No one is a more iconic spokesperson for autism research than Temple Grandin, the woman who has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the two seemingly disparate fields of autism and animal welfare. Temple was born in 1947, in a time when most autism was blamed on a mother’s neglect and the children were institutionalized. Partly because of her courageous mother, Temple eventually obtained her Ph.D. in animal science and is a university professor, along with many other activities that would exhaust most of us.
Even at the age of sixty-six, Dr. Grandin is still expanding her knowledge and understanding of autism, and as an autism activist, she is always finding ways to bring this understanding to the larger public, particularly to those of us who are neurotypical. In her latest book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, Grandin presents new ideas for scientific research and even revisits some of her own opinions. I had planned to merely skim this volume, but her insights drew me in, and I ended up reading all but the most technical medical details. My review is based on my limited understanding of scientific discussions, but should encourage other laypeople to delve into new fields of discovery.
Dr. Grandin would like to see symptom-specific research, rather than just comparing autistic brains to neurotypical brains. She explains that there is much more diversity among the autistic community—hence the term “spectrum”—than has been acknowledged in the past, and opines that performing brain scans on two people who have OCD, for example, one autistic, one neurotypical, may render much more information than just comparing brain scans of random groups. If two people are math geniuses, and one is autistic and the other is not, what part of the brain makes them different from people who are not good at math, and how is that part of their brains different from or similar to one another? How about two artists? And so on. The results of such concentrated research could be groundbreaking.
Another fascinating section of the book concerns Dr. Grandin’s revision of her earlier statements that neurotypical humans think in words, while autistic people think in pictures. This is her own personal experience, and she extrapolated universally. Her thinking on this topic began to change, amazingly, when she read the comments on her earlier work, Thinking in Pictures, on Amazon! A small number of readers wrote that they thought in patterns, not in words or pictures, and this idea set Grandin off in a new direction. She began researching pattern thinking in both autistic and neurotypical people and immediately agreed that this made so much more sense of phenomena she had observed in the past. Math geniuses often think in patterns, both word thinkers (algebra) and visual thinkers (geometry), and artists may also think in patterns. One of the great differences between neurotypical and autistic thinkers in any category is the emotional element. Dr. Grandin herself said that although she could “see” like an artist, she didn’t “feel” like an artist. The chapters on pattern thinking will bring the reader exciting new insights into her own or her children’s modes of learning and expression.
Toward the end of the book, Dr. Grandin considers how autistic children and young adults can choose educational and career options that will maximize their strengths, not just compensate for their challenges. Taking into account the variety of personalities and capabilities across the spectrum, she offers resources and no-nonsense advice for mainstreaming students and steering young adults into appropriate fields. She ends with lists of careers for the various types of thinkers.
This book is highly recommended for any adult with autism, parents of autistic children, or any neurotypical person who, like me, is interested in the continuing and hopeful research into the brain disorder that affects an ever-larger segment of our communities.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.