Sunday, May 22, 2011

On "Thinking in Pictures" by Temple Grandin ****

Temple Grandin doesn't think in words--she thinks in pictures. She's what is called a high-functioning autistic person. This "disability" is also a great gift. While Grandin grapples with a way of thinking that differs from most of our own, she also is the beneficiary of a way of thinking that allows her to achieve things that few of us can. And that's what this book is about: how Temple thinks, and by extension, how autistic people in general think--and feel and live.

The book is split up into various thematic chapters, including sections on the language, the senses, emotion, romance, medication, animals, genius, and spirituality. On language, Grandin describes her brain as being like a video recorder. She puts things together through a prodigious stockpile of images. Rather than thinking in generalities and moving to specifics, she thinks in specifics and moves to generalities. Say "dog," for example, and she'll think of the first dog she met when she was three years old, and then the dog that lived next door that used to bark at her, and so on. This can create issues, as the stockpile of memories grow, because one has to parse through a lot of images. (Then again, some of us who think in words are at a loss for them at times ourselves.)

She also discusses a common feature that autistic people share, which is hypersensitivity. Sounds, tastes, smells can all make autistic people feel as if they are under attack, because that humming that our electric shaver makes can sound like standing under a jet airplane to one who is autistic. Or the shaving that we do might feel like a gentle tickle to us, while it's as if the skin is being torn off to one who is autistic. These kind of hypersenses mean that effort must be taken to dull the features of our world, either through medication or through such things as softer clothing.

On the emotional level, Grandin seems to point to fear as being the one that overwhelms many like her the most. This is in part what makes it difficult for autistic people to leave structured regimens. Given a rigid way of thinking, they often work best with a plan. By rigid, I mean that many lack the ability to generalize about events to be able to make clear decisions. An autistic person might be taught to look both ways before crossing the street in front of his or her house, but the person won't necessarily equate that lesson to looking before crossing any street.

This hypersensitivity and devotion to structure, however, can also mean that autistic people can concentrate in a much deeper fashion than others, can, one might say, obsess over something. This in turns allows them to do things that most can't, such as, in Grandin's case, to see things as the cattle that she works with see things. Throughout the book, in fact, Grandin compares some things she feels autistic people have in common with animals, and this in turns leads to an interesting discussion on thought, for if what is termed nonthinking in animals is all autistic people are capable of (and some not even capable of that), then how do we claim such humans think at all? What exactly is thought in such a case?

Other things autistic people might be able to do include memorizing phone books (taking a picture in the brain of each page) or visualizing riding on a beam of light (such as Einstein did to craft his theory of relativity). In this sense, an educational system that insists that people be well rounded is a disservice to autistic people, who might be immensely talented in a narrow field of study and incapable of much in other fields. Einstein, who Grandin says may have had a mild form of autism, for example, would never have been allowed to become the genius he is considered to be if he had had to deal with today's educational system. Unable to get through certain classes at college, he worked as a patent office and then dispensed his theory to a science journal in his spare time. Such journals wouldn't be open to "amateurs" today.

The more Grandin discusses autism in the book, however, the more it seems like certain tendencies of autistic people are tendencies in each of us. And in that there is a danger. Early in the text, Grandin shows how difficult it is to diagnose the problem early on, but that, in turn, I think, can also lend to overdiagnosis, a fad of sorts, just as hyperactive disorder has become a diagnosis that a lot of fairly normal kids--that is, energetic kids--have been subjected to. Still, as a study in the phenomenon by one who lives in it each day, Grandin's book is a great read.


Short Story Slore said...

What a thoughtful review. I knew there was a movie made about her, but I really had no idea what it was about. And that whole hypersensitity thing is new to me. I love mixing in some educational reading with all of my fiction.

Short Story Reader said...

Glad you found the review interesting. It's an easy read of a book.