The Autistic Brain

An absorbing and fascinating book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum should be read by anyone in education. The latest work of the famous Temple Grandin, a well-known autistic biology professor, explores not only autism as a disorder of the mind but also autism as a disorder of the brain. For what it’s worth, I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Andrea Gallo. I’m not sure which of the many people named Andrea Gallo this might be, so I won’t comment on the narrator other than to say that she does a convincing job of portraying Temple Grandin, even though it’s very clearly a different voice from her own.

This book contains a lot of fascinating material about the history of the DSM — at least fascinating to those of us in related fields — as well as some great information about the emerging brain science of autism and Asperger’s. I had long wondered why such a high-functioning person with autism as Grandin was labeled as such, rather than as a person with Asperger’s, but Grandin explains very clearly how her language delay as a child led to the diagnosis. I was also wondering what the effect of the disappearance of Asperger’s in DSM 5 would be, and Grandin deals with that issue with passion and clarity. She convincingly explores the issue of the strengths vs. the deficits of autism, as well as the vexing issue of the entire autism spectrum. Many of us — perhaps most of us — have certain features of the spectrum in our behavior and our thinking, but that doesn’t make us autistic. It’s a very complicated matter, and the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of the brain are helping us begin to understand it. I have long wondered why some of my students are diagnosed with autism, some with Asperger’s, and many who might have either are diagnosed with neither; The Autistic Brain gives us a head-start in understanding the issue.

One more point: I was particularly struck by Grandin’s useful explanation of visual thinkers, “word thinkers,” and pattern thinkers. In her earlier book, Thinking in Pictures, she believed that everyone with autism is a visual thinker — like her. Soon after that book was published, she realized from the responses to it that she had been wrong. Only some autistics are visual thinkers. Unlike many psychological divisions of Gaul into three parts, this one comes with neurological underpinnings, as shown by MRIs and fMRIs of Grandin and others, both autistic and neurotypical. The distinction isn’t a simplistic one — it’s not that you’re all one type and completely not another — and it’s certainly possible to mix two types. For instance, Grandin identifies her co-author, Richard Panek, as having a combination of word and pattern thinking. “That’s me too,” I thought.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning