The Autism Bookshelf: The Autistic Brain

 Like most of the book-reading public, it’s not often I get to discuss a book with its author. In my case, I don’t get out to book signings all that much, and even if I did, it’s hardly polite to hijack the line so I can yammer on forever. There’s also the fact that most of my favorite authors are retired or dead. Death is often a slight encumbrance to substantive discussion.

 

I was fortunate to make an exception last May, when on a trip to the Flying High With Autism conference in Pensacola, I got to meet the author of a book I had just finished. The book is The Autistic Brain, a heady tome that delves into the hard neurological science of autism, exploring brain imaging and genetics in an effort to further explain the many enigmas of autism. The author is Temple Grandin.

 

You understand, I’m sure, that Dr. Grandin has become the most famous leading voice of the autism community, and so not only meeting but having the opportunity to have a thorough discussion with her was quite an honor indeed. Having been featured in the title essay of Oliver Sacks’s idiosyncratic anthology An Anthropologist on Mars, she rose to fame with numerous bestsellers such as Thinking in Pictures, not to mention an eponymous biopic produced by Home Box Office. Her primacy in the community is such that it almost seems as if no essay or presentation can go without mentioning her, whether a further exploration of her work or just a quick tip of the hat to show that the author is indeed conversant with our most famous personage.

 

So when I was able to interview Dr. Grandin for a very special episode of I Am Autistic, I was able to gain insight into The Autistic Brain that I certainly would not have had otherwise. I became privy to some powerful feelings that weren’t communicated quite as strongly in the book’s pages. I discovered that things I thought I had right, I had wrong — surely the kind of face-to-face revelation a high school junior wishes he or she could have had after just missing the mark on an analysis of The Great Gatsby. It’s a conversation you can see for yourself on the channel. I can only hope that I didn’t appear too starstruck.

 

In the book, Dr. Grandin, in concert with author Richard Panek, explores autism and the fields of neurology and genetics in a way that the non-scholars among us can process and appreciate. Coincidentally, autism literature is a spectrum unto itself, ranging from warm-and-fuzzy personal tales to scholarly articles that will make a layperson’s eyes glaze over. As a layperson, I can attest. So it’s a matter of striking a delicate balance when one tries to bring the scientific to the masses, but fortunately, Grandin and Panek are able to do so, owing to a preference for plain speech and the use of bulletpoints and tables to break up and further simplify information for consumption.

 

An early chapter of the book discusses magnetic resonance imaging, and how the parts of the brain can elucidate the way we think and experience the world. For instance, Dr. Grandin discovered through her MRI that the left ventricle of her brain extends into her parietal cortex, possibly compromising her short-term memory. The amygdala, which is responsible for fear and aggression, is also larger in her brain than in the average brain. This, she postulates, could explain her lifelong anxiety, colorfully referring to herself and other similarly high-strung people with autism as a “big exposed nerve.” As someone who is indeed prone to high levels of anxiety (as well as depression, counterintuitive as it may sound), I appreciate this metaphor, which really is a great way of putting it. In my conversation with Dr. Grandin on I Am Autistic, I mused that it would really be something if we could make MRIs available to a large number of people on the spectrum, so we could really get down to a biological basis for why we are the way they are. She demurred, saying that all her MRI did for her was confirm things she already suspected or knew. I’d still volunteer, at any rate.

 

After the book explores genetic sequences and sensory processing, Grandin and Panek devote time to identifying and capitalizing upon the strengths of those with autistic brains. With the underemployment and unemployment levels of the autism-spectrum community, this is pertinent material. As many of us know, Dr. Grandin rose to prominence with her groundbreaking research in animal science, drafting a slaughterhouse that used circuitous pathways to reduce anxiety in cattle. This was something she did with her preternatural ability to think in pictures. But as I learned from the book and from my discussion, not all of us think in pictures — and it doesn’t mean we don’t have autism. Some of us think in patterns or systems. Others think in words and facts. If you haven’t guessed, I’m a word/fact person. Thinking in pictures? I can’t even assemble a tent.

 

The book discusses how autism informs these ways of seeing the world, and then identifies optimal occupations for each group. Picture thinkers are well-suited to jobs in everything from welding and HVAC to graphic design, to name a few. Pattern thinkers flourish in programming, engineering, or actuarial science. Word/fact thinkers may have futures in legal research, library science, and copy editing.

 

In the black and white of ink and paper, I found this to be a useful component of a useful book. It wasn’t until my interview with the author that I realized it was its key. With arguably the most passion and consternation of the evening’s chat, feelings I never could have picked up to such extents in my reading, Dr. Grandin lamented to me that too many kids on the spectrum were whiling away their hours merely playing video games when they could be developing them. People were pitying themselves for their shortcomings and paying no attention to their strengths. She repeated, her voice rising and quavering, that there were jobs out there for people on the spectrum. It was just a matter of getting the education for them and setting out to procure them.

 

Indeed, this section, taking the science of what goes on in our brains and applying it to our worlds, is the real core of The Autistic Brain. Provided you can invest the requisite time in a book that, despite the aforementioned plain English, still falls well short of breezy, it’s one I can wholeheartedly recommend, especially to parents with an adolescent on the spectrum getting ready to face the world in earnest. Just as the book takes a wealth of scientific information on neurology and genetics and arranges it into something all of us can read and use, people with autism need to take everything inside their own brains and share their gifts with the world, not only enriching a workplace or society but taking great steps toward self-sufficiency. After concluding my interview with Dr. Grandin and going through the subsequent postmortem chitchat with our assembled guests, she headed out the door, but not before turning back to me.

 

“What did you say your other job was?”

 

“Copywriter,” I quickly replied.

 

She nodded. “Good. That’s good for you,” and the door shut.

 

Right down to the very last moment of our interaction, it was all about jobs. You’ll come away from The Autistic Brain with a refresher or new knowledge on parts of the brain, or some insight on sensory processing, but you should find, as I did with a little help from the person who would know best, that this isn’t a book about having an autistic brain. It’s a book about using it.

 

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


Daniel Heinlein is the host of I Am Autistic, seen exclusively on The Autism Channel.