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“Manga and the Autistic Mind”

manga motorcycle
From Jiro Taniguchi’s “A Distant Neighborhood.”

While comic books were once dismissed as junk, more teachers today recognize the value of graphic novels in the teaching of English language arts. In September’s English Journal, Robert Rozema writes:

 Graphic works have established a presence in the English language arts classroom, and a number of scholars have already articulated how works such as Maus, American Born Chinese, and Persepolis can be approached in literature, writing, literacy, and other instructional contexts. In this journal, for example, James Bucky Carter has argued that comics can transform the secondary English curriculum by appealing to student interest, narrowing the achievement gap between genders and social classes, and addressing social justice issues.

But as Rozema points out, manga (a Japanese form of comic book) is especially useful for engaging students with autism:

 [M]any autistic individuals are better at processing images than words. … [R]esearch has shown that many will pay more attention to small visual details than will their neurotypical peers, sometimes at the cost of the larger picture. As a medium, manga typically contains fewer words and more pictures than Western comics. Aarnoud Rommens notes, “The amount of wordless passages in any volume of manga may be striking to the Western eye. To ‘read’ manga is to read images—the rhythm is determined by the sequence of images.” …

Beyond appealing to visual thinkers, the unique aesthetics of manga may also provide adolescents with ASD with unambiguous social and emotional input, primarily through its exaggerated, stereotypical depiction of the human face. For many individuals with autism, the inability to recognize faces, differentiate between them, and identify facial expressions severely impairs social interaction. … [W]hen an angry character grimaces horribly (caricature) and grows horns (emenata), the emotional message is loud and clear, perhaps even to adolescents with ASD who typically struggle to interpret the emotional affect of others.

You can read Rozema’s full article free. And if you’re a current NCTE-member, you can read this discussion in our Connected Community where several teachers recently weighed in on the use of graphic novels in classes.