Temple Grandin’s new book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, is a must read for educators, parents, and anyone concerned about how our society is dealing with the huge increase in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses. Published this spring it incorporates current research and thinking about autism.
Throughout her life, Temple Grandin has seen and lived through our changing ideas on autism and how to treat those afflicted with it. The medical profession still does not fully have a handle on it as evidenced by the newest version of the Diagnosis Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association which redefines what it means have ASD yet again. This controversial change will in all likelihood, reduce the number of children with clinical diagnoses and may limit their ability to get services.
The book combines extensive information on autistic brains with a plea to the parents and educators of kids with ASD to stop defining them by their disability. A few items that really stood out to me:
- Based of current neural research, what a neurotypical person feels when someone won’t make eye contact is what a person with autism feels when others do make eye contact and visa versa. Kinda gives a whole new perspective on why kids with ASD don’t like to look you in the eye.
- Through ever more sophisticated brain scans of younger and younger children, scientists seem to be on the verge of knowing how autistic brains develop differently. Geneticists are also picking apart how different mutations and their combinations may contribute to autism. This is going to be an exciting area to watch over the next 10 years.
- Historically, we have defined and treated autism by what it looks like from the outside rather than what it feels like on the inside. The result of this is that parents, educators, and the medical profession have downplayed the importance of sensitivities. What if the autistic behavior that we are trying so hard to change is actually a perfectly normal and rational response to how the autistic brain amplifies and processes what neurotypicals experience as benign stimuli? If this is indeed the case, modifying the exterior environment might be the most effective way to change undesirable autistic behavior. As an aside, since many gifted people have sensitivities, Ms. Grandin’s advice on how to deal with them may also be helpful for the gifted community.
- There are probably 3 types of thinkers and these types manifest themselves differently in neurotypical and ASD brains:
- Visual Object Thinkers: people who think in pictures.
Picture thinkers like hands-on painting, cooking, and woodworking type activities and they are being horribly let down by our schools as curriculum changes emphasize reading and writing at the expense of classes like drafting and shop.
- Visual Spacial Thinkers: people who think in patterns.
Pattern thinkers think about the way things fit together and can picture objects in their minds and imagine manipulating them in space. these people are frequently musicians and mathematicians. They may be behind in reading but way ahead in math. Schools must allow them to work ahead in math to improve their school success and confidence.
- Verbal Thinkers: people who think in words and facts.
Verbal thinkers are easy to spot and, except in math, may have a big advantage in our reading and writing oriented public school system.
- Talent + 10,000 hours of work = Success
It is vitally important that we start defining kids by their strengths instead of their disabilities. Ms. Grandin laments the fact that the current generation of kids diagnosed with ASD are too quick to talk about their limitations. Sadly she feels that today’s gifted kids on the autism spectrum will not reach the same career heights as the Silicon Valley innovators. This is because we have diagnosed them with a disability and then let that disability define them instead of discovering, calling attention to, and nurturing their strengths.
Temple Grandin’s job advice for kids on the spectrum:
- Don’t make excuses
- Play well with others
- Manage your emotions
- Mind your manners
- Sell your work, not yourself
- Use mentors
Our society greatly benefits when people with complementary ways of thinking design our products and systems. Autistic minds have strengths not seen in neurotypical minds and the collaboration between different types of thinkers creates an end product that is greater than what any one type of brain can imagine.