The Autistic Brain: Thinking across the spectrum
by Temple Grandin
and Richard Panek, 240 pages,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013) $28.
I first heard about Dr. Temple Grandin a few years back from a TV report about the ethical treatment of animals in the slaughter process. Intrigued by her life and work, I was pleased to be asked to review her latest book.
Grandin certainly has the credentials to tackle this topic. She is a prominent animal scientist, professor, autistic and animal rights activist, former Autism Society of America director, inspirational speaker and bestselling author. She also has autism.
Within the first couple of pages, I was devouring every word. Written in the first person, the narrative weaves seamlessly between the scientific (brain-scanning, genetics and their links to behaviour), the academic (ways of thinking about autism), and the empirical — Grandin’s own experiences and those of the many autistic people she has spoken with over the years.
The straightforward language, use of analogies and examples pulled from personal experience make the scientific parts easier than pie to grasp. For example, in the second chapter, the brain is likened to an office building in which employees in different parts of the building have their own specialization but work together to create a single product (a thought, action or response). These departments must communicate to make the product, but in the autistic brain, the phones may not ring in one department or the elevator doesn’t stop at one floor. (The book goes into deeper detail, but this is the gist).
The first half of the book covers what has been learned so far about the science of the autistic brain and the advances made possible by genetic research and neuroimaging. Images of her own brain scans dot the pages in illustration of the anomalies.
It also addresses sensory overload, which Grandin says has been overlooked as an area of research, and includes tips by sense (sight, hearing and taste) about how to manage this problem. This section also explains clearly why there is a spectrum in the disorder.
In the second half, Grandin explores new ways of thinking about the autistic brain, including the need to get past the labels that can limit a person (she calls it “label-locked thinking”) and an exhortation to stop focusing on what is wrong with the autistic brain and start looking at its strengths. (The work of University of Montreal autism researcher Michelle Dawson and her colleagues gets a major nod here.)
The final chapter, “From the Margins to the Mainstream,” contains practical advice about how to play to the strengths of autistic people across the spectrum for learning and employment, focusing not on overcoming their deficits but instead helping them realize their potential.
Equal parts autobiography, scientific study, academic history and practical guide, The Autistic Brain is about a lifelong personal quest to find answers. Written by a remarkable woman, it is a fascinating read for anyone who has an interest in autism.