“By cultivating the autistic mind on a brain-by-brain, strength-by-strength basis, we can reconceive autistic teens and adults in jobs and internships not as charity cases but as valuable, even essential, contributors to society.” This is one of the significant messages in Temple Grandin’s latest book, written in collaboration with science writer Richard Panek.
Grandin, now in her sixties, has long been the acknowledged spokesperson for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), in particula, for those who, like herself, have Asperger syndrome, a type of “high functioning” autism. It’s easy to get lost in the labels, as Grandin is the first to point out, and to treat children with ASD like--well, like diseases instead of children. Grandin often harks back to her own childhood, and the fact that her mother made her do difficult, unpleasant things for her own good, like talking to people. Grandin advises that autistic people should go to the store every day and buy something, just to have a conversation, however simple, with a cashier.
Grandin was, in many ways, lucky, despite being burdened with an “autistic brain.” She was born at a time when it was not automatically assumed that children like herself should be institutionalized, though of course, a good deal less was known about autism at that time. Inspired by a teacher in high school to pursue a science degree, Grandin became an expert in the humane treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, able to visualize what cattle feel like and design environments to reduce their fear. She describes being genuinely excited when she first had an MRI, followed by the chance to look at the results, as a scientist herself. She now knows that her brain is not just larger than normal but abnormally constructed, explaining some of her mental deficits, such as being challenged by problems that require several short steps, as with algebra.
Grandin believes that people struggling with ASD cannot be pigeonholed. What works for one may not work for another, and everyone has strengths that can be deployed for success. Success in employment, as mentioned above, could make use of the autistic person’s tendency to see detail and to think in pictures and patterns. In Grandin’s case, she was destined to be an engineer who could think in geometric shapes and angles, not someone who needed algebra, an abstract and symbolic way of thinking. But school required that algebra came before geometry even though the two are not related. She strongly advocates for not forcing children to do things that don’t come naturally to them--without simply spoiling them, of course, because she herself was never spoiled.
She lists an array of jobs suitable for “picture thinkers” and “fact thinkers.”
Grandin is hopeful that new discoveries about autistic brain function and genetic coding will not only improve treatment of autism but will positively affect people’s attitudes towards autistics. Both changes will be welcome.