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.

 

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