Colorado State University professor of animal sciences and outspoken autism research advocate Temple Grandin has a brain like no other—with structural and functional differences that may help explain one of the world’s most famous autistic adult’s exceptional nonverbal intelligence and spatial memory. Her latest book, The Autistic Brain, delves into the research that’s beginning to untangle the complex neurology of Autism Spectrum Disorder, brain by brain.
You’ve volunteered for more than a half-dozen brain scans—tests you refer to as the “Journey to the Center of My Mind.” What made you want to take those journeys?
I’m a scientist! The technology is there to dissect what looks like aircraft cables in the brain. For example, when two roads cross each other, are they connected, or does one pass over the other? The technology makes it possible with a computer to see that. So you can look at my circuit and say what you see. For example, my brain “bundles” have much less bandwidth, and then you understand how it is that I have difficulties in getting words out. We will be able to do this technology in hospitals, and within the next 10 years, they may have it for brain injuries. But it’s like Galileo getting a telescope: It’s going to take research to use this technology.
You’ve written books about autism and lecture on the subject. Why was it important to you to write this book?
I was very interested in different kinds of thinking. When I was younger, I thought everybody thought in pictures! And the sensory problem for autistics is difficult to imagine. It is my number one issue because some autistics can‘t function because of them.
You write that autism is a part of who you are, but that you won’t let it define you. How can parents and educators guide those with autism to this kind of self-discovery?
Autism is a very big spectrum. At one end, you get a journalist working for a major publication, or a book editor. At the other end, there is somebody who has to live in an institution. Teachers know how to deal with a handicapped kid, the ones who are going to have to stay in a supervised living situation. I go back and forth and I see Silicon Valley—where half of the people there are on the spectrum, undiagnosed. At what point does a “geek” become an autistic? What drives me nuts is when I see [autistic] kids playing video games, but they are not being taught how to work, clean pools, do chores. Kids need to learn work skills. When I was 13, I got a sewing job; by 15, I was taking care of cattle. These are things my mother had to do to stretch me. But now, most kids aren’t learning the basic things. Kids aren’t getting hands-on classes—that’s the worst thing that’s happened in schools.
The diagnosis of autism has increased dramatically in recent years for a number of reasons—and it’s not clear why. What are your hopes for the direction this research will take and what may be discovered?
Eventually, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) stuff will go away [for those diagnosed with autism]. We will know at what point a circuit of the brain is considered abnormal—and then the issue becomes neurology.
What did your mother teach you about accepting your autistic brain?
She just set it up to get me to doing things; she stretched me. She was always encouraging me to do other kinds of art instead of just pictures of horses. When I was a little kid, I had no speech until I was 4. Mother had some very good doctors: a very good pediatrician who referred us to a neurologist in Boston, and then a speech therapist. She got good advice early on. She had a good sense of how far to push me.
I’m working on my academic textbooks on livestock behavior and I have another genetics and domestic behavior of animals book. That’s my real job! And a book for teachers, with short chapters, is going to need updating.