Temple Grandin on her new book, the autistic brain and the danger of DSM diagnoses

Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism in 1950. And as she explains, that was a good time to be diagnosed: just a decade later, the conversation about the neural development disorder turned to blaming mothers for their children's different patterns of thinking. But Grandin's different patterns of thinking has resulted in a long and well-respected career: inventing the "hug box," a machine to calm autistic children; publishing multiple books; teaching at Colorado State University; consulting with the livestock industry about animal behavior. She was even the subject of a 2010 film about her life starring Claire Danes. Grandin will read from and sign her newest book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, at 7:30 p.m. tonight, June 27 at the Tattered Cover LoDo. In advance of that appearance, we caught up with the influential author to talk about her new book, different types of autistic brains, and the dangers of DSM diagnoses.

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Westword: What made you want to write your new book, The Autistic Brain?

Temple Grandin: I read a lot of new material on the different types of minds, the visual thinking and mathematical thinking, and I had scientific research that I'd discovered that actually backed up my observations on the two different kinds of minds. Also, there was a whole history of the diagnosis -- there are a lot of young parents now coming in who don't know anything about that history and I can give them insight to understand that. Those would be two really big reasons. Also, I just really wanted to talk about my own odyssey of doing brain scans.

What made you want to share your own brain scans in the book?

When people ask me why I would even want to do this, it's exploring. Why do people want to have a space station? It's exploration. People like to find out about new stuff. I wanted to just find out.

What did you find out?

Well, I found out a lot of things. I found out I've got circuits for visual thinking. I found out why I'm so bad at algebra. I found out why my balance isn't so wonderful. Those are a few things I found out. But also these things, I want to emphasize, are very variable and what was shown in mine isn't necessarily what's going to be in somebody else's.

Can you explain what you mean by mathematical versus visual thinking brains?

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Basically, the kind of thinker I am, I'm a photorealistic visual thinker. Everything I think about is a picture. I had a terrible time with algebra. The math kind of thinker is one of the pattern-thinking minds: This is the kind of person who knows where things are in space. They don't think in photorealistic pictures. These are the people who are going to be good at computer programming and mathematics and engineering. One thinks in photographs and the other thinks more in patterns. Those are the basic differences.

In the book you warn against the way the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) labels people. Can you discuss that?

One of the things on the DSM is it's changed a great deal over the years. You know, these diagnoses are basically behavioral profiles and people treat them as if they're accurate, like a diagnosis for tuberculosis is accurate. And I think it's important for people to see the history of this. They've taken Asperger's out, which has a lot of people upset because these are the people who are kind of socially awkward, but they have no speech delay.

How has the DSM's definition of autism changed over the years? Well, it's changed a whole lot over the years. When it first started back in the '60s, they thought everything was psychologically caused and then in the '80s they kind of made the diagnosis more definitive, where you had to have speech delay before thirty months, plus other symptoms, to be labeled autistic. Then in the early '90s they added Asperger's, where you no longer had to have speech delay, so that broadened the definition of autism. And then in the 2013 version they took Asperger's out; I think they narrowed the definition some. Some of it has to do with trying to cut back on the amount of services they gotta provide. See, the thing is the DSM is probably half-science and half-committees bickering over what the diagnosis should be.

What were you surprised to learn when researching the book?

I knew the diagnoses had changed over the years, but until I worked on the book I had not seen the changes laid out right there in front of me, all together where I could see them, and I kind of went, wow, this has changed a lot. That was sort of a wake-up call. The other thing that I was really happy to find when I was researching the book was that the visual thinking, like me, and the mathematical thinking, I had observed this and I found scientific studies that showed that this absolutely is true. I was really, really happy for that. Also, I've got a big section in the book on sensory issues and sensory issues are often overlooked and they can be very, very debilitating for people. They'd be something that I'd put a top priority on.

In the beginning of the book, you state that you were fortunate to have been born in 1947. Why did you say that?

Well, the reason I said that is that, see, in the '60s there was a big thing where they were blaming mothers for causing autism, which is absolute nonsense, and fortunately by being diagnosed ten years earlier my mother wasn't subjected to all that right when I was a young child. It was a horrible guilt trip that got put on mothers, and that rubbish didn't get started really hot and heavy until the '60s. So that was one of the reasons why I was fortunate.

How do you think that our society can better nurture autistic children?

Well, you know, autism is a very big spectrum. On one end of the spectrum you've got Einstein, who had no speaking delay. On the other end of the spectrum you've got a child that's never gonna get language. It's a very diverse spectrum, and that makes it hard for teachers to sometimes deal with. One thing is the same: if you've got a child with no language, every expert will agree the best thing you can do is hours and hours of early educational intervention. Then when you get past that age, you kind of diverge into a fully verbal group and a much more severe group. The little kids, everyone agrees, you've got to do intervention, but let's say they get older, you take kids that are more like me, that are fully verbal, you need to be developing their area of strength. I was good at art and that was always always encouraged. Build on the kid's area of strength. He's good at math, let's build on math. Don't have him, if he's good at math, make him do the same baby math over and over again. Let him do more advanced math. When I was a little kid I had no language until age three and a half to four.

Another thing is I have a big section in the book on employment. These kids that are kind of different, they need to learn work skills. That needs to start around twelve years old with walking dogs, maybe be a volunteer tour guide at the museum, and I have a list of jobs in there for people who are visual thinkers like me, things like graphic design, industrial design, animation, photography. Jobs for the pattern thinkers like the engineers, computer programmers. And jobs for word thinkers, things like specialty retail, record keeping jobs, accounting jobs.

What do you hope that people take away from reading the book?

Well, I hope they're gonna understand there are different kinds of minds, that different kinds of minds are good at doing different things, and I want to say, especially as I get more and more concerned about the kids who are kind of like me, I see too many kids who are kind of quirky, they're kind of different, and they're not going anywhere because nobody's working to develop their strengths -- and those kids who are kind of different, they get different labels, too, other than autism: dyslexia, ADHD, and whatnot. I want to see them get out and get good careers and have a good life.

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