Why can't mechanics read?

Last week I made an unscheduled visit to the repair center - University Health Services - to get my ear fixed. After removing a large object – said to be wax and hair – from my ear, the nurse practitioner and I chatted for a few minutes. Knowing I write about how we think, she asked me some questions. One of them surprised me.

She said,

Why can’t mechanics read?

I have been asked many things, but that one was new to me. My first thought was, Is this one of those “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” questions. I quickly concluded it wasn’t. She was genuinely curious. I asked her to elaborate.

The little wheels in my head began spinning as she described the mechanics she knows, her cars, and her friend at Caterpillar Diesel School.

I was able to define the parameters of her question a little better over the next few minutes:

First of all, she was referring to males in the auto trade. Either she didn’t know any female mechanics or those she does know, read.

Second, all the mechanics in question are extraordinarily talented with machines. They fix things for love, not just a job that pays more than Burger King. She wasn’t referring to the kids at the quick lube.

Third, it’s not that these mechanics can’t read. It’s what they read. They read Popular Mechanics but won’t read a novel like Jane Austen. They won’t read instructions on a computer monitor but can learn anything by standing next to a master.

Fourth, by their own admission, many of these mechanics have some kind of learning disability, like dyslexia or even Asperger’s.

Taken together, those points led to her question, why can’t mechanics read? She explained that a friend teaches at the Caterpillar School. According to him, when they moved from hands-on instruction in the shop to on-screen instruction in the classroom, the class foundered. Half the students dropped out, and those that remained did less well, in terms of acquiring real-world skills.

She took that to mean that a weakness in reading comprehension or ability was part and parcel of having a great “mechanic brain.” Could she be right? I really have no idea. I hope a decent number of mechanics will chime in with their thoughts on the matter.

I do know that I am a mechanic, I have Asperger’s, and I learn best by experimentation rather than by studying textbooks. And I read technical stuff and nonfiction almost exclusively. I don’t read novels for entertainment.

If I were choosing an auto shop class, I am sure I’d pick the hands-on one over the computer based one. In fact, until she talked about it, I never even thought there was any other way to teach mechanics.

There may well be some neurological tie here. Perhaps the brain wiring that makes a natural mechanic and the wiring that makes a lover of literature are indeed mutually exclusive. I don’t know. Does anyone?

Some of us – like me - are primarily visual learners. We learn best by picking a thing up, twisting it, studying it, and even taking it apart. That’s a key skill for a top mechanic. If that’s how we are, it does not mean we can’t read; it just means we learn by doing when it comes to solid mechanical things.

Do our schools accommodate learners like that? I don’t think they do.

Our schools tend to focus on learning from the pages of a book or off a computer screen. That may be fine for learning calculus or figuring out how to trade stocks, but it won’t get your car fixed, nor will it clear your clogged drain.

I think our educational system has essentially abandoned a whole class of hands-on learners in pursuit of a white-collar-everyone dream where all the learning comes from books and every graduate goes to work at a computer screen. In pursuit of that goal, we have essentially lost a whole generation of kids from the trade workforce.

If they are forced into the white-collar book-learning world, they suffer. And meanwhile, there’s no one new to wire the house, fix the drain, or repair the car.

Can our schools embrace hands-on learning alongside paper learning? I think there’s a place for both, and society desperately needs those young people with hands on skills and a love of machines.

I never before considered that dilemma in this light.


I am thinking about what they've said lately about the mirroring section of the brain in aspies -- how aspies learn differently because NTs see something done, and in their brain, they've effectively done it once already. All the same neurons have fired. I'm wondering if this could be part of it. Also, most of the Aspies I know have the same reading habits you do.

Interesting post! Woof!
Eric said…
So true, all of it. I begged my parents to be able to take shop courses in high school so I could follow my love of cars. "No dice, no future in that, get a degree, you'll always have something to fall back on." Even when I tried to get into the Air Force (dang eyesight) and scored 97th percentile in electronics, still no dice. I hated books on learning, although I do love reading. Only now in my early 50s am I finally enjoying my favorite hobby of cars.

There sorely needs to be hands-on courses in school for those of us who learn better by doing instead of reading. I'm thankful that at least Aspergers is on the forefront now, hopefully young people who live with our diagnosis can get steered to courses where they will thrive, instead of "what's good for us". Another great blog, John, thank you.
Corina Becker said…
Quite interesting, and true. I'm an aspie, a female aspie, and I'm pretty sure that if it wasn't for my obsession with fantasy, music and art, that I'd be tinkering with computer hardware. I loved computer engineering in high school, loved putting together circuit boards and working with my hands.

My entire family is pretty much aspie, and we're all mostly like that.

There's hope though, I think. At least, here in Canada. I've heard that there's a big push in schools for kids that are recognized as being hands-on visual learners to go into the trades. I also know that the government of Canada will pay for the classes of women who take college trade courses.
I think now it's a social issue, that people need to realize that we need tradespeople. Cause honestly, I have no clue how to fix my car or my drain.
sarah said…
I think there is a connection.
My name is Sarah, I am not an Aspergian, but am a lover of fiction and graduated as an English Major from UMASS. My husband, daughter and son are all Aspergians. They are farmers. musicians,and chemists. They adore non-fiction for the information they can gleam on their areas of special interest and the rest? Well, let's just say that Mommy is known around here as "the fiction pusher.
When I was in college my husband used to tease
me non stop about the uselessness of my analyzing
people and situations that weren't even real. For a man who was so literal, and knowing what I know now about Aspergers, I can see why it drove him CRAZY. Can't you? How do you explain the value of analyzing the emotions and the inner workings of human relationships and their outcomes OF MADE UP CHARACTERS IN A BOOK? How to you go about explaining how those emotinal realtionships may affect a reader individually or society as a whole to a person who struggles to read the emotions of the living breathing human next to him? HONESTLY. you want him to figure out someone IN A BOOK? When there's a car to fix? A bug to learn about? A lab to explore? a new Pokemon game for Nintento DSI?
Is there a link?
This fiction pusher thinks so.
cath c said…
many schools try, but it gets discouraged in an environment where testing overrules real education. i've worked in schools most of my adult life, and with kids with LDs for some of it, rather exclusively. given the proper tools and perception by school officials hopefully, they are given the oppotunity to learn in their style.

re: my aspie son: like you, if he doesn't experience it hands-on himself, he won't learn it. oh he'll have the facts, but it's taking him a darn long time to put the parts together experiencially. for things like balancing a bicycle or tying his shoes. too many steps, read about, watched us do it, still just not quite putting all the parts in the proper sequence as he pushes 11 years. he can't listen to too many steps of instructions or read too many steps of instructions without doing it himself. i was reminded of this just tonight in his taekwando class. new defensive moves, long sequences to flip someone off of you, and he's excited to learn it, but then he gets 2 moves in and doesn't know what to do next until his master walks him through it a few times.
Cheryl Kauffman said…
Very interesting post. In my high school, they had a hands-on auto mechanics class. When the students graduated, they were already certified mechanics and usually had a job. I think more schools should have programs like that.
I never thought about the fact that aspergians may prefer to read non fiction. My aspie daughter usually just wants to read her astronomy books, and gets upset when she is forced to read a fiction book for school. Usually though if the fiction is a fantasy or has something to do with space, she likes the book.
sylvia said…
Well, clearly not a scientific poll or study and so you have the one outlier. We have a good, old friend, (or rather he's my husband's high school buddy) who is brilliant, plays classical piano, reads voraciously and backpacks the various Western mountain ranges. And he runs a mechanical business to fix/maintain classic cars/motorcycles (VW bugs, Bentley's, Harley hogs...). He's a bit of a loner and runs the business out of his garage. He owns his own house, takes an annual vacation, and attends the occasional opera/symphony, so he must be doing okay.

I thought the vocational schools handled the 'hands-on' technical training (called 'shop' back in my school days). In fact, I was the lone voice championing my step-daughter, ten years ago or so,to attend a voca school so she would have a trade for her live on. I was out-voted, because college (which I believe is over-rated and not for everyone) was what was decided as best for her. She did eventually get her degree, after a year break (multiple meanings in that word) and lots of support. Afterward, she ended up taking the home health aide program thru the Red Cross and lived-in w/an elderly woman for 3 years and excelled at it.

Another question: isn't hands-on, interactive learning better for most everyone? isn't that why most museums have changed their displays/exhibits to interactive?
B.j.Ruland said…
You could be on to something, John. For years the teachers and guidance counselors took the troubled kids, or those that couldn't handle the classroom and shoved them into the Shop classes or told them to pursue mechanics when they barely made it out of High School.

As for myself, I enjoy reading, but it is normally about things I am passionate about. Automobiles, History, or Historic Wars.

I stumbled threw High School, stumbled threw College but could handle sitting and reading if it was about things Mechanical. Not to learn about them to to just enjoy them more.

Oh, and in grade school my parents where told I had ADD. Same for my middle Brother. We both have gone threw life not worrying about treating it.
Michelle S. said…
great post! I'm new to your blog and am enjoying it! My husband is a civil engineer, his dad a mechanical eng. who grew up on a farm. They all fix things and can take things apart and figure out what's wrong, rewire, replumb whatever and everyone is always amazed by this. It is becoming a lost "art". Our school system does have a career center that kids can go learn these trades, in the past other kids have frowned upon it, but they are pushing it now for those who it is suitable for. It think it's a great thing. My son has autism and is a visual learner. They make wonderful accommodations for him b/c of this, but those kids not labeled with something probably aren't so lucky. With more classrooms using tools like "smartboards" in our classrooms it is helping those kids that need to interact and different kinds of learners.
jess said…
interesting stuff to chew on ..

people certainly have vastly different learning styles, but i think that all of us can benefit from actual hands on experimentation. and you're right, it's slowly disappearing from our schools.
Darcey Mussey said…
It all sounds so familliar! I'm an aspergian female, and The best things I've learned, came not from school, but from experimentation on my own part.
I did horribly in school. I'd completely ignore the books we were assigned. Don't get me wrong, I'm very literate, in fact, I quite like to read...
non-ficiton, reference materials, manuals. I'm no mechanic, still, When I get an idea for a project (even something the likes of which I've never tried before) my prefered method is to dive right in and try it for myself. It's how I learned taxidermy, it's how I built my bicycle, it's how I set a bird's broken leg, it's how I designed and built my pigeon's coop. Frequently I'll gather preliminary knowledge of a subject from various sources to get a rough idea of what's required, but I definitely learn more by doing!
as someone that would theoretically learn better on a computer screen i can without hesitation say that actual knowledge and understand comes from hands on. for example, i am going to school to be a nurse. i had a wonderful anatomy and physiology teacher. he explained that our cat, that we spent hours and hours dissecting would teach us far more than he ever could. from that experience, i will never forget what a spleen or a kidney looks like. i know what it feels like to cut through flesh (albeit dead), and touch visceral things. it has made me less afraid to touch a human. after all, we are all made out of the same stuff. had i done a virtual dissection on a computer screen i would have none of that in my mind-it would be in and out-perhaps the memorization would be retained but like mechanics, there is a tactile component to the exercise, which i believe is essential.
Kat said…
I loved reading fiction as a kid. Well, I think I just loved reading. There wasn't much non-fiction available. All I had was a set of encyclopedias at home...which was always my preferred bathroom reading:O

I DO remember the first "real" non-ficiton book I got my hands on. It was about sleep and sleep cycles. I couldn't put it down.(This was in 1977. I was 17.)

Although I liked fiction, I DID sometimes find it hard to read due to spending an inordinate amount of time slicing and dicing the characters...trying to understand their motives and feelings.

Literature...the really old stuff...was easier for some reason. When reading it, I'd keep lists of words I didn't know to look up, memorize and try to use. I particularly liked Emily Dickinson's poetry.

After reading "Love in the Western World"(a non-fiction)during college, I pretty much gave up fiction. I miss fiction but am just out of the habit of reading it I guess.

I LOVE my non-fiction. My faves are fashion, vintage fashion, sewing, organic foods and alternative medicine, jewlery making(lately interested in soldering and metal work), recipe books, drawing techniques, crafting, writing, home business, the brain/mind/emotions(psychology, psychiatry, philosophy/religion), etc.

When it comes to learning how to perform a task, I do MUCH better by watching. I can pick it up almost instantly that way. Takes me forever to figure it out by reading. I try to buy how-to books with LOTS of pics.

As a 48 year old female Aspie, I've wasted nearly a lifetime trying to figure out what I'm good at, due to trying to follow the NT path to success. Obtaining a B.S. and an MSSW got me nowhere.

I like to create, make things, take in information, read, write, be quiet and think. I never could work very well in an office or buisness setting. I was made to work on my own I suppose. Wish I'd figured that out sooner.

A shame we can't do more to help kids find their unique gifts and excel in those areas rather than doing cookie cutter education.
la dolce diva said…
loved ur post, john... i m a 43 yr old aspie, my dad with whom i was 'closest' to was an aspie too... he was a dental surgeon as well as electrical engineer member of IEEE... he handmade dentures for his patients in a little lab behind his clinic, and he tinkered around the house all his life... i remember we never needed to call in a plumber, electrician or any odd job man ever - until he grew old and frail from cancer... and none of the workmen ever did as neat and artistic a job as dad used to do!... i m the only aspie in my family (well the others i m sure hv other kinds of PDD!) and spent a lot of time with dad - not talking, but just doing stuff... i learnt visually by watching him and by doing things with him... after he retired, he was a computer geek (he was in all the geek forums!), he set up a carpentry workshop in the front of our house and handmade furniture for all of us (sadly i relocated and i only hv a few pieces left with me), bred orchids, fixed his own cars... etc with typical aspie obsession...

i actually feel lucky to be aspie... esp hands-on this way... right now i m doing a research postgrad degree in music and artistic integration in live expression... sounds very academic, but actually, even tho my brain can handle the academia, i feel most happy just doing stuff with my own hands... like daddy...

hoorah for all the hands-on pple out there... yes i do wish there was more emphasise on this talent in schools...
Penny Williams said…
You hit the nail on the head: our schools have abandoned hands-on learning. And there are more kids now than ever before who, not only would thrive from this atmosphere, but really require it to be successful.

My son, going into second grade this fall, is ADHD with significant handwriting issues. However, he is brilliant in math and can spend hours creating with legos. If he could tell a story by building it instead of writing it, he would be doing great in school.

I just disovered you blog, by the way, from http:canmombcalm.blogspot.com. YOu are a very talented writer and photographer and I am really going to enjoy your blog and your book.

Thanks for sharing your life with us.
Arieshoney said…
As a special education teacher I have the same complaints about our education system. Why does one of my student's who aspires to be a car mechanic (and already a pretty good one) need Algebra II and Statistics? I am also a parent of an Aspie teen, and former wife of an Aspie, personally I have ADHD. Anyway, kinesthetic learning is not valued by society, especially with No Child Left Behind..which is leaving people behind. My ex-husband is an aircraft mechanic and could remember 15 alphanumeric part numbers, but would forget birthdays and anniversaries. He was certainly intelligent, but was my first introduction into a different world. I wish more people would come to appreciate the visual and hands on learners, as I now enjoy teaching students with various learning styles including Aspergers, ADHD, LD, EBD and so on.

Until then I'll do what I can to help these students prepare for the future that will make them happy and successful members of our society. (Success defined by the person, not society).

Thanks for your blog post. :)
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PM said…
There is such a thing as a visual thinker! That is different than a visual learner in that a person does not 'learn' unless they have a three-dimensional way and hands-on way to learn. If a person thinks in pictures and the school they attend is primarily auditory and sequential--learn from books and not hands on--the flounder.
Unknown said…
There is definitely such a thing as hands on people versus the book worm type such as accountants and lawyers. Many of the mechanics I know never really liked classes in high school like English and Social Studies, but they excelled in Auto Mechanics and Welding. I'm a mechanic, and have been one for a long time, but I'm also a private pilot and paramedic. I'm considered an Aspie by those that know me well but I have very good reading comprehension. I just want to say that there are no two people completely alike and we all have our interests and passions in different areas. I have seen some mechanically inclined people that could barely read, but they tend to have a lot of common sense. Common sense goes a long ways and it's something you're born with.

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