From the Archives: Temple Grandin

There is a vast amount of content on the Dana website collecting virtual dust. It’s time to give some of this content another day in the sun. This will be the first in a blog series we’re calling “From the Archives.”

Two Cerebrum articles by Temple Grandin, a pioneer in writing about her experiences as a person with autism, provide an in-depth look at life with a brain that deviates from the norm.

In “My Mind Is a Web Browser: How People With Autism Think,” published in 2000, Grandin gives a detailed explanation of her thought process. While I (and most people) think in words, Grandin thinks in searchable images. If someone asks her to design a better paperclip, she can visualize all the paperclips she has seen. She can stop and study one of the paperclips, and can also use her memory of a clip to visualize the event at which she first saw it.

Grandin also writes about her decision-making process:

“Non-autistic people seem to have a whole upper layer of verbal thinking that is merged with their emotions. By contrast, unless I panic, I use logic to make all decisions; my thinking can be done independently of emotion. In fact, I seem to lack a higher consciousness composed of abstract verbal thoughts that are merged with emotion…Brain scans indicate that people with autism use problem-solving circuits in social situations. Unlike non-autistic people, the emotion center in their amygdala is not activated, for example, when they judge expressions in another person’s eyes.”

In 2002, Grandin wrote a book review of American Normal: The Hidden World of Asperger Syndrome, titled “The World Needs People With Asperger’s Syndrome.“

In American Normal, author Lawrence Osborne interviews people with Asperger’s syndrome, describing and comparing their experiences and the places they have found for themselves in the world. Some of the people he spoke with have found some level of success, holding down jobs that put their skills to good use. Others have such severe anxiety or sensory sensitivities that they find it difficult to leave their homes.

Both Osborne and Grandin question the diagnosis of Asperger’s: At what point does personality become pathology? And can pathology be a gift?

While acknowledging the limitations that Asperger’s syndrome can sometimes cause, Grandin concludes:

“The world needs the Asperger’s people. After all, the social people who sat around the campfire talking were probably not the makers of the first stone spear. It is also likely that the most social people did not create the great culture of our civilization, such as literature, art, engineering, music, science, and mathematics. Genetics and biology provide the world with different kinds of minds. Whether or not these minds make great contributions to society is determined by both biology and the environment.”

I encourage you to read these—and other—articles from Dana’s online archive. While the scientific understanding of the brain progresses over time, there are clearly still pieces worth reading from a decade or more ago.

–Johanna Goldberg

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