Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

I don't know about anyone else, but I very rarely read a book for just one reason. (It feels like I rarely do anything for just one reason.) Nothing is unmixed.

So I've been interested in Temple Grandin, the most famous and accomplished person with autism, for a while, because of what she accomplished and because of what she overcame. And, as the father of a son on the autism spectrum -- I think the current DSM collapsed all of the previous niche categories to "autism spectrum disorder" with explanations in individual cases -- I'm worried and interested and thrilled and confused by what that disorder means. (And I know that every person is a bit different, particularly in this area: the current medical category of "autism" covers a vast territory from "not great at personal interaction" to "completely non-verbal.")

Thinking in Pictures was Grandin's third book and her second to wrestle with the "who I am and how I got to where I am" question, after her first book Emergence: Labeled Autistic. And I believe this is generally seen as the Grandin book to read or start with -- unless you're engaging with her on a professional level, obviously, in which case you'd look at her technical publications -- so it was the one I picked up.

It's something like an autobiography and something like a book about how her mind works differently than those of neurotypical people and something like a book about how to understand and deal with people with autism. Grandin organized the book into eleven thematic chapters, each more-or-less about how autism affects one aspect of her life -- and the lives of others, informed by research. Grandin is a scholar, so she has citations of the kind suitable for a mass-audience book -- you could follow them, if you really wanted to. Since the book is twenty years old, and the study of autism still a young field, I expect the landscape has changed quite a bit since then, though.

Grandin follows connections between topics within those chapters, and those connections may not be the ones neurotypical people will expect. I'd call that a feature rather than a bug: the point of Thinking in Pictures is to give us a view of how Grandin thinks through things, and it also gives us a glimpse of what it might be like for an autistic person to live in a world with people who think neurotypically.

I do think things have changed, in treatment options and definitely in categorization, since Grandin wrote Thinking in Pictures. So those sections and references may be less useful these days, particularly to families dealing with an initial diagnosis of autism for a child. (Autism is defined as a developmental disorder: it has to be diagnosed in childhood, and usually, these days, is identified before school age.) But her life is still what it was, and her insights and ability to describe how she thinks are as useful and illuminating as ever.

I tend to think we all think more differently from each other than we generally admit -- that "the spectrum" (as in autism) is part of a much wider spectrum, extending out multi-dimensionally. So the fact that any one of us is not diagnosed with autism doesn't mean we're "normal" -- it just means we think in ways that haven't caused this particular kind of problem yet, or that our differences are less diagnose-able, or just that we're functional enough that it's not worth the resources to investigate us. But understanding, in any ways we can, how other people think can only be helpful. And Thinking in Pictures is a marvelous look into one particular way of thinking, by one very accomplished and introspective woman.

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