Change Your Mind about Autism
Reading Dr Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures will change your mind about autism.
Most people associate autism with extreme difficulty rather than extraordinary ability. But Dr Grandin’s suggests that both are valid descriptions. While she focuses on the strengths of people with autism, there’s no romanticising their struggles.
Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism at age 2 in the late 1940s. As doctors knew little about how to manage the condition, they advised institutionalisation.
Her mother refused.
But this was no easy task. Temple lacked eye contact, struggled to get away when held, threw tantrums out of frustration as she could not communicate, and had a “penchant for smearing faeces.” (p31)
At home, Temple’s mother did what she intuitively knew was helpful. She gave Temple a structured environment. She also hired a governess to keep Temple engaged with art. They played games that taught Temple to wait for her turn and various other activities. Through hard work and speech therapy, Temple finally learnt to speak at age 3.
At school, Science Teacher Mr Carlock used Temple’s interests to motivate her to learn and eventually to achieve academic success. She became an Animal Scientist, designing one-third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the United States.
When Thinking in Pictures was first published in 1995, Dr Grandin provided much invaluable insight into the remarkable visual ability of (many) people diagnosed with autism.
“I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR to my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.” (p3)
“Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination. During my career I have designed all kinds of equipment, ranging from corrals for handling cattle on ranches to systems for handling cattle and hogs…” (p3)
“I can view it from any angle, placing myself below or above the equipment and rotating it at the same time. I don’t need a fancy graphics program that can produce three-dimensional simulations.” (p5)
Autistic people who are Visual Thinkers can store photographically specific images in their mind and retrieve them when needed. But rigidity in thinking makes it difficult for them to generalise images and make sense of their relevance in another context.
Think of Pictures, Patterns and Possibilities!
Dr Grandin expanded her ideas about the ways people with autism process information in the 2005 republished version of Thinking in Pictures. Besides Visual Thinkers, there are also Music and Math Thinkers who think in patterns and see relationships between patterns and numbers. Such thinkers often excel in Math, chess, and computing. Verbal and Logic Thinkers think in word details and often love history, foreign languages, weather statistics and stock market reports. Many find work in language translation, journalism, accounting, library work or financial analysis.
Whatever the types of Thinkers, early intervention is vital to put “educational emphasis on building up their strengths instead of just working on their deficits.” (p29)
At day’s end, some people with autism may achieve a higher level of functioning than others. But there’s no precise way to predict how much an individual can understand and achieve. As such, in working with a child, student or client, it’s important to believe in his potential no matter his age.
Look beyond behaviour, observe the way they processes information; persevere in getting to know them, and build upon their capabilities.
Get Your Hands on This Book The book Thinking in Pictures (2005, Vintage Books) is available in Singapore’s Public Libraries. It was first published in 1995 and updated in 2005. While you are at the library, borrow the HBO Film Temple Grandin in DVD format. It’s based on Dr Temple Grandin’s life depicted in her books, Emergence: Labelled Autistic (1986) and Thinking in Pictures (1995).