Among teachers, parents, and therapists who are interested in autism, Temple Grandin is a familiar name, a high-profile example that one can be diagnosed with autism and grow to lead a productive and independent life. In addition to her formidable achievements in the areas of animal science and livestock handling (she holds a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois; has designed livestock handling facilities both in the United States and abroad with a specific interest in improving the way farm animals are treated; and teaches animal sciences at Colorado State University), she frequently speaks at workshops designed to help those who live and work with children who have autism. She has also written two autobiographical books, Emergence: Labeled Autistic and Thinking in Pictures And Other Reports from My Life with Autism.
Autism was named and systematically described in the early 1940s by two men who were working separately: Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins Children’s Pediatric Clinic, and Hans Asperger at the University Pediatric Clinic in Vienna. They both coincidentally chose the same term, autism, a word used in adult psychiatry to refer to schizophrenics’ gradual loss of connection to the world.
Currently, the American Psychiatric Association classifies autism as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) with core features broadly identified as impairments in communication and socialization, and a tendency toward stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior and interest. Symptoms appear before age three, and vary widely from individual to individual. However, some behaviors commonly associated with autism include playing with objects in a repetitive way, engaging in self-stimulatory actions (for instance, hand flapping, staring at hands, smelling things), showing a lack of interest in peers, and poor eye contact. Children with autism may also not respond when spoken to, and not point to things in attempt to show others what they see. As Grandin explains in Thinking in Pictures, “Diagnosing autism is complicated by the fact that the behavioral criteria are constantly being changed.”
Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome?
Individuals with autism who are high-functioning, like Temple Grandin, have what is referred to as Asperger’s syndrome. In his biographical essay on Temple Grandin entitled “An Anthropologist on Mars,” neurologist Oliver Sacks identifies an important distinction between Asperger’s syndrome and classical autism: “people with Asperger’s syndrome can tell us of their experiences, their inner feelings and states, whereas those with classical autism cannot.”
Despite the eventual differences between those with Asperger’s syndrome and those with classical autism (otherwise referred to as classic Kanner’s syndrome), both types of autism look the same at age three. This is one reason Temple Grandin’s memoirs are invaluable; she often writes of a time when verbal communication was not adequately available to her, a state from which some individuals with autism never fully emerge.
Grandin states in Thinking in Pictures that if she were a toddler today, her diagnosis would be classic Kanner’s syndrome due to her abnormal speech development, yet as an adult she would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The difference is that she has developed more cognitive flexibility. “One of the perplexing things about autism,” Grandin explains, “is that it is almost impossible to predict which toddler will become high-functioning. The severity of the symptoms at age two or three is often not correlated with the prognosis.”
What is Life Like With Autism?
Through writing her memories of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, Grandin has given us a rare chance to peer into what one researcher on autism, Uta Frith, describes as the “unfathomable.” The childhood moments Grandin recalls are characterized by painfully and disruptively acute perceptual sensitivities, difficulties communicating, and an inability to intuitively pick up on the emotional and social subtleties of everyday human interactions.
Change in routine, a crowded house, noise, sudden movements, strong smells, and the overbearing hugs from relative all overwhelmed Grandin as a child. A scene she recalls is of an ordinary holiday vividly transformed into chaos due to her heightened perceptual sensitivities. Too noisy, too bright, too strong-smelling, the world was at once painfully unfiltered and alienating.
Coping with Autism in the Classroom
Grandin describes her experience in kindergarten at age five, and her frustrating inability to adequately express herself. In one recollection, she understood a concept that was taught, yet she was unable to explain her logical reasons for answering questions ‘incorrectly’. Her inability to explain herself often led to a need to act out physically by kicking or hitting or overturning a chair. Sometimes, Grandin explains, she frightened even herself with her own behavior.
Grandin also recalls an incident when she was reprimanded for not cooperating while the class clapped in time with the music her teacher played on the piano. Similar to the above situation, the five-year-old Grandin could not explain or justify her behavior (she was simply not able to keep the beat), and the moment escalated into a temper tantrum-her response to her teacher’s unfair scolding and her classmates’ laughter.
Grandin’s impulse to translate her own experiences into practical advice on how to communicate with children who have autism is illustrated in the following passage from Emergence: Labeled Autistic. “Sometimes I heard and understood and other times sounds or speech reached my brain like the unbearable noise of an onrushing train.” “Monitor what you say to the autistic child,” Grandin concludes. “Keep your sentences short and simple. Look directly at the child because the autistic learns to read the whole body-not just the words.”
In high school Grandin became increasingly conscious of how her ways of communicating, her unusually harsh and abrupt speech, persistently distanced her from peers and hindered her ability to make friends. This growing awareness coincided with Grandin’s interactions with a teacher, Mr. Carlock, who recognized Grandin’s abilities and guided her toward channeling her obsessive interests into productive projects. According to Kanner’s follow-up study of 96 individuals with autism, such a self-conscious and self-motivated decision to change one’s behavior, occurring during adolescence, is what distinguished the 11 individuals who “did well” as adults from the others.
At the end of Emergence: Labeled Autistic, Grandin encourages parents, teachers, and therapists to channel obsessive interests into projects. “Singleness of purpose (persistence) can work wonders,” she states. “High-functioning autistic adults, who are able to live independently and keep a job, often have work that is in the same field of interest as their childhood fixations. One man with a childhood fixation on numbers today works successfully doing fiscal efficiency reports.”
When Mr. Carlock saw Temple Grandin again after twenty years, he noted that some of Grandin’s autistic qualities were still present. “Clearly,” he says, “Temple hadn’t emerged from autism by becoming a different person, but had taken and reworked what she already had.” Indeed, Grandin does not transcend her autism, but works and struggles with it.
If Temple Grandin’s story begins with images of alienation, it progresses into the story of someone who worked with her autism, redirecting its characteristics to help her enter the world. As she states, autism is a part of who she is. Her extremely visual way of thinking, and her tendency toward fixations have deeply influenced her career choices and successes.
Sharing Mental Aloneness
Paradoxically, the characteristic most individuals with autism are believed to share is a sense of “mental aloneness.” Grandin’s empathy for the isolation that can result from this “mental aloneness” inspired her to tell her story. In Thinking in Pictures, she expresses a hope that as more people, particularly teachers and physicians, understand the different ways of thinking and perceiving that characterize autism (i.e., visual thinking and sensory sensitivities), “more children with autism will be helped from their terrible isolation at younger ages.” By educating-writing her memoirs, speaking to the public about her own experiences growing up with autism-Grandin is deepening our understanding of the unfathomable, and increasing the likelihood individuals with autism may reach much fuller potential.