Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Thinking in Pictures

By Temple Grandin
ISBN 0-679-77289-8

Reviewed by Marty N.

It begins with "A." It runs in families. Its cause is unknown. Blood tests and similar diagnostic technology can't identify it; the diagnosis is solely behavioral. It's often seen together with depression and other disorders. It was long believed psychiatric in origin, caused by frigid mothering and an excess of stubborn, antisocial character traits. Those who have it are typically wrapped up in themselves, incapable of seeing the other person's viewpoint, given to outbursts of rage but rarely capable of empathy. They are emotionally immature and low in social skills. They are apt to disregard authority and manners, to be dirty, disheveled and rude of speech. The disorder often afflicts persons of above-average intelligence. If not addressed, it may prove totally disabling. There is a great range of presentations. There is no cure; and treatment has confounded experts for many decades. Recovery means learning to identify one's personal triggers, to become attuned to one's bodily and mental warning signs, to experiment with lifestyle, diet, exercise and sometimes medications until something works. Relapse is common and progress is slow. With proper treatment and by taking advantage of support groups, persons who have it can lead productive lives and even make outstanding contributions to society.
No, it's not alcoholism or addiction. Temple Grandin's Thinking in Pictures is the story of her childhood and life with autism. I want to thank Claudia P. of the email list for recommending this book to me. I know a few things about substance abuse but knew nothing about autism beyond what was shown in The Rain Man. I found the book a fascinating education about a neighboring disorder and an inspiring story of personal recovery.

Instead of dwelling on her defects, Grandin took what she was handed and made lemonade. She was almost incapable of verbal thinking, but excelled at visual and spatial thought. She was extremely fearful around people and incapable of catching on to the flow of human emotions; but she discovered that she felt peaceful around cattle and excelled at understanding the perceptions and feelings of cows, sheep and other prey mammals. She was appalled at the stupidity and cruelty with which cattle were being handled in much of the meatpacking industry. Impassioned by the cause of improving the animals' treatment, she developed a career designing better cattle handling equipment in feedlots and slaughterhouses. To get there, she had to break the gender barrier in the industry, becoming the first woman in the feedlots and slaughterhouses and paving the way for many others. She worked with single-minded devotion and energy, amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and of animal-handling equipment. She became a great success in her field. Today more than one third of the cattle in the U.S. packing industry are processed in equipment Grandin designed. She divides her time between consulting in the cattle-handling industry and lecturing about autism.

For the alcoholic and addict in recovery, there are wonderful insights in Grandin's story. She is a strong believer in focusing on the positive. "I think there is too much emphasis on deficits and not enough emphasis on developing abilities," she writes. She found it liberating to recognize that the various psychiatric, psychological and moralistic theories of autism were nonsense; that her problems "weren't the result of my weakness or lack of character," and that the problem lies in the neurochemistry of the brain, particularly the limbic system.

Grandin believes that the perceived defects of many autistic people, such as becoming fixated on a subject, can be turned into assets by cultivating a deep knowledge of a subject area and becoming expert in it. She praises the Internet as a wonderful medium of communication and growth for people with impaired social skills and emotional deficits. She accepts her emotional limitations ("I don't know what a deep relationship is") and, like Einstein, she derives joy and even sensuous pleasure from a successful new insight or design. She wastes no time bemoaning her verbal deficits, but instead celebrates her visual capabilities. Deeply engaged in the daily business of conveying thousands of her hoofed soul-mates to their deaths, she says she lives each day all out, as if it were her last. Incapable of an emotional religious faith, but made anxious by the thought of an unordered universe, she constructs a notion of an impersonal God out of some hypotheses of quantum mechanics, which amount to the belief that all things are interconnected and that what goes around comes around. She disbelieves in an afterlife, and sees that immortality is achieved in this world only by the effect that one's thoughts and actions have on other people.

Thank you, Claudia, for leading me to this book. As a person preoccupied with issues of alcoholism and other chemical dependency, I sometimes get tunnel vision and forget about the many, many other disorders and disabilities in the world. The story of Grandin's education about the physiological basis of her disability and her liberation from moralistic thinking, her unfailing concentration on the positive, and her tremendous grit in the face of opposition, recalled the story of Helen Keller and had a similar moving effect on me. It is good from time to time to put alcoholism in its perspective. On the scale of disabilities and disorders, addiction is one of the most hopeful. Unlike Grandin, once we get started we can expect to recover complete cognitive and emotional functioning, often rather quickly; and the inability to drink or use drugs at all, which remains our lifelong burden, is a trivial deficit in the grand scale of things. Certainly a timely book for Thanksgiving!

No comments: