News Column

Temple Grandin on 'Autistic Brain'

May 9, 2013

In a high-tech MRI scan, the wiring that makes Temple Grandin's brain unique shows up in vibrant colors.

Grandin, a well-known author who has autism, has four times the typical number of connections in a brain area that controls the visual system. That may explain why she goes through life Thinking in Pictures, as her 1996 book described.

She has fewer brain connections than most people in an area linking what we hear with what we say, perhaps typical for people with autism, who often struggle to communicate.

In a new book, The Autistic Brain, she explains what she's learned in recent years about her brain and the brains of others with autism.

"I wanted to talk about the different kinds of minds," she says.

She offers an in-depth description of the High Definition Fiber Tracking that let her to see how her brain connections differ from most people's.

These insights weren't surprises: "They validated things a good teacher would pick up in the classroom."

But if discovered in a small child, they might be very important for targeting therapy to specific needs, says Walter Schneider, the University of Pittsburgh psychologist who ran the scans of Grandin's brain.

Grandin, 65, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, is considered an important voice on autism because of her ability to describe her experience to a mainstream audience. Based in Fort Collins, she "basically lives on the road" for her two careers. She has six previous books on autism and is the subject of a 2010 TV movie, Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes.

"I think she deserves a tremendous amount of credit for focusing on science as a way to understand autism and improve the lives of individuals with autism," says Joy Hirsch, a Yale University neuroscientist whose work Grandin cites.

Her early books also helped bring awareness to the needs of autistic adults at a time when many considered autism a childhood condition.

Thanks to Grandin, "today, we are seeing a new generation of autistic activists, who can take awareness as a given and focus instead on the social, political and economic barriers to our full integration and acceptance by society," says Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network for autistic adults.

In the new book, Grandin highlights the need for more job training for teens on the autism spectrum.

She says she sees students who "graduate from college, and they've never had a job. They haven't learned the discipline of work" or the fact that some parts of it will be boring.

She suggests that at around age 12, autistic kids be given jobs suited to their interests and skills, such as dog-walking or fixing computers. "I'm seeing too many kids getting so addicted to video games that they're not doing anything else."

More emphasis is needed on what people with autism do well, she says.

Grandin says she can envision objects from many angles, like a 3-D computer program. This is a huge strength when designing humane animal-slaughtering facilities -- her career since long before she became an autism celebrity. Grandin says she has always been able to "see" how cattle chutes should be designed to keep animals from getting too scared.

She used to think everyone with autism saw in pictures the way she does. But in talking to others on the spectrum, she discovered that some think differently, such as in mathematical patterns or in words.

Everyone has strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. But people with autism tend to have extremes, she says. They're particularly skilled at one way of seeing the world and truly terrible at others. Her weakness, she admits, was algebra.

Even though communication or social skills with autism may be below average, having a person on a team who can think like she does could be a huge asset, she observes.

She would never have designed the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan with backup generators in a basement. By flying over it in her mind, she says, she would have immediately seen that it was vulnerable to flooding seawater. A tsunami after a major earthquake disabled three reactors, causing a nuclear accident in March 2011.

"There are certain kinds of things I'm really good at," she says, "and we need the different kinds of minds to work together."

In her personal life, Grandin says she takes pleasure in movies, particularly Star Trek, and in lunches with her students and dean. What makes her happiest, she says in her characteristic slightly stiff tone, is knowing she's helping someone else.

"I get happy if I have a mom write to me and say, 'My kid went to college because of your book' ... (or) 'The movie really inspired me to work hard in school,'" she says. "That really turns me on."

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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