14 February 07
Reclaiming Your Inner Autist
We heard Dr. Temple Grandin today give two talks on campus sponsored by the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders). The two talks overlapped much in content, the first entitled Exploring the mind of a visual thinker, and the second entitled My experience with autism. My favorite work of hers is her book Animals In Translation in which she uses her experience of being autistic to better understand what animal consciousness is all about. She is a photorealistic visual thinker, and believes that many animals function the same way. Thought without language happens. It’s not a mode common in humans, but such a pattern gets developed under certain circumstances.
She identified three specializations of autistic thought — visual thinkers, music and math dominance, and verbal thinkers. The first, the photorealists like her, are those who function like having a movie projector in the brain, or in a contemporary analogy, a Google Images-like search engine. The second type are those who are good at patterns — much more abstract than the visual thinkers. She illustrated this with a slide of a praying mantis made in origami overlaid on top of the quite complex folding pattern of its square of paper. Some very pattern-oriented mind came up with that folding sequence. Finally, the verbally-oriented folks are those who are good at facts — the history buffs, the sports trivia buffs.
It seems autism isn’t one single thing or syndrome, rather it’s a manifestation of how different brains can specialize. Obviously it is important to work on making autistic individuals functioning members of society, but as Temple Grandin puts it, we don’t want to cure Einstein (non-verbal at age three). What we see in extreme in autistic individuals are unusual combinations of the intellectual potentials we all have.