Temple Grandin, associate professor of Colorado State University's animal science department, gave a lecture at Butler University on Wednesday, Oct. 19. Grandin, who has Aspergers Autism, is author of five books with topics focused mainly on her experiences with autism. She is also a strong supporter for general animal welfare and is considered a philosophical leader of various autism advocacy movements. Note that the main reason I was assigned this story was because I'm also Aspergers Autistic.
I've never seen anyone speak on the topic of autism before. However, in preparation I read two of Grandin's books in order to be ready. It's odd to research something that seems so mundane to me, especially considering I'm not seriously hampered by Aspergers Autism. I don't need to be told many proper social skills, even if I tend to ignore them. However, when Grandin talked about early childhood experiences as Aspergers in her lecture it resonated with me. And while she says the stern structure of 1950s culture helped her, as well as early intervention, it was the small essences of rebellion that helped me develop.
True, early intervention in autistic children does wonders, but it was watching The Simpsons when my parents forbid it, reading Far Side in bed with flashlight in hand and buying fireworks from less than responsible clerks that helped make my childhood resemble something "normal." It may've also developed my anti-authority tendencies that have gotten me in trouble from time to time - but that is who I am.
Hansen: Could you define autism?
Grandin: Autism is a neurological disorder that's caused by abnormal development in the brain. Emotional parts of the brain are sometimes underdeveloped and there is also an abnormal overgrowth of the white matter of the brain that connects the different planes of thought, so there is a tendency as a high functioning, or Aspergers, to be really good at one thing and really bad at something else. Real uneven skills. One of the things I can't emphasize enough with autism is the importance of early education. You've got to start working with these kids as soon as you see symptoms.
Hansen: I completely agree; I actually am Aspergers and it [early intervention] helped me a great deal. Could you give a brief explanation of your thought processes? When I read Thinking in Pictures I found that very interesting.
Grandin: Basically I think totally in pictures. If I think about something new, pictures come up in my mind. My mind works like Google for images: You put in a keyword and then pictures come up, and then I can take those pictures and associate them into categories.
Hansen: I'm more associative and I tend to think more in words and concepts.
Grandin: I've found there are three kinds of specialized minds in Aspergers. There is the visual thinking mind like me that's terrible at algebra, there's the music and math mind that thinks in patterns, and then there's the verbal language translator mind that thinks in words. And I know a lot of people like you who have become journalists.
Hansen: Could you detail what made it hard for you growing up as an Aspergers girl?
Grandin: Well, I got teased in high school. High school was absolutely the worst time of my life, totally bad. You know, I was the weird one. And the only way I could get away from the teasing was through shared interests, like riding horses or in electronics club or in science projects. See, the kids that were interested in those things didn't do the teasing, and an Asperger or an autistic is going to, like me, get their socialization through shared interests. That's why it's so important to work on getting something that you can do for a career or do something for a hobby, because you get socialization through shared interest.
Hansen: When did the maths and sciences start to interest you?
Grandin: I never was good at math, but science ... ever since I was a little kid my grandfather was an engineer, so I was always interested in science. I mean, I used to ask my grandfather all sorts of science questions, and then I had a great science teacher when I was in high school that helped me develop my interest. And let's look at some of the things that helped make me be successful: my mother getting me a great early intervention, all the early education stuff, and then mother and everyone else worked on developing my talent in art - that was definitely nurtured. And, I had a great science teacher in high school who served as a mentor. We have to develop the strength areas; I just can't emphasize that enough.
Sean Hansen is a freshman at IUPUI. Temple Grandin's newest book is called Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. For more or her: www.grandin.com.