Review of The autistic brain by Temple Grandin

This is a meaty book which provides and informed update of the current state of the art in autism research. It is a popular science book about brain research written by the research subject herself and gives a brisk and informative review of the state of the art in brain scanning with illustrations of the findings in the author’s brain. It reviews the latest findings in the genetics of autism and reports on the identification of genes associated with autism.  The author delves at length on the issue of sensory problems experienced by autistics and  decries the limited interest of researchers in this stressful issue for many autistics. She reviews the different diagnostic testing techniques and the labels they cause to be attached to people and appeals to people on the spectrum, and their loved ones, to resist being defined by a label. She talks about the employment possibilities for autistics and gives examples where their peculiar idiosyncrasies  turn out to be a competitive advantage. All packed into a narrative infused with Dr. Grandin’s life experience as a high functioning autistic.

As the grandfather of an autistic boy and as a friend of the autistic Iris Johansson, who I think of as the Temple Grandin of Sweden, I was intensely interested in the contents of this informative book. As the translator of Johansson’s book “A different childhood” I was particularly interested in Dr. Grandin’s discussion of the sensory problems experienced by many autistics, the visual and auditory processing issues in particular. In this context I was disappointed to not find any comments about synesthesia which I believe is often associated with autism. On this subject, the book by Johansson is a particularly rich source of material, describing her synesthesia (perceiving her mother’s anger or grandmother’s scolding as beautiful light-shows that delighted her), her out of body-like experiences (seeing her body sitting on the ground as she herself was swooping around in the sky with her spirit friends), her tactile problems (wearing her flannel shirt inside out and backwards to minimize the unbearable irritation of rough fabric).

As Dr. Grandin emphasizes, there are many variations in the autistic experience, but also many characteristic similarities. One way to possibly think about it is that what’s common is the areas in which autistic differ from neurotypicals, but the way they are different varies greatly. For instance, Dr Grandin refers several times to her poor short term memory, while for other autistics super memory is their most notable characteristic. Overall this book is well worth your time, even if you are not associated with anyone on the spectrum. If you are, then it is a book that belongs in your library.


Accommodation and autonomy

In this video Iris is talking about accommodation. Accommodation in this case refers to conflict style, defined as follows by Mind Tools: 

Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to collect on this “favor” you gave. However people may not return favors, and overall this approach is unlikely to give the best outcomes.

Iris is talking about the case where an individual is somehow stuck in this as her life-style, i.e. to always be accommodating.

She describes the signs of being in this style: the state of basic  discontent which is always in need of something more or different to fill this need and therefore makes the individual prone to accommodate others so that they will provide this something which fills this need. But the satisfaction is only temporary because the need never goes away, and the same exchange is repeated. The key is that the accommodating individual gets something out of the exchange that she needs, and because she continually needs this she is continually accommodating. Typically what she needs is the approval of the other person. Iris uses the example of your friend asking you to bring her a glass of water. If you are in the accommodating style you comply, even if it was inconvenient for you just then, but you expect something in return. Maybe, in this case is just her appreciation. If you don’t get it you feel cheated out of something. If she uses it to water the flower pot, or says it tasted bad you feel insulted or rejected. On the other hand if you are in autonomy mode and she asks for the water, you look inside yourself and  ask: “am I doing something else now or can just as easily go and fetch the water, then OK I do it” and I don’t look for anything in return because I don’t need anything, I am already satisfied within myself. Then I don’t care what she does with the water, I have nothing vested in it. On the other hand  if I am getting a little tired of fetching water for her, because I don’t get out of it what I need, then I shift over into the mode of defiance; go and get your own water you demanding person. But this is not autonomy either, because my level of satisfaction is still determined by her.

Now, autonomy doesn’t have to mean I am totally self-sufficient. I may still find it more interesting and enjoyable to be in a togetherness with you but in a style of cooperation. Then we can both discuss something we are both interested in, like the theory of Dark Energy that those guys got the Nobel prize for. In our discussion, we share our ideas and understandings, and your thoughts get added to mine and I get the benefit of sharing my thoughts with you, and we are both enriched by it.

So how is this different  from the exchange involving the water glass? There you get the benefit of the water and I get the benefit of your appreciation. The difference is that in that case I had no interest in the water, I involved myself in it only to accommodate you. Furthermore, I still continue to have the need for you appreciation. In the other case we are both interested in dark energy and  get our satisfaction from exploring that topic, and sharing it is just a way to make it more interesting and enjoyable.