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.

 

Iris Johansson, the Temple Grandin of Sweden

I consider Iris Johansson the Temple Grandin of Sweden. Like Dr. Grandin Iris has built an amazing professional career starting from a very unpromising childhood. Dr. Grandin has unusual abilities in understanding the feelings of animals and developed them into a tool for designing effective and humane methods for handling cattle on feed lots and in slaughterhouses. Iris has an unusual ability to read people and pick up on what they are thinking and not saying. In her efforts to learn how to be “normal” she paid close attention to peoples’ behavior in different situations and learned how to pick up cues to the feelings that lay behind the behaviors.  Thus, in spite of her inability to have feelings herself she is good at observing them in others. She recognizes the anger in the other person but it doesn’t trigger anger in her, she observes the joy in the other but it doesn’t make her joyful, she notes someone’s disapproval of something but it doesn’t cause her to disapprove of it. This almost clinical relationship to others has advantages in addition to the obvious disadvantage. Sure, in order to learn to “act normal” she had to devote much time and attention to learning and memorizing the reactions one is expected to have in different situations and in response to all the different feelings expressed, but at the same time all this effort has taught how her to read people and how they react to each other so much better than “normal” people. This is probably the reason she has been so successful in helping people with conflict resolution, communication problems, and various dysfunctions such as impulse control, addiction, and eating disorders.. In addition to mentoring care givers and parents of autistic children, she has channeled her unique ability to read peoples’ feelings into work with individuals and families, schools and reformatories, hospitals and jails. As a consultant and facilitator she has worked with governmental organizations and businesses on conflict resolution, communication issues, leadership development for women.   By working with people in so many aspects of life  over an international range of societies (in addition to Sweden she has worked in Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Germany, and Albania) she has arguably had a greater impact on peoples’ lives.

Question on Autism-Aspergers yahoo group

 

My 6 year old son is in kindergarten and receives services (ABA) through the Special School District in Missouri. My son is on the autism spectrum and has a para with him throughout the day. He lately has not been completing his work – so last Wednesday I learned that they withheld his lunch from him until 2:00 until he did his work. I am sick about this. My son does not perform well when hungry and I thought ABA was supposed to be  a teaching method based on positive rewards and not withholding basic needs  as punishment. As anyone else come across this?!

Iris Johansson’s comments:

For us who have autism the issue is that we can’t use our feelings to understand and therefore both rewards and punishments are ineffective. If we get rewards we lose the idea of what we were supposed to learn and if we get punishments we get irritable and lose concentration. It is important to realize that we want to learn everything we can, but we have no feeling for something that is new to us. It takes us a long time until we have oriented ourselves and are able to put the new into an existing context and this doesn’t work the same way as for those who have feelings to lubricate the process with. We are not like children without autism, who are imprinted at a deep level, not by what someone says, but by what someone does.  It’s not like that for us, we have to figure it on an intellectual level what we should do and then the tendency is that we slip back into the known and familiar, however wrong that may be, and then both rewards and sanctions tend to bind us in our stereotypy, instead of helping us make progress.

What is required for us to learn is that we get to watch somebody else doing it and that somebody teases out our interest in it and then we eventually do what is wanted but in our own peculiar way. So you are absolutely right, using reinforcement and sanctions is not a good method.

With Son-rise where somebody joins in the autistic persons stereotypy and continually opens it broadens it, that helps us become high functioning and it is without preconditions and therefore works. That way our nervous system releases the cramp a little and we get somewhat freer impulses that can flow and we can develop. Our body will not obey our intentions unless we can get our cramp released and the great task for those around us is to make it to help us be as cramp-free as possible, and that is not possible with sanctions.