Temple Grandin’s latest book, “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum” examines autism in various ways. Perhaps one person in eighty-eight has the syndrome to some degree, which means that someone you know or are related to has it.
The first part of the book looks at basic thinking and research in the field, and the second part considers practical implications of this knowledge.
Grandin considers the origin, meanings, and implications of terms such as “autistic,” “autism spectrum,” “Asperger’s Syndrome,” and “normal,” and finds much to dislike about them. Her main complaint is that people, particularly mental health professionals, think that having assigned one of these labels to a person, they have taken care of his basic problem and that all else automatically follows from it. They do not have to look for other causes because psychoanalytic theory has explained all.
The problem with thinking in labels is that it simply does not work. It does not explain what the problem actually is. It does not really fix the person’s “problems.” “Normal” presents two problems: What is “normal” anyway, and what is wrong with being “different?” In the end, she prefers “neurotypical” to “normal.” Calling a person “not normal” implies that something is wrong with him, a premise that she emphatically rejects.
The chapters on brain imaging and genetic studies are reviews of the professional research literature in those fields. The imaging articles tell what the various kinds of scanners have shown about the structure and working of both neurotypical and autistic brains.
The brain genetics chapter tells what geneticists have discovered about differences between neurotypicals and autistics including the formation and development of their brains.
Both the imaging and the genetic chapters can be quite technical. A reader without the necessary background will find them tough going and should just try to get the general sense of them. He will find the later chapters are much easier going.
Having established the meanings of the terms and the biological causes of autism, Grandin ends the section by considering certain problems specific to autistics.
The second part focuses on the practical applications of the first part.
Grandin reminds us that we must look past labels to see what is behind them. We need to look at the biological basis of the syndrome, not the psychoanalytic categorization and labeling, because labels really prevent progress. This idea is central to the whole book.
Autistics need to be aware of their own strengths and go with them where possible. So often, others, particularly well-meaning family members, teachers, and therapists, are so fascinated with strengthening what they view as the autistic’s weaknesses that they do not put effort into working on what the autistic is able to do.
Because Grandin thought and functioned so well using pictures in her mind, she assumed that everyone else did, too. Eventually, she discovered that three kinds of autistic thinkers exist: pattern thinkers, word-fact thinkers, picture thinkers. She lists specific jobs at which each type does better.
Finally, Grandin says that autistics need to become as fully functioning members of society as possible.
This includes learning such seemingly simple things as the basics of good manners and social interaction; how to choose the right job and then how to hold it; how to let children follow out their natural interests and skills, and then work with them to enlarge their list of related interests and skills; working to achieve conventional balance and normalcy is not realistic; public school curricula and teachers are not permitted or prepared to let, much less help, the autistics and others to follow out their different abilities and needs.
Autistics live in a logical world based on their own observations and premises that the neurotypical is not aware of or does not hold. Their world is different from that of others. Once we realize this, we are much better prepared to live and work with them.
Grandin discusses throughout the book her life and experiences as an autistic. Her main reason for writing this book is to show us that while autistics may be different from neurotypicals, often nothing is wrong with that, and we should let them learn to live with some of their differences and to make the most of others.
Grandin includes a 50 item questionnaire called an Autism Quotient (AQ) test which helps you to learn how neurotypical or autistic you are and is fun to take.