So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Two Books by Temple Grandin

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.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Next of Kin: My Conversations With Chimpanzees, by Roger Fouts, with Stephen Tukel Mills

Next of kin is one of the books I quote frequently, and it's also one of the books everyone should read. But the reason why I quote it is not the reason why everyone should read it, and the reason why everyone should read it is not necessarily the reason why you should.

Confused? Sorry; let me back up.

Next of kin is a memoir by the long-time leader of one of the ape language projects. In case you have not heard of these projects, there have been several attempts to teach either language or aspects of language to great apes. Vocal language projects have failed, because non-human apes do not have conscious control of their vocal tracts; all their sounds are emotional, like our laughs, curses, and sighs. But members of all four great ape species have been able to learn sign languages or ideogram systems. Whether these apes count as using language as such has been debated, but they do use signs and symbols to communicate. Signing apes are not performing tricks.

The language studies generally begin with very young apes, in part because adult apes are very dangerous animals and are consequently rarely used for much. You can see this in entertainment; the chimpanzees you see on TV and on greeting cards almost always have pink skin, a mark of childhood in their kind. Many of the studies either closed down as their subjects grew up, or ceased attracting media attention as national interest shifted. In the decades since, the apes have grown up, and some have grown old. This is the story of the oldest of the signing ape studies, and what happened to its subjects, and why. That there is such a story to tell is due almost entirely to the efforts of Dr. Roger Fouts, who fought for the apes--and the efforts of Washoe, the chimpanzee, who insisted the man join the project to begin with.

It's a good story, and its authors have done a good job balancing the personal, professional, and scientific threads. Dr. Roger Fouts has not had a conventional life, nor did Washoe, the real protagonist of the story, have a conventional chimpanzee life. In the course of telling their story, this book must at least introduce subjects as diverse as chimpanzee behavior, the grammar of American Sign Language, the process of getting a PhD in psychology, and a the making of a Tarzan movie--and all these topics are introduced well.

I am personally interested in chimpanzee behavior, but I knew a fair bit about them before reading the book. For me, the brief introduction to neurology was what touched off a new train of thought. When I talk about the book, it is usually because I'm talking about the difference between linear and non-linear thought, which I first read about here. Apparently, different kinds of brain matter are involved in each kind of process, and we differ in the proportion of each type we have. Understanding that not everybody's brain works the same way is an important part of appreciating how others think--and it's an important part of realizing that other people's brains work just as well.

But I don't think a memoir about chimpanzee language research is the best place to send people interested in neurology.

The reason I'd send most people to this book is for a clear example of how chimpanzees don't get the respect they deserve. There is a whole world of working for the rights of chimpanzees in research and entertainment. That world is largely invisible from the outside; apart from the occasional mention in a news story, most of us encounter chimpanzees only through entertainment as figures of fun. This book presents chimpanzees as individuals and opens up a whole world. This is a conversation that needs to happen.

But maybe you already know about that world. I won't assume that you are unaware, so I won't say you should read this book in order to be made aware.

Maybe for you this will simply be an excellent story, a story about a chimpanzee of amazing strength of character who happened to have been taught sign language, and a man who decided to take her welfare seriously.

Fouts, R., Mills, S. T. (1997). Next of kin: My conversations with chimpanzees. Avon Books: New York, NY.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son, by Rupert Isaacson

Note; the "contest" where you can suggest books for me to read and review, is still ongoing; I am still collecting suggestions. In the meantime, here is another suggestion for you.

If all you want is a fun read, this book could do ya, though you’d have to pretend it’s a novel, which it isn’t. The premise sounds so bizarrely audacious. An autistic, American boy suddenly becomes calmer and more communicative in the presence of horses, so his father decides to take him riding for several weeks. In Mongolia and Siberia. In order to go meet and be healed by shamans. And it works. The boy quickly makes friends, becomes toilet-trained, and stops throwing tantrums.

Remembering that this is not a novel, the story is by turns heart-breaking and heart-warming, and it’s important food for thought. I don’t think knowing that the boy makes amazing progress will spoil the story for you; suspense is not really the point.

Of course, a reader may doubt whether shamanic magic can heal anything, much less autism. While I am inclined to believe in magic, I am well aware that entertaining alternative possibilities involves the risk of wishful thinking. But exactly what, if anything, shamanic magic did for the boy, Rowan, is beside my point--and possibly beside Isaacson's point. He treats his son’s experience simply as an example of the possible, and never claims to be able to really explain what happened. The reason I bring all of this up—the reason you should read this book—is not that magic or horses cure autism. The reason I bring this up is because Isaacson very clearly explains that autism doesn’t need to be cured.

Rowan was not a high-functioning little boy. According to the book, one group of experts proclaimed him “cute,” but beyond help. His parents did not give up, but fairly early on they realized that a cure was not what they were looking for. Rowan would always be autistic; autism is part of being Rowan. The point was not to cure him but to heal him.

Did you catch that? In mainstream parlance, Rowan’s autism grew milder for whatever reason, allowing him to participate more fully in life; a partial cure. In his parents’ usage, on the other hand, Rowan wasn’t suffering from autism, because autism is part of him. He was suffering from some other thing that went along with autism, some sickness or wound that could be healed, leaving Rowan a healthy, autistic boy.

This distinction gives words to an intuition I had about my own neurology many years ago. I am not autistic, nor even an Aspie (person with Asperger’s syndrome), though I have a number of Aspie-like traits. But I am something on, or perhaps akin to, the autism spectrum. I have some weird weaknesses (example; I don’t understand division) and some equally weird strengths (readers may recall I am capable of doing my readings for school a year or two ahead of time). When I was a teenager, the experts tried to figure out how to cure me, a process I objected to on the grounds that my weaknesses have the same cause as my strengths, and you couldn’t excise the one without destroying the other—destroying me. Yet I did not object to learning to write legibly, speak clearly, or get my homework done on time, all of which I did a few years later. I made some kind of distinction between a style of mind and a disability. Isaacson found the same distinction independently when he said he wanted his beautifully, and often painfully, odd son healed.

I don’t discount the pain and fear of families caring for autistic people. I don’t discount the vulnerability and sheer pain-in-the-assness of being an autistic person. What I reject is the proposition that how a person thinks and feels, learns, perceives, and socializes are all part of who someone is unless he or she is autistic, dyslexic, or otherwise inconvenient. I reject the way we say a person is a genius, but has autism, as though the thought patterns he or she has grown up with are as incidental as a head-cold. I am entirely in favor of research into ways more people can grow into their full potential as human beings. I'd like to be less limited myself, and my limitations are relatively minimal. What I am not in favor of is equating “healthy” with “normal.”

What Isaacson does in telling his tale is present a tentative picture of how one might think of autistics as real people. Isaacson found, on his family’s journey, that some of the shamans he consulted had showed signs of autism as children, though they showed no sign of disability as adults. Could the role of the shaman be what autistic children in shamanic cultures grow up to do? Is it possible that what we know as autism is actually what happens to potential shamans who are never trained? If true, that need not doom children in non-shamanic cultures; we have our own traditions of people who bridge gaps or go to strange places in their minds. A lot of scientists are Aspies, as are no few artists and mystics. It is well-known that neurotypical children deprived of proper parenting and education can develop severe problems. Maybe autistics just need a different kind of training and don’t get it, since no one is our culture knows what the right training is yet. Maybe the problem is not that nobody knows how to make us turn out normal, but that anyone even tries to make us turn out that way?

I admit I depart from the book slightly in my own speculation, but the possibility that the odd and inconvenient are not broken is such a radical concept that even I, who know from experience that the mainstream ideas of normalcy are hurtful and counter-productive, needed this book to be able to grasp what might be an alternative.

Late in the book, Isaacson quotes an acquaintance as suggesting that autism may simply be a personality type. It’s a radical suggestion that plays much better now that Rowan has been toilet trained, learned how to talk properly, and learned how to not have insane emotional melt-downs whenever something triggers him. One wonders how Isaacson's acceptance of cognitive diversity might developed if Rowan were now growing up to become a man-sized creature of soiled diapers and violent tantrums. Many autistics do precisely that, and Rowan’s story is no guarantee that anything can fundamentally change the number of severely disabled people who need extraordinary, life-long care.

But can we entertain this suggestion anyway? Can we seriously accept the proposition that even if some neurological structure malfunctions for whatever reason, the person who develops as a result is not a mistake?

Isaacson, R. (2009). Horse boy: A father’s quest to heal his son. Little, Brown, and Company: New York, NY.