What's the perfect book to give a friend on the autistic spectrum?
December 17, 2015 11:54 AM   Subscribe

He's in his mid-20s. Lives with his parents. Just started his first part-time job. He likes video games, board games, sports, circuses. He's a bit of foodie. He prides himself on being up for any (small) challenge. His favorite things to read are Wikipedia, IMDB, Ripley's Believe It or Not.

He likes animated TV series and viral videos. While we'll sometimes discuss, say, Shakespeare or Game of Thrones, my sense is that processing these narratives is a real challenge. (Even though he seems really eager to get it.) What he truly loves is a story that begins with the words, "can you believe..."

At Christmas, I try to give people just the right book for what I perceive to be the moment they are at in their life. A book that might nudge or jar them out of whatever rut they're in. A book they probably wouldn't find on their own. Right now, I'm struck by the fact that this guy is desperate to make friends, but just can't quite connect, despite heroic efforts. My first thought was a graphic novel. Something that might draw him in with that "can you believe it" quality, and eventually introduce him to a character he can relate to. I realize that I could be approaching this in entirely the wrong way, though, so am grateful for any thoughts about the approach here. The ideal scenario is a book that he and I can discuss that helps us understand each other better.
posted by bookley to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Guinness Book of World Records fits in with the books he likes, although they lack the social component...
posted by thatone at 11:58 AM on December 17, 2015

I dunno, I might recommend a non-fiction but narratively structured book to kind of bridge the gap - Masters of Doom is about a very well-known early video game company, and I enjoyed it. (And John Carmack reads as the kind of guy who struggles with some of the same things, despite being a genius programmer.)
posted by restless_nomad at 12:09 PM on December 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

I would try to approach this from the perspective of simply getting him a book he'll like and enjoy, not necessarily a book that will change or better him or benefit your relationship with him. The gift should be about making him happy, that's all.
posted by ariadne's threadspinner at 12:11 PM on December 17, 2015 [19 favorites]

I bet he'd really enjoy the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader series of books.
posted by phunniemee at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

What he truly loves is a story that begins with the words, "can you believe..."

This, along with the desire for something structured, almost mathematical made me think of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.
posted by vacapinta at 12:18 PM on December 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, Calvin and Hobbes is great for any age.

I like the graphics novel series Fables, Sandman, and Lucifer. I don't know much about autism and narrative understanding, so I have no idea how appropriate they are or how much sense they might make to him.

There are a lot of 'facts' books, like odd laws, listverse.com publishes a book or two I believe, and the Bathroom Readers.

Some of the 'teen' books deal a lot with friends, getting to know odd and interesting people: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.
posted by Jacen at 12:18 PM on December 17, 2015

The problem with suggesting Randall Monroe's book, Thing Explainer, is that if he's into it, he probably bought it on the day of publication. However, I suggest it anyway.

Nate Silver's book, The Signal and the Noise, was last year's sensation, and describes a pretty geeky way of looking at the world.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:29 PM on December 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

I came here to suggest Thing Explainer as well. Good call, SemiSalt.
posted by 4ster at 12:33 PM on December 17, 2015

I think he'd like Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal based on his personality and interests, and though I'm with those who agree that your idea of giving people gifts in order to make them conform to an ideal of a "better person" is misguided, it does have a "how video games can make the world better/bring people closer" aspect to it so it fits that theme as well.
posted by capricorn at 12:36 PM on December 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

IDW published the 1st year of Ripley's newspaper cartoons last year.
posted by brujita at 12:46 PM on December 17, 2015

I read a biography of Ripley called A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley which didn't really seem to take off well and highlighted Ripley as an actually seriously strange dude. Not that easy to find and if he'd read a biography it's a good one. That said, it's a biography which might not be his thing. However, there are a LOT of great books on cool trivia like things that have a bit more explanation along with them. A few I've liked

- Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella: Curiouser and Curiouser Adventures in History
- Museum of Hoaxes
- Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers

That last one might be perfect since it's stories about weird entertainers.
posted by jessamyn at 12:52 PM on December 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

What about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, or other Oliver Sacks books? (An Anthropologist on Mars might be too on the nose, but would work as a set with other books.) If he's interested in weird stories and is also actively trying to figure out how people's minds work, weird stories of neuroscience might hit the spot.
posted by babelfish at 1:07 PM on December 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

I don't know how easy they are to find since the copy I had was second-hand, but Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story" books are pretty cool. Dated, but good nonetheless.
posted by papayaninja at 1:18 PM on December 17, 2015

The QI people put out a series of fact books. There's also their book of general ignorance which takes aim squarely at commonplace misconceptions.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 1:19 PM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

OnceUponATime reminded me of "How to Win Friends and Influence People"
posted by Jacen at 1:21 PM on December 17, 2015

It looks to be out of print now, but I bet he'd like the Big Book of Urban Legends.
posted by thetortoise at 1:53 PM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh speaking of out of print stuff the Book of Lists and People's Almanac (though dated) were really weird and fun when I was a little younger than that.
posted by jessamyn at 1:58 PM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Right now, I'm struck by the fact that this guy is desperate to make friends, but just can't quite connect, despite heroic efforts.... The ideal scenario is a book that he and I can discuss that helps us understand each other better.

Likes small challenges and trivia and wants to connect with people.

Paul Ekman's Emotions Revealed. (The first edition is the best book ever written for people on the spectrum, and it's the best book because the author didn't realize what he was doing.) If this guy can teach computers how to read facial expressions, he can teach you.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 2:01 PM on December 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is a collection of short biographies of mavericks, iconoclasts, conmen and mountebanks:


Are they fiction, or non-fiction?

posted by kandinski at 3:32 PM on December 17, 2015

I've* really enjoyed Bill Bryson's non-fiction. His Short History of Nearly Everything is great for its mix of facts about how things work and how the people who made them made them happen. His travel writing and memoirs also go into incredible (and hilarious) detail about the minutiae of his social interactions too, which I suspect your friend will very much appreciate, but with the scaffolding of being travel writing, so no tricky long term narratives.

Frances Spufford's Red Plenty is a great fictionalized history of people (some real, some not) during the post world war two Soviet Union, and it describes everyone's place in the economic system there and how they were trying to make things work. It's a very hard book to pigeon hole, but it includes mathematicians, engineering, politics, the military and science. It's a bird's eye view of a social and political period, it has several different acts and settings which loosely and thematically tie into one narrative but don't require too much building of a fictional world, and it's very unusual.

And finally, pure fiction, but also without a tricky, cumbersome to remember plot, and with an awful lot of detailed description of social interactions, and masses of Shakespeare pastiches and callbacks, there's One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding has a protagonist with OCD who goes to a Pacific island to get the locals compensation for US weapons testing which left it full of unexploded bombs. Being set amongst a pre-industrial society, it describes everything about how that society works in detail, and also has flashback episodes to how it is living with OCD, also told with a great deal of detail about people's inner life. Couple of caveats: it's got some pretty strong male gaze of the protagonist's love interest, and while it's respectful enough of the islanders, it doesn't really deal with their inner life.

I'd warn you pretty strongly against giving books of facts which aren't contextualized, because they're very easy to read, but not ultimately satisfying, like big boxes of candy, too easy to splurge on. And nothing to worry about as far as giving "improving" things. They'll make his life a lot easier and he's probably very hungry to understand the illogical majority.

But the best book of facts if you do go for that is the collection of stories from damninteresting.com, Alien Hand Syndrome. The publishers ruined it with the world's worst cover, but the stories inside, well, are like those on the website, so follow that link.

*I have an ASD diagnosis
posted by ambrosen at 5:25 PM on December 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

How about some of David Foster Wallace's non-fiction essay collections? I devoured "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and "Consider the Lobster". Wallace has the ability to discuss human interactions through an analytical lens that appeals to my ASD brain. Then again I am also able to absorb and discuss themes in fictional literature as long as they are structured in a way that doesn't bore me.
posted by Young Kullervo at 7:18 AM on December 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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