A friend pointed out recently that hyperbole is relative: what is hyperbole from an autistic perspective is mundane and presumed from a non-autistic perspective, and vice versa. To which I replied:
This is precisely a thing that makes writing good autistic satire so difficult. I hadn’t been able to articulate it before, but yeah.
…But I can’t understand satire or comprehend even one audience, let alone several who don’t share my neurology, so I’m not even writing satire anyway. I’m probably not even writing. I am a hundred monkeys mashing a hundred keyboards.
Writing good autistic satire requires me to thread the needle between what is “hyperbole” to autistic audiences and what is “hyperbole” to non-autistic audiences. I have to hit both at once, and – because my primary audience is autistic but my majority audience is not – I have to hit both in a way that both can understand as hyperbolic without being forced to translate.
I can’t ask the autistic audience to translate because it is my primary audience; to force it to translate would ruin its enjoyment of the joke. I can’t ask the non-autistic audience to translate because it is my majority audience; it does not practice the skill of translating, and so generally does not have it. (Some individuals do.)
All satire requires the writer to balance multiple perspectives simultaneously. There’s what is actually happening – the thing being satirized. There’s what is being proposed or offered – the content of the satire. There’s the interaction between those things, which has to be realistic enough to call to mind the Actual while still keeping the Ridiculous believable; this is the balance of sarcasm.
A great many non-autistic people can’t write effective satire. I know. I’ve tried to teach them.
Autistic people, of course, are presumed not to be able to write effective satire at all. We can’t write; we have no sense of audience, so we are merely monkeys mashing keyboards. We can’t understand satire, with its emphasis on sarcasm, hyperbole, and under/overstatement, so we certainly can’t produce it. And if we cannot produce any satire, than evaluative words like “effective” never even come into play.
So I’m told by “the experts.” But which of the following is more likely?
1. I am a non-autistic person who is able to take the perspective of an autistic person who has had years of training in when it is “correct” (read: non-autistic) to call something “hyperbole,” and simultaneously take the perspective of an autistic person who despite those years of training still sees “hyperbole” where the average autistic person also sees it, and incorporate my own non-autistic understanding of hyperbole to produce all three types of hyperbole in a single piece,
2. I am an autistic person mashing what I’ve been told “counts” as hyperbole against what I experience as “hyperbole” to produce satire that appeals to both autistic and non-autistic readers.
Studies on Theory of Mind have taught us that the more “nested” our perspective-taking becomes, the more difficult it is for us to keep track of who has which mental state in response to whom, and what that says about what’s “really” happening.
For instance, it’s pretty easy for humans to follow the sentence “Steve likes Bucky’s motorcycle.”
It’s only a little harder to follow “Tony thinks Steve likes Bucky’s motorcycle.”
It’s challenging but not impossible to understand “Wanda hopes Tony thinks Steve likes Bucky’s motorcycle.”
Readers start popping off the track like sesame seeds off a bun at “Clint believes Wanda hopes Tony thinks Steve likes Bucky’s motorcycle.”
And who among us is following a sentence like “Phil wishes Melinda suspects Daisy assumes Peter knows Natasha thinks Clint believes Wanda hopes Tony thinks Steve likes Bucky’s motorcycle”?
So here’s my question: is it more realistic to believe that an author is writing from their perspective, which includes extensive training on taking a different perspective? Or is it more realistic to believe that an author is writing from a perspective not their own, and which they likely have zero training in adopting, and from their own perspective at the same time?
The very work on Theory of Mind that teaches us that autistic people cannot write satire also teaches us that it is illogical to assume that non-autistic people can write from an autistic perspective.
(Regarding the above conversation: We later established that the monkeys are “high-functioning” because they “hardly ever” fling poo while they type. But since autistic people can’t write humor, we must attribute this discovery to the monkeys.)