As she puts it, she thinks in pictures, visually rather than verbally, and that many like her have a similar preference for art over language. While Grandin is not an artist herself, and there is more of an emphasis on science and technology (geeks, as she puts it), she also notes how visual thinkers like herself can communicate with pictures, and have a facility for the visual arts, and how some can even draw in perspective with no prior training (a technique that otherwise was only developed in the west, and has been associated with alphabetic literacy).
She mentions Vincent Van Gogh, who has been identified as probably autistic, and how his Starry Night has been shown to accurately reflect weather patterns, and that reminded me of how my friend and colleague Ed Wachtel did his own bit of pattern recognition and produced a visual mash-up of the painting and the Weather Channel, which I reported on in a blog post a could of years ago (see Wachtel's Van Gogh Weather Map).
Grandin discusses how the autistic mind tends to prefer a lower level of abstracting, visual rather than verbal. Indeed, I am confident that she would identify general semantics founder Alfred Korzybski as having autistic genes, as she puts it in the video (and this is meant in a positive way, in case there's any doubt, and I should also add that I have no doubt that I have them myself).
And I love Grandin's message that we need all kinds of thinkers. I couldn't agree more, it's diversity that is associated with success, whether it's biological within a species, or social and psychological within a society.
Anyway, let's hear from Temple now, okay?
So, if you want to learn more about her, you can check out Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Page, which focuses on her work with livestock, as well as Dr. Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website. She's called Dr. Grandin because she has a PhD, in animal science, and she's a professor at Colorado State University (if you know anything about academia, you know that there are a lot of autistic genes distributed among the faculty). She's also the subject of a recent HBO movie, called Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes, and I think it's worth a view.
It is instructive to contrast Grandin's view that we need all kinds of different minds, to what is said in a recent report coming out of the University of Leeds, entitled Research Builds on Genetic Link to Autism and Schizophrenia. The report begins with the following sentence: "A genetic link between schizophrenia and autism is enabling researchers to study the effectiveness of drugs used to treat both illnesses. [yeah, I added the emphasis, you bet I did]"
Illnesses? I'm sure Temple Grandin would disagree, and other individuals have been very forceful in arguing that autism is neither a disease, nor a disorder or disability that needs to be cured or fixed, or eliminated. This came up in a conference on autism at Fordham University that I took part in a few years ago, as reported in my blog entry, Autism and Advocacy.
Word choice aside, I do find it interesting to see the reference to a genetic link between autism and schizophrenia. Before autism was identified by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, it was often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. And while the two are quite different indeed, there does seem to be a spectrum (as Grandin mentions in the video), and beyond the autism spectrum itself, a wider spectrum that links autism to ADD and ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Tourette's Syndrome, and more, with connections as well to Alzheimer's Disease.
Is schizophrenia a different kind of thinking that we need, or a form of suffering that needs to be alleviated? Such issues are difficult to grapple with, but the basic rule of thumb would have to be whether individuals are a threat to others, to themselves, and whether they are happy with their condition or not. In the case of autism, it's quite clear how there is a very thin line between genius and dysfunction (or perhaps no line as well), and this ambiguity extends, at least somewhat, to schizophrenia as well.
From the point of view of parents wanting to help their children, especially to enable them to take care of themselves and live independently, which many individuals diagnosed with autism cannot do, research such as this study being conducted at Leeds does hold out some hope. The trick is to balance this out with the need to accommodate and encourage different kinds of thinking and different kinds of minds, and different kinds of individuals.
Indeed, the trick is to make a world where everyone can develop to their full potential, along their own path, and where the most helpless members of our society can live safely and securely, cared for with compassion and understanding.
But any kind of mind can understand that, right?