What if people with autism and their families could see their diagnosis as a gift and not a curse? What if we as a society could embrace the unique talents of autistic minds and celebrate them? What if even low-functioning autistic people could accommodate their deficits and exploit their strengths, find work, and live more meaningful lives?
"THE AUTISTIC BRAIN: THINKING ACROSS THE SPECTRUM"
By Temple Grandin and Richard Panek
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28).
Temple Grandin, the scientist, writer and speaker who exemplifies the positive aspects of autism, now wants to move beyond her own experiences to advise the burgeoning numbers of people (1 in 88 according to the latest statistics) who now appear on the autistic spectrum. As someone who interacts a lot with her audience, she's come to believe younger autistic people and their families are "label-locked."
"I'm concerned when 10-year-olds introduce themselves to me and all they want to talk about is 'my Asperger's' or 'my autism.' I'd rather hear about 'my science project' or 'my history book' or 'what I want to be when I grow up.' ... I find the same inability to think about a child's strengths when I talk to their parents. I'll say, 'What does your kid like? What is your kid good at?' and I can see the confusion in their faces. Like? Good at? My Timmy?"
Ms. Grandin has no patience for people who see themselves as victims when they've screwed up. She talks to people with autism who claim they lost their jobs due to discrimination, but who soon reveal they never showed up on time to work or "they were doing stupid things that I learned not to do when I was 9 years old."
Sensory overload and the emotional behaviors associated with it (acting out, zoning out, panic attacks) are a real problem, but Ms. Grandin insists they have to be dealt with. People with autism need to deal with social situations and learn to manage their emotions. "When parents tell me that their teenage boy cries when he's frustrated, I say 'Good!' Boys who cry can work for Google. Boys who trash computers cannot."
Many believe that more and more children are being born with autistic brains, even when you correct the statistics to account for diagnosis variability. Soon enough, diagnoses based on observable symptoms (what the DSM, the psychiatrists' reference guide, is all about), will be superseded by neuroscience.
Pittsburgh is at the forefront of the research. Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon oversaw Ms. Grandin's 2006 scans at CMU's Brain Imaging, and Walt Schneider of the University of Pittsburgh examined her brain in 2011 using a new technology called High Definition Fiber Tracking (his findings were detailed on a 2012 segment of "60 Minutes"). The Defense Department funded HDFT to study traumatic brain injuries, but its tracking of the fiber highways connecting different regions of the brain has implications for autism and other brain anomalies.
Ms. Grandin would like to get away from the stigma of the DSM's "mental illness" approach to autism and celebrate what a different type of brain can contribute to human life. Autism is rising right at the moment when people interact more with machines than other humans. The author observes, "Half the employees at Silicon Valley tech companies would be diagnosed with Asperger's, if they allowed themselves to be diagnosed, which they avoid like the proverbial plague."
Further, the "happy Aspies" writing code and cracking algorithms aren't the only ones improving and advancing society. People at the other end of the autism spectrum, who suffer from more of the condition's debilitating features, also have skills to offer, thanks to their atypical brain structure.
What are those skills? Ms. Grandin identifies an ability common to autistic peoples: sharp attention to detail. Not being able to see the forest for the trees is a negative, but being able to see the trees better than anyone else is a gift. She notes, "I think that bottom-up, details-first thinkers like myself are more likely to have creative breakthroughs just because we don't know where we're going. ... [U]nderstanding how an attention to details, a hefty memory, and an ability to make associations can all work together -- the unlikely creative leap becomes ever more likely."
Though people with autism can't see social patterns well, they are often very good at seeing pure pattern. Ms. Grandin used to believe all autistic brains saw the world in pictures, as she does, but now she realizes many are "pattern thinkers," a skill set belonging to musicians and mathematicians as well as electricians and actuaries. Neurotypical brains can be complemented by autistic brains in the modern workplace, and employers are "going to recognize that sometimes the right mind can only belong to an autistic brain."
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Susan Balee, a contributor to The Hudson Review and a former faculty member in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University, lives in Squirrel Hill.