Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism, by Temple Grandin (Vintage, 2006) (Expanded from the original 1995 version)
I’ve already written about Temple Grandin, the movie, which was the inspiration for getting this book from the library. It’s well worth reading, and the only reason I’m sending back unread the two other books of hers I picked up at the same time is that I realized I must put the brakes on my reading for a while. At the very least I need to substitute books I won’t be tempted to review.
Thinking in Pictures would have convinced me, if Grandin’s own commentary on the DVD had not, that the movie is an accurate, if not perfect, portrayal of her life. It’s fascinating to read about autism from the inside out, as it were, and also interesting to note her opinion that for all the advances we have made in understanding autism and Asperger’s syndrome, as a child in the 1950’s she had a few advantages over today’s children. School classrooms were well-ordered and quiet; the noise and chaos often seen classrooms now would have been impossible for her to handle. Parents, teachers, and other adults worked hard to instill good manners and polite behavior into children; these are difficult but essential skills for autistic children to learn, but they are sadly neglected today. Finally, there were no video games then, which encourage solitary activity; she was forced to interact directly with other children through board games, outdoor play, and other normal, 1950’s-era activities.
Of even more interest to me is her theory that whatever causes autism spectrum disorders, it is closely linked to brilliant, creative thinking. Too much of whatever it is deprives a person of the ability to function in this world, but a little bit makes for the kind of folks we cannot do without. Not only are our potential Einsteins being shunted into special education classes instead of the gifted classes where they belong, but if genetic testing someday allows us to screen for risk of autism, we may never see another Bill Gates.
On the sensory sensitivities of someone with autism spectrum disorder:
Washing my hair and dressing to go to church were two things I hated as a child…. [S]hampooing actually hurt my scalp…. Scratchy petticoats were like sandpaper scraping away at raw nerve endings.
I can relate to that!
When I was a child, I was expected to sit through formal Sunday dinners and behave. Most of the time I did. Rudeness was not tolerated and I was taught to say please and thank you. Normal family activities provided structured opportunities to learn social skills. Sit-down meals and activities such as playing cards and board games like Chinese checkers taught turn-taking and patience. …Today many children lack this structure. Video games and time on the computer are spent solo. Many of my favorite childhood activities required participation with another child. … Even the normal children today are growing up with more social problems. Later on they do not know how to behave at work.
I can drive because the operation of the car, steering and braking, has become a fully automatic skill. Research has shown that when a motor skill is first being learned, one has to consciously think about it. When the skill becomes fully learned, the frontal cortex is no longer activated and only the motor parts of the brain are turned on. I learned to drive on ranch roads in Arizona and I did not drive on the freeway or in heavy traffic for a full year. This avoided the multitasking issue because when I finally started driving in traffic, my frontal cortex was able to devote all its processor space to watching traffic. I recommend that people on the [autism] spectrum who are learning to drive spend up to a year driving on easy roads until steering, braking, and other car operations can be done without conscious thought.
That might have saved me the debilitating car-phobia I had for many years. It took me much longer than most people to reach the “automatic” point, and until then, every second behind the wheel was torture.
In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive. After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.
It is likely that genius is an abnormality. If the genes that cause autism and other disorders such as manic-depression were eliminated, the world might be left to boring conformists with few creative ideas.
Three things that occur more frequently in people with high mathematical ability than in the population at large are left-handedness, allergies, and nearsightedness. Both learning disability in mathematics and math talent are associated with left-handedness. Young children who show very high ability in verbal reasoning and mathematics are twice as likely to have allergies as the rest of the population. Students with extremely high ability are also more likely to be nearsighted. The old stereotype of a little genius with thick glasses may be true.
During my career, I have met many brilliant visual thinkers working in the maintenance departments of meat plants. Some of these people are great designers and invent all kinds of innovative equipment, but they were disillusioned and frustrated at school. Our educational system weeds these people out of the system instead of turning them into world-class scientists.
On her vocation in the livestock industry:
I do not believe that my profession is morally wrong. Slaughtering is not wrong, but I do feel very strongly about treating animals humanely and with respect. I’ve devoted my life to reforming and improving the livestock industry. Still, it’s a sobering experience to have designed one of the world’s most efficient killing machines. Most people don’t realize that the slaughter plant is much gentler than nature. Animals in the wild die from starvation, predators, or exposure. If I had a choice, I would rather go through a slaughter system than have my guts ripped out by coyotes or lions while I was still conscious. Unfortunately, most people never observe the natural cycle of birth and death.