|Apr/May2014 Reviews & Interviews|
The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum
Temple Grandin and Richard Panek.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. 256 pp.
Temple Grandin, the world's best known person with autism, is the author of more than a half-dozen books, and the editor of as many others, as well being the subject of a NOVA special and a biographical documentary on HBO. She was first brought to the attention of the larger public by an essay about her called "Anthropologist from Mars" in the book of the same title; it was her own self-description as an autistic person trying to negotiate the normal world.
This was followed soon after by her own account, Thinking in Pictures, whose merger of science and autobiography give Grandin's writings their typical quiddity, and later by the superb Animals in Translation, which proposes that autism can provide insight into animal behavior, as well as The Autistic Brain, published this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. As testimony, hers is the more valuable for being among the few first-hand accounts of living with autism, a disorder that effects one in 88 people, which is to say, millions, most of whom communicate with difficulty and to a limited degree. It also touches provocatively and illuminatingly on questions in a number of related areas of inquiry, including the difference between visual and verbal intelligence, what emotions are intrinsic and which ones are acquired through social transaction, and the difficulties and rewards of inter-species communication.
The Autistic Brain contains Grandin's most recent contributions to theories of multiple intelligence. In her earliest view—which she has since modified—the person with autism is a hyper-visualizer in a verbal culture. The visualizers register an entire world of surfeited detail at the expense of being unable to communicate much about it, whereas the verbals are so preoccupied with the subject matter of their own thoughts that they may not notice much. What is problematic about recording everything in photographic detail is the inability to prioritize information. What is problematic about readily prioritizing information is that it tends to form habits in which prime causes can be missed.
Those habits of the verbals that blur or reduce perception, Grandin terms "Abstractifying." These may be crudely described as not seeing the actuality before you, whether due to the circularity of your thoughts or the prejudice of your prior mental template. In her puzzlement over Abstractifying, and her more or less fastidiously unexpressed distaste for it, Grandin sounds almost like a Zen Master urging present-mindedness, or St. Theresa of Avila, who wrote, "All that I require of you is that you see." But it is possible to recognize that language acts as a sort of shadow or penumbra between perception and empirical reality without being sure what might be expressed without it. Language may indeed act as a kind of perceptual filtering system. Lacking this, a person with autism is subject to frequent overload and lockdown as a consequence.
No doubt there are many causes and types of autistic "overload," but the experience of V., A.R. Luria's Mnemonist in The Mind of The Mnemonist, when meeting Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker, may illustrate something of its quality. Eisenstein's voice was so stimulating to V. that it seemed to him to be like a huge bouquet of constantly changing colors shooting off like roman candles. He did not understand a word that Eisenstein said—though, paradoxically, he could reiterate Eisenstein's every word.
Unlike the synesthesia-prone V., Grandin has been able to put her hyperbolic observational abilities to practical use through her work with animals. Her feat of observation of how a slaughterhouse ramp must appear to the cattle approaching it, which she reconstructed from the cow's perspective, is well known. But how deep the culture of Abstractifying runs may be measured by the fact that no one thought to take the cow's viewpoint before, much less lower their own head to the animal's level to see what the creature saw. Animals in Translation is full of such instances of practical perception, and it is hard not to want to study the world from another angle, and then smell it, after putting her book down.
The Autistic Brain, Grandin's latest book, is best read as a series of dispatches on the state of the latest research on autism in its first chapters, as a continuation of her model of the types of intelligence in its middle, and as a useful manual for people with autism or Asperger's syndrome as its conclusion. It is both a firsthand account and a report from the larger front. The first section examines the advances that brain-scanning devices have undergone in the last several decades, and what this can tell us about brain function—and autism—now that we can map the brain and watch the traffic on it. Anatomically speaking, there are probably as many brain shapes as there are body types. The autistic brain appears to have highly enlarged areas of certain functions, disproportionately smaller areas for others. This mapping-process promises to become useful in treating autism in time, but Grandin also cautions against treating it (and its intermediate stage, high functioning Asperger's syndrome) merely as something to be cured, instead of the portal into the nature of intelligence that it may prove to be.
She is quite right, of course. The ability to visualize which became an affliction for V. was probably not so different from ability of Einstein to visualize the general theory of relativity, or the ability of Benoit Mandelbrot to visualize fractals—both Einstein and Mandelbrot wrote about how they visualized their theories in a sequence of increasingly exact pictures before crunching the numbers. The pressing need is for such unusual abilities to find their true purpose. The skill must find its technique.
Grandin's thinking about the taxonomy of intelligence has also gained a third category—the patterning mind, which can be musical, rhythmic, or form geometric tessellations in the mind's eye, gearing into either the auditory or visual. But whether there are three types of intelligence, as Grandin sees it, or five, as is the view of Howard Gardiner, whose theory of multiple intelligence has gained wide currency, I feel sure that are still other kinds of human intelligence to be found, and new relationships to be found among them. Meanwhile, we need as much insight into the nature of intelligence as can be generated, into as many types of intelligence as can be encountered, including the intelligence of other species.
The final section of The Autistic Brain is a terse but user-friendly manual for Asperger's syndromers and persons with autism for getting around in the world. Grandin sensibly decries the tendency of young people with these issues to be solely occupied with "my autism" or "my Asperger's," when a greater sense of freedom might come with finding a compelling interest into which their abilities could be put. "The way out is via the door," as Ezra Pound translated Confucius. Grandin's counsel for persons with autism or Asperger's seeking employment is: don't make excuses, play well with others, manage your emotions, mind your manners, sell your work not yourself, and use mentors. She writes that "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." It's a view with a future.
(This review previously appeared in the Charlotte Viewpoint. It is reprinted with the author's permission.)