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An Autistic Mind Opens Mine (Can It Open Yours?)

Temple Grandin's understanding of the autistic brain gives me pause for thought.

“When I didn’t want to go to movie night

[at boarding school], they made me the projectionist." – Temple Grandin

“When I didn’t want to go to movie night

I saw the extraordinary Dr. Temple Grandin speak last night. She's touring in support of her new book, The Autistic Brain:Thinking Across the Spectrum.

Grandin is a scientist, author, and teacher who also is autistic, growing up long before the condition even had a name. Grandin's specialty is animal behavior, but she is probably most famous as a spokesperson and advocate for people with autism. Insightful and entertaining, she has acted as an interpreter of the autistic brain for the rest of the world.

In her most recent book, Grandin shares not only what she knows about her own brain, but also other brains on the spectrum. For example, although she's a visual thinker, she has come to understand that other people with autism might be auditory thinkers or verbal thinkers or even other kinds of visual thinkers--some think in objects, some think spatially. Autism is not monolithic. It is a condition of degrees, and many variations.

Yes it is biological, but Grandin used an excellent analogy about the effect of genes on individuals, comparing it to a music mixing board with sliders that are set to our own individual amounts of, say, anxiety, spatial awareness, depression, verbal ability and all the other bazillion qualities that make each of us who we are.

Grandin's soapbox last night was that people with autism fall all along the spectrum, and that the limitations people with autism face range from terrible handicaps to barely any. TI and NASA are full of people on the spectrum, she joked (but wasn't kidding). And she pointed out that Steve Jobs had personal hygiene issues early on, just as she did. (She said she's still grateful to the boss who, early in her career, slammed a stick of deodorant on her desk and ordered her to use it.)

All kinds of thinkers are necessary in our world, Grandin said, adding that her visual thinking would have allowed her to see the risks built into the Fukushima power plant in Japan before disaster struck. And so, she said, the best thing to do is not just to label people and tuck them in a safe place, but help people (and especially kids) all along the spectrum succeed by working with the way they think and operate, making sure they engage with the world on terms that make sense for them.

Isn't that kind of what we've been talking about here in The Introvert's Corner?

I came away from Grandin's talk more intrigued than ever by the possibility that introversion is on the nonclinical end of the autism spectrum.

Nonclinical. Before you get huffy, note that word: nonclinical. By that I mean there's nothing "wrong" with it. Nonclinical would mean we just function in a particular way, and that's the way we are. On the far other end of the spectrum, the clinical end, are people with serious autism; even Grandin acknowledges the huge challenges faced by people on that end of the spectrum.

But getting back to the quote above, about being the projectionist. This was an anecdote Grandin shared as an example of how people pushed her to interact with the world in ways that suited her brain. Doesn't that sound familiar? We've talked at length about the kinds of little tasks we take on when we have to enter difficult (for us) social situations. Being the kitchen elf during parties by getting people drinks, refilling the chips bowl, and wiping down counters, for example. One introvert described how he appointed himself official photographer for his high school reunion, which allowed him to interact in a way that took a lot of pressure off. We absorb ourselves in things like jigsaw puzzles or knitting during long social events, like family-togetherness weekends.

Do you see what I mean?

I'm stretching here of course, weaving together some pretty loose threads. I'm a writer and a blatherer, not a scientist. But here's something else that got me thinking: Grandin showed images of her own brain when she was looking at people, and looking at things. Clearly, more of her brain engaged when she was looking at things than at people.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo on my Facebook page taken while I was killing time in an introvert-ish way, sitting on the National Mall in Washington DC watching people go by. Being a flaneur. And a woman commented that she noticed I took photos of people from behind, and that someone once told her that introverts photograph things while extroverts photograph people.

So interesting. I have no research to back this up, but this is true of me. When I'm not being a professional introvert, I'm a professional travel writer, and I take photos to illustrate my stories. Much to my editors' frustration (I think) I am drawn more to landscapes, to interesting light, to pattern and perspective than to people.

In fact, one particularly popular genre of travel photo, the tight close-up of the face of an exotic person, leaves me cold. I rarely see anything more interesting in that person's eyes than I would see in, for example, a broader photo of people going about their business in an outdoor market. (I talk about this sort of thing more in the essay that launched my career as a professional introvert, Confessions of an Introverted Traveler.)

All this of course proves nothing, but it bears thinking about (in whatever way you think best) because it cracks open a door to entirely new ways of understanding perception, autism, teaching, learning, how we work within the parameters of our own special style of introversion, and much more.

I've heard from people who are offended by the suggestion that introversion is on the spectrum. I'm sorry they feel that way. I find it exciting to think that if we put ourselves on the spectrum and start perceiving the ways our brains work differently, we will eliminate a lot of the stigma attached to neurological differences and tap into an entire population of people who see things differently.

What you think?

By the way, Grandin's books are fascinating, and the movie Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes is fabulous. Grandin herself loves it. Also, if you've ever heard of the Thundershirt, which helps anxious dogs calm down--it is a descendant of Grandin's insights into her own sensory needs. Read Thinking in Pictures and you'll see what I mean. Also, the Thundershirt helps my nervous Nellie of a dog when storms roll in.


Do you have my book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, yet? No? Well, you really must take a look. Sez me. And please join me on Facebook.

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