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Temple Grandin: What's Right With The Autistic Mind
By focusing on deficits, we overlook the strengths of brains built differently.

By Temple Grandin; Richard Panek Monday, Oct. 07, 2013

​When Jennifer Mcilwee Myers was 6 years old, she vowed she would learn the meaning of every word in the English language. That way, she reasoned, she could figure out all of human knowledge without having to ask anyone questions. But she soon encountered a problem that made her furious. Many of the words had the same meaning. Obese, portly, rotund--who needed all these words? Fat is fat. She took her complaint to her father, and he explained that the dictionary definition of a word is not necessarily the same as its emotional and social meaning. That day Jennifer began devoting herself to studying human behavior so she could communicate in a way that made sense to other people. Not until she was 27, however, did she finally find a language that made sense to her: computer coding. By the time she was diagnosed with Asperger's, at the age of 36, she was enjoying a long and lucrative career as a coder.

"The computer's just there," she explains. "It doesn't pick up on context. It doesn't care how I'm feeling. It doesn't care if my facial expression and body posture are correct. Exactly what I say is what it does."

Research and therapy have traditionally focused on understanding and compensating for cognitive problems in people with autism and related disorders--the strategy that Jennifer adopted on her own, starting at age 6. But this emphasis on what's wrong with the autistic brain has obscured a recognition of something just as important: what's right with it.

In 2007, researchers at the Rivière-des-Prairies hospital at the University of Montreal published a study showing that the measure of autistic intelligence depended on what tests the subjects were given. When children with autism took a test that depended on providing information they could have learned only through social interactions--for instance, "What is the thing to do if you find an envelope in the street that is sealed, addressed and has a new stamp on it?"--one-third qualified as "low functioning." Yet when the same subjects took a test that depended on providing only nonverbal information--arranging blocks into designs, for example--only 5% were labeled low-functioning. What's more, one-third qualified as having "high intelligence."

"We conclude," the Montreal group reported, "that intelligence has been underestimated in autistics."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that autism is a great thing and all people with autism should just sit down and celebrate our strengths. Instead, I'm suggesting that if we can recognize, realistically and on a case-by-case basis, what an individual's strengths are, we can better determine the future of the individual--a concern now more than ever, as the rate of autism diagnoses reaches record levels.

I also want to be clear that when I say strengths, I'm not talking about savant skills like those of Stephen Wiltshire, who needs only one helicopter tour of a city to draw the entire landscape down to the last window ledge, or Leslie Lemke, who needs to hear a piece of music only once to re-create it on the piano. Only about 10% of the tens of millions diagnosed as autistic belong in the savant category (though about half of savants are autistic).
So what strengths can we look for?

People with autism are really good at seeing details. Traditionally researchers have characterized an acute attention to detail as "weak central coherence"--a deficit. More informally, you could say that autistic people have trouble putting together the big picture or that they can't see the forest for the trees. Personally, I prefer the more neutral term local bias, because the autistic brain can be very good at seeing the trees.

Studies have repeatedly shown that people with autism perform better than neurotypicals (that is, people whose brains function in a more typical fashion) on embedded-figure tests--a variation on the old something's-hidden-in-the-picture game. This is certainly true for me. Several years ago, I took a test in which I had to look at large letters that were composed of smaller, different letters--for instance, a giant letter H that was built out of tiny F's. I then had to identify either the big letter or the little letter. I was much faster at identifying the little letters, a result that's far more common among autistics than among neurotypicals.
Perhaps this is why in my work with animals I can immediately spot the paper cup or hanging chain that's going to spook the cattle, while the neurotypicals all around me don't even notice it.

My tendency to see details before I see the big picture has always been a central feature in how I relate to the world. When I was a child, my favorite repetitive behavior was dribbling sand through my hands. I was fascinated with the shapes; each grain looked like a tiny rock. I felt like a scientist working with a microscope.

As I grew older, I learned to turn that way of thinking to my advantage. For my undergraduate honors thesis, I wanted to explore the subject of sensory interaction. How does a stimulus to one sense, like hearing, affect the sensitivity of other senses? I gathered more than 100 journal papers. Because my thinking is totally nonsequential, I had to develop a way to make sense of the research. Ultimately, I numbered every journal article, typed up the major findings on separate slips of paper and then organized those strips by topic on a huge bulletin board. In the end, after I had finished sorting all the strips of paper into different categories of information, I began to see how all the pieces fit together to form larger concepts.
The same was true for Michelle Dawson, the University of Montreal researcher who thought to question the conventional wisdom on autistic intelligence in the 2007 paper mentioned earlier. Dawson is autistic, and I think she was more likely to make her conceptual leap because she possessed a fine attention to detail. "Dawson's keen viewpoint keeps the lab focused on the most important aspect of science: data," Laurent Mottron, her frequent collaborator and the director of the autism program at Rivière-des-Prairies, wrote in a 2011 article in Nature. When other researchers look at her data about autistic strengths and say, "It's so good to see something positive!" she answers that she doesn't see it as positive or negative: "I see it as accurate."

Not long ago I was walking through the United Airlines terminal in Chicago, which has a glass roof. I looked up, and in my mind I saw various images: the greenhouse at my university, the Crystal Palace from the 1851 World's Fair in London, a botanical garden. These structures weren't the same shape as the airline terminal, but they were all in my "glass roof" file.

Then I saw Biosphere 2 in my mind, and I noticed the turrets in its structure. They reminded me of the turrets on the Hoover Dam. So I started seeing pictures of turrets: on a castle in Germany, on the Disney Fantasyland Cinderella Castle, on a military tank.
At that point, I could have gone either way. I could have continued to root around in my glass-roof file, or I could have strayed into the turret file. To an outsider, my thoughts might appear random, but to me, I'm simply selecting which file folder I want to explore.

I've often said that my brain works like a search engine. If you ask me to think about a certain topic, my brain will generate a lot of hits. It can also easily make connections that will get off the original topic pretty fast and go pretty far afield.
Myers, the computer coder, reports a similar experience. At her first internship, her supervisor asked her to create a program in a coding language she'd never used before. To his astonishment, she finished in an hour. "I didn't need to know the language," she explains. To someone who's not skilled in associative thinking, she says, the challenge to write in a new language sounds like, "Oh, I have to learn a new thing." That kind of thinker sees only the differences among languages. Not Jennifer. She sees the similarities. As she says, "You're just putting new words on the old thing."

I recently read a definition of creativity that made an impression on me: "a sudden, unexpected recognition of concepts or facts in a new relation not previously seen." I don't know if being autistic makes you fundamentally more creative, but I do think that being autistic makes a certain kind of creativity more likely to arise.

See enough trees and you'll eventually make out the forest. But the forest that the autistic brain winds up seeing might not look the same as the forest that the neurotypical brain sees.

In his book Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, John Elder Robison described this progression of creativity--one that led to his career creating sound effects and musical instruments and designing video games. He wrote that he first became interested in music as an adolescent because he was fascinated with the patterns that music waves made on an oscilloscope (a device that displays electric signs and lines and shapes on a small screen). "Each signal had its own unique shape," he wrote. These signals were the bottom-up details. He spent eight to 10 hours a day "absorbing music and unraveling how sound waves looked, and how electrical signals worked," he wrote. "I watched and listened and watched some more until my eyes and ears became interchangeable." Eventually, "I could look at a pattern on the scope and know what it sounded like, and I could listen to a sound and know what it looked like."

Then he was ready for the creative leap: "Every instrument had a distinct pattern ... With practice, I learned how to distinguish a passage played on an organ from the same music played on a guitar." He could "see" the sound waves and identify their idiosyncrasies, allowing him to design guitars and amplifiers of unprecedented subtlety.

This same sort of progression from bottom-up details to associations to creative breakthroughs led me to innovations in animal welfare that have greatly improved the cattle industry--for instance, curved cattle chutes, which take advantage of the natural behavior of cattle to go back to where they came from. The same progression led Myers from writing code to writing particularly insightful books about the autistic experience. For her, switching to nonfiction was just like learning a new computer language. "Download the data," she says. "Translate it into human."

I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't work on deficits. But the focus on deficits is so intense and so automatic that people lose sight of the strengths. I recently spoke to the director of a school for autistic children, and she mentioned that the school tries to match a student's strengths with internship or employment opportunities in the neighborhood. But when I asked her how the school identified the strengths, she immediately started talking about how they helped students overcome social deficits. If even the experts can't stop thinking about what's wrong, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism to think any differently?

For me, autism is secondary. My primary identity is as an expert on livestock. Autism is part of who I am, but I won't allow it to define me. Some people's difficulties are simply too severe for them to ever have the same opportunities I have. But for so many people on the spectrum, identifying their strengths can change their lives. Instead of only accommodating their deficits, they can cultivate their dreams.

Adapted from The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)