired completely differently. His communication style, powers of observation, and his way of perceiving the world are quite different from mine, and through the years, I have adapted my perceptions to be able to more adequately 'see through his eyes'.

Honestly, that idea of getting to get inside the brain of someone who thinks differently is what drew me to this book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. Now, in some ways, Nicholas is the antithesis of Christopher, the protagonist. However, I have to admit that there are definite similarities as well.

Haddon's Christopher doesn't like anyone to touch him, including his own parents. As a matter of fact, they make up their own special gesture for a 'hug' that minimizes contact. This couldn't be further from Nicholas' overly affectionate ways. As a sixth grader, he still hugs everyone (sometimes even complete strangers) with utter abandon. Most boys his age have moved into the stage of high fives and shoulder punches to demonstrate their affinity for one another, and Nicholas' way of showing closeness is now uncomfortable for them, sometimes even eliciting deriding comments or worse.

But though Christopher and Nicholas are opposites in that regard, in others there are parallels that almost make me catch my breath. He is very smart in the book sense of the word, particularly in mathematics and logic. He sees patterns that many don't see. He can also let those patterns and logical thought paths distract him from seeing the bigger picture.

When I read Christopher's attempt to process 'the bigger picture,' it was an ephiphany for me. Well, maybe not exactly an epiphany, since I have been seeing these behaviors in Nicholas for twelve years now, but at the very least a validation of what I see as Nicholas' experiences. Christopher describes his hesitation at going into new situations because there is so much to notice, to take in. He says that most people don't really see everything that's going on around them--they just pay attention to a few elements. This is true of most of us; we note that which we deem important to the task at hand, and relegate the rest of the details to the status of the superfluous. We subconsciously choose not to consciously process that information.

Take, for example, a train station. If I were to go, I would get my bearings by determining what time my train was going to depart, then I'd find the ticket booth and purchase my ticket. Then, I'd simply wait for the train, probably sitting and reading quietly until that time. When Christopher enters the train station in the novel, however, every minute detail catches his attention, from the specific wordings of the various signs, to the attire of each of the passersby, to the variety of destinations and departures available. Every smell, sight, or sound is more information to process to determine whether or not it has any bearing on his impending trip. He doesn't tune anything out; he doesn't know how. In order to cope, he shuts himself down closes out all of the external information. It's an all-or-nothing proposition with him.

Nicholas has found himself in trouble because of this very thing again and again. When he finds himself in a new situation, he has a very difficult time focusing in on the details that are most relevant to him. He doesn't filter the information in the way that many of us do. He can, most of the time, filter information, but it can be a bit random and haphazard. The things that catch and hold his attention may be things that I don't even notice, and might not have anything to do with his particular purpose at that time. I suspect that he fixates on a couple of things in order to try 'quiet' the rest of the noise around him--he doesn't know if they're the 'right' details, but it minimizes his need to shut down entirely.

I have seen him shut down sometimes due to sheer frustration. When he is attempting to complete a big project at school, for example, or accomplish a multi-step task at home, he can get overwhelmed and not know where to start. There's so much going on, so many possible details, that he closes in on himself and can't even take one step forward. It's the mental equivalent of hearing a cacophany of sounds, loud and disconcerting, at every turn, and putting your hands over your ears just to be able to think again. We've worked hard to help him, as best as we can, break those tasks down into manageable, logical, ordered pieces--a pattern to follow, a path with a beginning and an end, through which he can traverse in sequence.

Another way in which Nicholas and the protagonist Christopher are similar is that neither of them is very skilled in reading the body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice. This is frustrating to me, because it seems in opposition to the idea of taking in every minute detail in a situation. For whatever reason, people's expressions remain outside of the scope of details that catch Nicholas' (and Christopher's) attention. In the novel, Christopher is taught to make pictures of facial expressions that approximate what one might look like when angry, or puzzled, or relieved, like flashcards, to aid him in decoding what someone might be feeling.

Similarly, we've had to work to remind Nicholas to look people in the eye, and look at their eyes, their mouths, and their posture to determine what their demeanor was. He has even attended a group at his school that practiced these 'identification' skills. He still struggles with making eye contact (and has his whole life), but he's becoming more aware. (The girls, on the other hand, seem intuitive about this kind of thing.) Two years ago, he got into fights with classmates, because he always assumed that whatever his emotion was, that must be how everyone else was feeling as well. If he was in a playful or teasing mood and someone asked him to stop, he assumed that the other kid was also 'joking.' He'd be taken by surprise when the boy 'suddenly' turned on him and pushed him away or called him a name, so often they'd end up in a pushing match. Luckily, as he's gotten more adept at reading other's signals, these altercations have lessened significantly.

Now,. Nicholas isn't always the innocent victim; he certainly chooses at times to ignore signals or to 'forget' about certain details when it comes to completing chores or homework. But, honestly, part of the challenge of teaching Nicholas is figuring out how to re-wire my brain--try to process like he does--and try to figure out the best way to navigate his experiences given the way his brain takes in information, rather than the way mine does. Reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was just a reminder of what a fascinating and eye-opening thing it is to see the world from another's perspective. It helps me remember, when I'm frustrated because Nicholas forgot to write down his homework AGAIN, that that's my cue to help him figure out what works best for him, rather than getting mad because he doesn't do what would work best for me.

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