Thanks to The Hartford Courant for permission to reprint this article.
How The Brain Works: A Q&A with Temple Grandin
A Look Inside Temple Grandin's Mind
Autistic Professor Among Panelists At Friday's Connecticut Forum On 'The Glorious, Mysterious Brain'
By SUSAN DUNNE, firstname.lastname@example.org
February 24, 2011
Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a designer of livestock-handling facilities. But Grandin's true claim to fame is being the world's most prominent person with autism.
She was profiled by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his 1995 book "An Anthropologist on Mars" (her description of how she feels when interacting with non-autistic people). Last year, HBO showed a feature film about her life, "Temple Grandin," which has received numerous awards, including Emmys for best made-for-TV movie and best actress for Claire Danes. It's now available on DVD.
Also last year, Grandin was included on Time magazine's list of 100 people who most affect our world. She does that by raising awareness of autism, a neurological condition that occurs across a wide spectrum.
Its most high-functioning form, Asperger's Syndrome, inhibits social skills but allows for fully functioning, often extraordinary cognitive ability. Those with autism in its lower-functioning forms engage in repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, and are severely inhibited in their language skills; people at the most severe end of the autism spectrum are nonverbal.
Grandin, whose autism is high-functioning, will be in Hartford Friday night as part of a three-member Connecticut Forum panel discussing "The Glorious, Mysterious Brain." Her co-panelists are Yale cognitive scientist Paul Bloom, author of "How Pleasure Works" and "The Moral Life of Babies," and Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor and author of "The Blank Slate" and "How the Mind Works." Mary Hynes, host of "Tapestry," a weekly Canadian radio program about spirituality, will moderate.
Much more is known about high-functioning autism than low-functioning. As Sacks wrote, "The ultimate difference, perhaps, is this: People with Asperger's syndrome can tell us of their experiences, their inner feelings and states, whereas those with classical autism cannot. With classical autism, there is no window, and one can only infer."
Grandin embraces her autism; she told a lecture audience years ago, "If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not, because then I wouldn't be me. Autism is part of who I am."
She believes strongly that those with high-functioning autism can turn their so-called handicap into an advantage. This belief was shared by Hans Asperger, who in 1944 published the first definition of the syndrome that would later bear his name. Asperger felt that those with high-functioning autism tended toward "a particular originality of thought and experience, which may well lead to exceptional achievements in later life."
Grandin has written several books, including "Thinking in Pictures," "Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior" and "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals."
In advance of her local appearance, Grandin, 53, did a phone interview from her office in Fort Collins, Colo., about how her mind works.
Q: The subject of the Connecticut Forum talk is "The Glorious, Mysterious Brain." Do you know what you're going to talk about?
A: I'm going to be talking about visual thinking. I don't think in words. Steven Pinker thinks in words, not pictures. But pictures are in my imagination. Ask me something, and I will tell you what I think about it.
Q: OK, how about the weather?
A: I've seen snow on my doorstep this morning. On my computer, I've looked up some weather maps. On the TV, there are pictures of really bad snowstorms. In New York during a snowstorm, they hadn't plowed the side streets by my friend's house.
Q: The HBO film showed many drawings. Is that an accurate depiction of your visual thinking?
A: Some of them were actual drawings of my projects. The movie did a very good job of showing what I think. When I think, pictures come up.
Q: Is this a particularly autistic thing, to think in terms of pictures?
A: No, other people think in pictures, too. Non-autistic people think in pictures. I'm just an extreme visual thinker.
Q: How would you explain to a non-autistic person how the brain of an autistic person works?
A: First of all, it works bottom-up rather than top-down. Most scientists have to have a hypothesis before they experiment. My method is to collect data and then see what happens. It takes lots of small amounts of info to put them together to find what it means.
Q: Can you understand the thinking of people who think in words?
A: Not usually. People who are good at playing the futures market in cattle do not understand my drawings. I show them a drawing and build it, and they decide they hate it and cannot visualize it from the drawing. They just don't understand a drawing. Me, I can look at the drawing and see a finished job. But the futures market is beyond my understanding.
Q: Have you made all the manifestations of your autism work for you, rather than keep you down? Or are there still manifestations of your autism that give you trouble?
A: I have to take antidepressants to keep my anxiety controlled. I had a brain scan done that showed that my fear center in my brain is three times bigger than normal. I'm hyper-vigilant and always worried something might go wrong. It's now tamped down with medication.
Q: How does your autism help you understand animals?
A: Thinking in pictures is how an animal thinks. They don't think in verbal language. Their thinking is sensory-based. … Animals communicate by tone of voice. It provides a lot of emotional information. It's the tone-of-voice communication rather than words themselves. Dogs can tell if you are happy, upset or angry just by what [an owner] does with his voice. You could say to a dog, "I just hate you; you are just awful," and he'd be wagging his tail because of your tone of voice.
Q: You have gone from being famous among a small group of people in the autism community to being famous worldwide. How has fame affected your life? Do you like it?
A: I feel it's a responsibility. I have to make sure I give people a lot of correct information. It's a lot of work. I like doing what I do professionally. I have to fight to keep that. I don't want to give up that.
Q: Did the film depict your life accurately? What do you think of Claire Danes' performance as you?
A: I thought she did a fantastic job. They depicted my life pretty accurately. My projects were accurate. I designed all the things [shown in the film]. It depicted my visual thinking accurately, my anxiety accurately, my science teacher accurately. Some events they had to switch around and compress.
Q: Do you think the movie has had an effect on the public perception of autism and autistic people?
A: I think it has. The thing is, half the Silicon Valley has mild autism. You wouldn't have a computer to type on if it wasn't for autistic genetics. If you disconnect the social circuits in your brain, there are more circuits to do fun, deep stuff like design computers. ... If you get a little bit of autism disconnect, you get a brilliant geek running important companies. ... In a lot of school systems, Einstein would be labeled autistic.
Q: So autism has a constructive place in society?
A: In its milder form, it provides some advantages. ... The problem [with public perceptions] is that autism, at one end of the spectrum, you need a lot of special ed. ... Autism in its severe form is severely disabled. ... But at the other end, people need social-skills training, but they're brilliant. ... There are too many smart, geeky kids going nowhere. He could be geeky, but with an I.Q. of 150.
Q: What would you say to young adults with milder forms of autism just starting out in life to help them on their way?
A: Get some work skills. Get some time-management skills. When they get out in the workplace, they can get and keep a job. Way too many smart kids never had any work skills.
THE CONNECTICUT FORUM panel on "The Glorious, Mysterious Brain" will be held Friday at 8 p.m. at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave. in Hartford. Tickets range from $25 to $60. Information: ctforum.org. At press time there was a waiting list for tickets.