Monday, October 19, 2015

Lessons from Garfield

"Mom, guess what Garfield said to John!" Ethan had the paper spread across the kitchen table, reading and waiting for his breakfast.


"Well, he didn't really say it, because it was a thought bubble. But he told John to go make him a sandwich. How did John hear him if it was a thought bubble?"

Like most people these days, we'd had little use for reading the newspaper until the Hartford Courant offered us a ridiculous deal (something like $1 for a year's subscription). Now every Thursday and Sunday morning the paper magically appears in our driveway, and a fun byproduct has been that Anna and Ethan have become avid comic-readers.

I'm a sucker for the comics and so is Dan. As a kid I loved digging into a copy of the Worcester Telegram and finding the "Happy Pages," which included the comics and essays written by local school kids. Dan always goes straight for the comics and rarely reads the rest of the paper, especially these days, when we get our news from elsewhere. And now the kids fight over them. We all have our favorites. I've always liked For Better or for Worse (first I identified with the kids in the strip; now the parents). Dan likes FoxTrot thanks to the geeky central character. We all like to make fun of Prince Valiant, one of those we're-going-to-cover-one-story-line-for-a-year, badly, comic strips.

Ethan loves Garfield. And Dilbert. And The Family Circus, and really all of the comics except for this bizarre, some other state of consciousness strip called Zippy about this cantankerous, evil-looking clown who makes political and psychological observations about the world. We're quickly realizing that the comics are a great way to teach someone on the autism spectrum about humor (or the lack thereof), subtlety, and inference.

Some cartoons and more cut and dry and it's easy for anyone, Ethan included, to get them. The Family Circus and Peanuts come to mind, although sadly in Charles Shultz's later years the strip didn't make nearly as much sense. For Better or For Worse is another good one because it's usually about real-life situations that may have happened to any of us. Ethan's learned to avoid Doonesbury, as politics aren't exactly his thing, but he does love Dilbert, which he calls his "second-favorite comic."

"Really?" I asked him, wondering how much he understands about the corporate world and office politics.

"Yeah. I like the boss's crazy hair," he told me.

Above all, though, Ethan loves Garfield. I'm not sure why. Maybe because we're a family of cat lovers. Maybe he likes the way Garfield orders John around. I know he likes the thought bubbles, because they talk about those in school and he sometimes comes home with pictures of people with little thought bubbles above their heads.

And that's just it: the thought bubble really complicates Garfield, if one can call a Garfield comic strip complex. One character is speaking, and the other is thinking, but it's written in a way so that without paying careful attention you'd think that maybe John really can understand what he's thinking.

This is perfect, since part of what Ethan does in something like a social skills group is try to figure out what's going on inside someone else's head. Even just the concept that everyone else has an inner world like he does is a good one. People can be sitting silently, Garfield teaches us, while thinking all sorts of things. Sometimes they're snarky and sarcastic things.

Which brings us to point #2: sarcasm. Much of what Garfield thinks is dripping with sarcasm. We've worked a bit with Ethan on sarcasm. He's pretty good at spotting obvious sarcasm now (like "Oh, I just can't WAIT to go to the dentist and get my tooth drilled today"). He'll even call us out on it -- "That's sarcasm!" But when the sarcasm is on paper and spoken, or thought, by a cat, it's a little more tricky.

Even beyond sarcasm, in Garfield there's a lot of the cat saying one thing but meaning another. So in that strip when he ordered John to make him a sandwich, it happened at a moment when John was trying to give him love and affection.

"Why did he ask him to make him a sandwich?" Ethan asked.

"He probably got uncomfortable with John hugging him and he doesn't really know how to show his feelings, so he just ordered him around instead," I told him. This lead to a whole discussion on the point of the script, the theme running behind the themes, about the way people think cats are cool and aloof compared to dogs and like to order their owners around rather than running after them.

And you thought Garfield was just a cute little comic strip about a fat cat who likes lasagna.

Again I'm reminded that so much of what we see and read can't be taken at face value. That there are themes and motivations driving what people are communicating, and inferences and subtleties to be made and caught at every turn. We're helping Ethan learn how to catch at least some of them.

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