This recommendation concerns two books; Thinking in Pictures, and Animals in Translation, both by Dr. Temple Grandin, an expert in both animal behavior and human autism. The reason I'm recommending two of her books together is that I read both at the same time, and I have a hard time remembering which book was which. And it's my blog.
Dr. Grandin is more or less famous for being autistic, since she is one of the few experts on autism who is actually on the spectrum herself. Her training, and much of her career, has involved figuring out how to make the American meat industry less frightening to farm animals. Her insight is that other species find different things frightening than we do, and that correcting details like harsh shadows or flapping rags can take the terror out for cattle. Perhaps learning to think like a steer prepared her to bridge the gap between human minds. Perhaps the necessity of coping with the vast majority of humans who think differently than she does prepared her to understand that different species have different perspectives. I don't know--either way, she has become a kind of bridge.
In her books she explains autism in clear, detailed terms, synthesizing disparate disciplinary streams in a way experts with formal training in neurology or psychology generally don’t. Equally important, she describes the autism spectrum as a place with its own perspective. She describes autistics as people.
Dr. Grandin does not strike me as political per se. She is not publicly campaigning for a fundamental re-conceptualization of the autism spectrum; she does not come off as an angry member of a disenfranchised minority. Although she describes her own mental processes as carrying real gifts, she does not seem to object to autism’s status as a disorder. Based on her description of autistic minds as focused on detail, for better or worse, it could be that whether autism is a disorder or not is irrelevant to her. What is relevant is that there are useful things she and others like her can do, and difficulties she and others like her have, so is there some practical method of dealing with the difficulties so people’s lives can improve? But she is autistic, and whether she regards it as part of her work or not, she presents autism as a condition with its own integrity, its own human wholeness.
In another of my blogs, I recently suggested that the “Nowhere Man” in the movie “Yellow Submarine” is autistic, and that one reason to think so is the way the other characters talk about him. Most poignantly, they say “he doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to.” Start paying attention to discussions about autism by the neurotypical and see how often this message comes across. It’s baloney, of course, and it’s a mistake Dr. Grandin does not make.
Dr. Temple Grandin is not, of course, some kind of random Autistic On The Street. It is the decidedly mixed blessing of the demographically surprising to be at least as notable for what they are as for what they do. Annie Oakley was not just famous for being a fantastically good shot; she was a fantastically good woman shot. Barack Obama gained national attention not just for being a brilliant man, an excellent orator, and a very canny politician (a characterization I believe even most of his detractors would accept), but for being all those things and black. As much as I cheer such demographic surprises, they are symbols of only the beginning of change. If the change were complete, no one would think these things are surprising. But as much as it irritates me that Dr. Grandin’s status as autistic tends to get top billing, I am glad that she is around as an example.
Several ideas from these two books are worth noting.
First, there is the clear description, in Thinking in pictures, of the subdivisions within the autism spectrum. Although the definitions are in flux, and these descriptions could be, or soon will be out-dated, the detail still gives a window into the complexity of the condition. One surprise for me was that sometimes autism develops with the child, manifesting as speech delays, among other issues, while other children develop normally until around two years of age, when they all but lose language. I wondered, reading this, whether the two development patterns could have very different causes. In either case, autism, by definition, involves early childhood onset. Similar traits developing later are not considered autism.
Second, to varying degrees, people on the autism spectrum have trouble processing sensory perception. I had heard that sensory over-sensitivity is an autistic trait, but I had not appreciated what such sensitivity might mean from the inside--even though I have a mild version of such sensitivity myself. In Dr. Grandin’s description, perception-processing problems can reduce the sounds of language to a cacophonous, meaningless buzz. The sound may even be painful. I had always thought that autists with social problems have an altered social drive or an altered understanding of self and other. Adult autists may, indeed be emotionally different; Dr. Grandin reports that her own emotions are intense but simple, and that her friends are people she does things with, not the other way around. But what if you were a young child, just learning about language and people and emotions, and when people spoke all you heard was a painful jumble? When your parents hugged and kissed you it made you feel icky and weird? How is a kid going to figure out how to deal with people under conditions like that?
The other thing that grabbed me was the description, in Animals in translation, of an odd similarity between autistic intelligence, and normal animal intelligence. Apparently, many animal species can remember details in a way humans can’t—with the exception of autistic savants. Not all autists have the kind of memory as the fictional Rain Man, but some do. People who sustain injury to the frontal lobes also sometimes develop savant skills. Dr. Grandin says that the large frontal lobes that give humans our conceptual intelligence actively depress our perception and memory of detail. Autists have large frontal lobes, but, to varying degrees, the frontal lobes connect poorly to the rest of the brain, and so do not depress the older, detail-oriented brain structures. The savant skills are released.
These details help provide a sense of how autistic people think, the mental processes behind the odd behavior. They bring commonality out from behind difference, and, at the same time, show up the real spread of cognitive diversity in our species. In my experience, failure to notice that we are all alike does not cause half so much trouble as failure to notice that we are also all different. When someone does something unexpected or inconvenient, most people think “ah, this person is thinking and feeling what I would think and feel if I acted like that.” Low-functioning autistic people especially don’t do a lot of very basic things that everybody else does as a matter of course; obviously, they must be retarded, insane, or both, right? That whole, intelligent people might behave so oddly implies a fundamentally different kind of thought, something I’ve noticed most people do not easily accept.
I have personal experience with this. One example is the job I lost because my supervisor assumed I didn’t care about my work; I didn’t follow dress code, something someone who cared would do. Actually, I cared very much. I just really don’t know how to think about clothes—and not knowing how to think about them, I didn’t realize other people might have thoughts about clothes I didn’t understand. My supervisor and I, making the same mistake in opposite directions, passed each other like ships in the night.
Even Dr. Grandin may have made the same error; in Thinking in pictures she repeatedly attributes her keen intelligence to her visual thinking. She knows she is a much more visual thinker than most people, and that her visual thoughts allow her to do things most people cannot do. She is unusually good at design, for example. She can simulate the workings of machines or buildings in her mind’s eye and so spot failures before they actually happen. She also has an amazing memory for visual detail, so she can mentally assemble new designs from parts. Fair enough. But I’m willing to bet that there are people who can run simulations as well as she can, and who can remember design elements just as phenomenally, who do not think in pictures. We are all of us so often stuck within our own skulls.
What we have in common is the way we persistently misjudge each other. We misjudge across differences of neurology, differences or culture, even difference of opinion. By not recognizing the depth of our real diversity, we so easily miss the brilliance, the usefulness, and the humanity of others.
Read these books. Recognize another mind.
Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures: And other reports from my life with autism. Vintage Books: New York, NY.
Grandin, T. , Johnson, C. (2005). Animals in translation: Using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior. by Temple Grandin. Scribner: New York, NY.