Temple Grandin and The Autistic Brain

Temple Grandin’s new book – The Autistic Brain – is in my opinion her most insightful work to date.  It’s also a stylistic departure from anything she’s done before.  Perhaps that because it’s co-written with science writer Richard Panek.

The central thesis of this book is that autistic people are different because their brains are different.  Not our minds – our brains.   For many of us this is a novel but probably more correct way of thinking about autism and neurodiversity.

Consider this phrase: autistic people are anxious because anxiety is a byproduct of autism.   Temple asks a very insightful question.  She says, Brain scans have shown my amygdala is quite a bit larger than average.  Might that explain why I feel anxious?

We’ve made huge advances in brain imaging over the past fifteen years.  For most of that time, Temple has offered herself as a research subject at various university hospitals.   This book synthesizes all she has learned, and leads readers to ask how our own neurology may define who we are and how we feel.

There’s no talk of a cure in this book – Temple seems content with who she is.  Other books describe journeys of transformation; this story details her journey of understanding.

Indeed, her hypotheses that behavioral differences of autism are tied to physical differences in the brain implies a sort of permanence.   If you think you are anxious because your mind processes data differently, that’s an abstract way of seeing things that leaves open the possibility that you will think differently one day, and perhaps be less anxious as a result.  Imagining oneself to be anxious because of an over-large amygdala seems to me much less changeable.

Maybe that is simply the reality of things.  After all, she’s in her sixties and I’m in my fifties, and both of us felt anxiety as kids and we feel anxiety today.  We have certainly learned to manage it better, but anxiety remains a part of both of us, and it’s probably with us to stay.

Some may find that deterministic or disturbing, but I don’t see it that way.  I think it’s simply a more realistic way to think, in terms of explaining why we are different.   It’s not necessarily correct to think there isn’t hope for change – and she points this out.  For example, she says her own life has become immeasurably better, thanks to antidepressants.  And she hints at other therapies that are on the horizon.

In the end, it all comes down to this: knowledge is power.   My own life was transformed when I learned of my own autism, and exactly how I was different from other people.   Temple’s new book gives a new level of understanding, and many new hypotheses to ponder.  That can’t help but empower those who take it all in, and cogitate upon her words.

The Autistic Brain is something anyone could benefit from reading, and I recommend it to anyone with a personal or professional connection to autism or neurological difference.

 Read more, in her own words, in this article from Wired

John Elder Robison is the NY Times bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby.  He is both an adult with autism and a parent of a son with autism.  He lives in Western Massachusetts.


Steve Silberman said…

Thanks for this. Also don't miss New Yorker writer Jerome Groopman's very insightful review of Temple's book:

What is autism?
Unknown said…
john, your books have been awesome and I shall take your suggestion of reading thi as well. Woof...
Unknown said…
The runaway anxiety many experience is a terrible debilitating symptom, thankfully one that can be controlled through various methods. I'm undiagnosed & believe since I began meditation at age 13 I've overcome or somehow rewired my brain & learned to control my anxieties without the help of pharmaceuticals, unlike my partner who daily faces the burden of anxieties. I've always believed & intuitively felt our brains must be configured & even constructed differently than those of NT's. Thanks for the fascinating, logical, & insightful review John.
Steve Silberman said…
John, I'm curious - why do you say that talking about brains over minds is "more correct"? Isn't the truth surely both, with different brains giving rise to different minds? Why do you prefer talking about brains?
John Robison said…
Hmmmm, Well, what I meant to suggest my "more correct" is that the behaviors of autism are shaped by what is, in the end, a set of physical differences in the brain.

The mind - which runs on the hardware of the brain - may be influenced by structure (like in autism) but it's also shaped by experience (which creates work for therapists!)

I think tying an autistic behavior to a structural difference (as opposed to leaving the door open to learned behavior, refrigerator mothers, etc) is a more accurate or correct way to see things.

PM said…
Hi John,

Temple also talks about two different kinds of visual thinking too. The pattern/spatial and the object/picture. That is great and I wonder if you see yourself as the pattern/spatial or the object/picture. I'm interested in cars but am an object/picture thinker more strongly but would like to learn more about electronics. Do you think the stronger picture thinker could get to know electronics by 'seeing' them or does one absolutely have to be the pattern/spatial type of visual thinker to gain an intimate understanding of electronics.

PM said…
Oh, thank you for reading my comment.
Anonymous said…
Looking forward to meeting Professor Grandin at the Chicago humanities festival this fall. Agree with everything John said.

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