Friday, March 23, 2007

On the (autistic) use of parentheses

I'll admit it. I have a fear of being told to stop using so many parentheses. I posit (if that's the right word) that this is a function of having an autistic mind (the punctuation itself, not the fear). I seem to recall that Seymour's older brother Buddy Glass had a similar style of writing, and that quite possibly the rest of the Glass family did as well. Certainly their author, Mr. Salinger is known to have his share of autistic traits. But this is not and never will be about J D Salinger about whom far too much has been said already. I'm done with all that (but only for now).

Faulkner was another bad influence, all of those drunken sentences, staggering over the page. And he was another perseveration, as well. A whole family vacation was ruined for all but me when my intermittently indulgent parents allowed me to hijack the trip and we all went off to glorious Oxford, Mississippi (pop. est. 9,556 in 1978) for a week. What was there to do there? Why visit the drugstore, of course, that's what he did and what I wanted to do, as well as roaming around the house he had lived in and buying a black and white 8" X 10" photo from the library for 20 dollars (well, my dad did that, paid for it I mean).

And now I've completed a paragraph with almost no "incident" (until the last few words, that is) and even without them there, the entire paragraph was parenthetical. That's what I mean about autistic punctuation, sentence structure and such. But I haven't yet begun to explain, so this is out of order (a bit) and I will now back up.

I propose (if one is allowed to do so) that parentheses (as well as the semi-colon) are a natural form of presentation for autistic (as opposed to NT) thought. Note that each of the parantheticals in the last sentence serves a discrete purpose, and note also that this entire sentence (yes, this one) could well be housed in ( ), since it is not the thought I originally intended to appear next, but rather a tangent or an aside. But now we are in sub tangent territory, so back to the main aside, sentence one of the paragraph and the varied purposes of the parentheses found therein, which are, in this order (aside), (semi-extraneous adjunct) and (clarification). And these, of course, are only a few of the many purposes served by parentheses.

If you are about as old as I am, you may have learned sentence diagramming in grade (or grammar) school English, and if you have taken a logic course, you may have been required to diagram arguments. In either case, you will likely understand what I mean when I talk about speaking in "trees". Having read countless writings by autistic individuals and spoken with many, I am willing to (here it comes, duck!) go out on a limb and say that this is a fairly common thought pattern among us.

Before the tree analogy, before my current understanding of autism, I thought about my difficulties with spoken communication as an air traffic control problem. Several planes would be ready for takeoff and the guy who says which one gets to go was always sleeping (why it was a guy, I can't tell you, something about the extreme male brain in autistic females, I suppose).

Now I prefer to frame my thinking as trees, as for one thing, the consequences seem much less dire. Speaking with neurotypicals requires much pruning of smaller branches, as most are not inclined to listen to whole "trees" but want just the information from the select branches they consider important. Thus, when communicating this entire post to an NT, it might be best to state it as follows:
Autistics are more inclined toward detail than neurotypicals. Some neurotypicals find this distracting and superfluous. Some autistics, on the other hand find the NT way of speaking equally baffling.
Note that in the NT-approved version, no hint of personality was allowed to escape. That is because I am not NT, I am autistic, and was speaking in a somewhat foreign language. I am not saying that NT speech patterns are dull, impersonal or even less complex, just that I don't get the finer nuances of the language, and understand that they don't get mine. Not a problem, really, unless only one of the conversational partners is expected to be fluent in both languages.

This I suppose was my point, though I didn't know it to begin with. Only by following each branch that catches my attention, do I find out what I am really talking about. I enjoy this sort of thing, and (for me) it is functional.

When I was younger I was all root and no branch. The thought paths were as numerous and even more twisting. Little broke the surface. Underground, the parentheses multiplied, but what others heard from me was curt or even monosyllabic. Some days my speech is still like that.

My internal dialogue can also be that way, unless I have a pen or a keyboard. I don't know how it works, but I have a hunch it has more than a little to do with punctuation. NT speech comes "standard equipped" with italics, ellipses and exclamation points in the form of what they like to call non-verbal communication. When I try to use it, someone always seems to get hurt or angry or impossibly confused. Since I like to express myself somewhat thoroughly, and with as little conflict and fuss as possible, I prefer to write. If you need the information pruned, you may do it yourself. I'm done (for the moment) with that sort of thing.


  1. Hmm...I do think this finally (some seven or so years after the actual comment) explains something my essay-writing teacher told me in my first year (of three) of college/university. I was writing a paper comparing and contrasting Utopia, 1984, Brave New World, and We (a Russian novel along the same lines as the second and third titles listed--that is, a "dystopia" or "anti-utopia"--written in the late teens or early twenties of the last century). In addition to a verbal tussle over the word "dystopia" (which my instructor and the other students said was not a real word and which I insisted--and backed up with dictionary proof--was), I was told that I "talk in punctuation, particularly parentheses and dashes."

    That made no sense to me, and when questioned my teacher wasn't even sure what she meant, much less how to explain it. The closest she could come was something along the lines of "You're full of stuff that doesn't need to be there." Which still didn't (and doesn't--I don't say stuff for no reason, as verbalizing thoughts and ideas is definitely an area of difficulty for me, though most NTs, including family, can't tell because I can string together BS well enough to pass when I have to; thus everything I say is said for a reason, has a point, and even a purpose, though none of that may be obvious at first) make sense. All that did was make it sound, at least to my mind, that I'm defective, can't do anything right, and shouldn't even be in school (though I proved her wrong there, if that was meant, since I managed to graduate with a BFA in creative writing in three years).

    However, this post of yours has managed to clarify things a great deal (which is especially nice since that comment of hers has been puzzling me for the last seven years--I have a poor memory, but some stuff just refuses to leave me alone), for which I am very greatful.

    (And no, I have no formal diagnosis, other than what I and my husband both feel is a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder. However, we both also feel that I am most definitely an Aspie, and I, at least, have only been getting this feeling even moreso the more I read and write and learn about AS and autism and all sorts of stuff.)

    Anyhow, sorry for the rambling. I was just going back through your blog and came across this post and it clarified so much that I just had to comment and tell you so. Thanks for writing this, and everything else. I truly am very greatful.

  2. I came across your blog while searching for things about asbergers ( I was searching becuase my son has alot of the symptoms) anyways i foudn your blog though a link in some other blog and started reading and couldnt stop. I really enjoy your writing style and think it makes perfect sence. which now has me wondering if maybe I have some sort of autism that I passed on to my son and that is why he has all the symtoms? but anyways I found it interesting that the other poster said she was diagnosed with bipolar since that is what I am diagnosed with as of 8 years ago when I was in college. Maybe how the brain works in bipolar is similar to autism or somthing... for me I not only tend to think like you with lots of thoughts at the same time and all over the place but my guy that is controlling my "planes" is actually having them all take off at the same time so i tend to talk too much and confuse everyone since they get bits and pieces of all my thoughs and it usually doesnt make much sence becuase my train of thought is so quick.

    Anyways just wanted to say that I like your blog, and enjoy your writing style very much.

    Oh and i apologize I can not spell.. and there is no spell check on this.... i get really confused with the letters sometimes and the more I think about it the more confused I get. i am not stupid I just cant spell.

  3. Being a living parenthetical myself who would have invented the semicolon and hyphen had they not already been 'dangling'; I have to say that off shoots in thought or "on shoots" comprise the whole message and were I to trim them away (as I have tried for lamenting teachers in bygone years) more than 1/2 of my intended message, "if in fact I understood it" would be lost. Where is the Gestalt without the parentheses? Rhetorical I know -

  4. You do know Rhetorical? That's my AFF name. And nice sentence. I liked it.

  5. 😜😂 I just learnt yesterday that there is actually a medical diagnostic code for a MacCau bite! I thought you might appreciate it. I should have written it down. Dang it!

  6. Bev, VERY well said. I once got a less than favorable review by one very NT boss who hated my way of writing (the previous boss loved it!). I think I will send this link to that boss who couldn't understand to perhaps widen his mind for purposes of inclusion.

  7. And I know what you mean about your earlier years. My family would often say that I spoke in a staccato fashion. I still do so occasionally. What helps me these days is something I call: secondary post-processing. Basically, I think my thoughts, run them through some kind of algorithm [ I don't know exactly what (but it's rather complex) ].

    So, my words come out a lot more fluid now, but not without a subtle degree of secondary post-processing delay.

    BTW, same thing applies to circumstances or the speech that I perceive from an NT. I hear it first, then I run it through my "universal translator" and voilà! Unfortunately, this means that I don't (for example) laugh at something at the same time as others might (usually with a little processing delay) (but sometimes it can be quite some time before I get it). Ah, but, guess what? Sometimes when I do get something I get it so much better than my NT counterparts.

    It's the beauty of secondary post-processing. It's a feature, not a bug! 😂

    Sometimes I equate it to Dolbi Noise Reduction. The optimum thing is mastering when to turn it on or off as needed.

  8. Regarding trees [ which reminds me of Bayesian searches (wherein one can get really stuck in a perseveration all tangential rut ) ], can also be complemented with step functions (which allow one to swing between branches), such as, but not limited to, pseudo-knots or rhibo-switches. (I hope I spelled those correctly).

    This type of leap can greatly enhance one's processing as well as reduce its cycle-time.

    Normally I wouldn't bother writing this to anyone else, except that I feel that you are more likely to be attuned to understand what it is I'm trying to convey.

    As a side note, miscalculating potential rhibo-switches and pseudo-knots in tree structures may at time lead one to mis-interpolate or mis-extrapolate and therefore "jump to the wrong conclusions".

    Hopefully any / some of this ramble may make some sense to someone who might read it.

    Thank you for your blog.

  9. I was just informed by a fellow that is very dear to me that the author of The Princess Bride, in that book, makes excellent use of parentheticals. I only saw the movie, now I will need to check that book out of the library. :-)


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