Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Adventure classics -- Inside tour of autistic mind

Emergence: Labeled Autistic

by Temple Grandin


There have been narratives by writers on the autism spectrum since Temple Grandin’s groundbreaking memoir, Emergence: Labeled Autistic. But hers was the earliest I’ve found, and to my mind, still the best guide into the souls of those labeled “autistic.”

Born only a few years after psychiatrist Leo Kanner’s 1943 description of the autistic syndrome, Grandin’s behavior often mystified even her doctors. Now a successful scientist/businesswoman with a doctorate in animal behavior, she credits her family and teachers for persevering to uncover her hidden talents.

Grandin has repaid the effort with interest, serving as an advocate for the rights both of others with autism and for the animals she credits with teaching her how to empathize with others.

Although in her original 1986 volume she calls herself a “recovered” autistic person, it might be more appropriate to describe her as an extremely high functioning one. Even after multiple college degrees, she writes about how shaken she was to “to find out (from old letters) how really odd some of my behavior had been and how worried my parents were about me.”

She advocates intensive education and a willingness to try a variety of therapies for autistic children. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t favor attempts to eliminate all vestiges of autistic behavior, especially the visual thinking that is her particular gift.

“My mind,” she writes, “is completely visual, and spatial work such as drawing is easy. . . But remembering a phone number or adding up numbers in my head is difficult. If I have
to remember an abstract concept, I ‘see’ the page of the book or my notes in my mind and ‘read’ information from it. . . I can’t imagine what non-visual thinking would be like.”

And her advice about the now well-known fixations of those with autism? “Channel them into positive action.”

As she did, translating her early love of animals into a career of working with them.  She also credits the invention of her “hug box,” a device to apply calming pressure to autistic children, to observation of the beneficial effect of lateral pressure on animals in cattle chutes.

Grandin has followed her initial memoir with other books and has been the subject of the HBO film, Temple Grandin. When it received Emmys, the woman who had panic attacks in public as an adolescent was on stage, speaking to the audience.

Among other stops on Grandin’s frequent speaking tours are two this year in Dallas. On March 28, both she and her mother will speak at the Dallas Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome Conference in Irving. On May 10, Grandin speaks about her forthcoming book, The Autistic Brain, in the Arts and Letters Live lecture series of the Dallas Museum of Art. For more information about Grandin, see her website,

(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics switches from true heroism to true crime, with Texas author Tommy Thompson’s Blood and Money.)

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