More intriguing insights on autism from Temple Grandin

When I first started researching autism on-line back around 1993, I remember a discussion between autistics and parents of newly diagnosed autistic children in which the autistic participants were complaining about being treated as if they were animals that merely needed to receive the proper training. (An ABA discussion, perhaps, I don’t really remember.) And the parents saying something along the lines of “we just want our kids to be normal, or at least be able to function in a normal world.” *

This on-line discussion came to mind when I read Sentient Developments: Temple Grandin: Animals are autistic, in which George Dvorsky provides a summary of some key points from Temple Grandin‘s latest book, Animals in Translation : Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, as well as the Scientific American review of the book, from which the following is excerpted:

In Animals in Translation, co-authored with science writer Catherine Johnson, Grandin makes an intriguing argument that, psychologically, animals and autistic people have a great deal in common—and that both have mental abilities typically underestimated by normal people. The book is a valuable, if speculative, contribution to the discussion of both autism and animal intelligence, two subjects on which there is little scientific consensus.

Autistics, in Grandin’s view, represent a “way station” between average people, with all their verbal and conceptual abilities, and animals. In touring animal facilities, Grandin often spots details—a rattling chain, say, or a fluttering piece of cloth—that disturb the animals but have been overlooked by the people in charge.

She also draws on psychological studies to show how oblivious humans can be to their surroundings. Ordinary humans seem to be less detail-oriented than animals and autistics. Grandin argues that animals have formidable cognitive capabilities, albeit specialized ones, whereas humans are cognitive generalists. Dogs are smell experts, birds are migration specialists, and so on. In her view, some animals have a form of genius—much as autistic savants can perform feats of memory and calculation far beyond the abilities of average people. Some dogs, for example, can predict when their owner is about to have a seizure.

Almost the opposite of those discussions I mentioned.

I’m sure there are many people who will read this and have an immediately negative response to comparing autistics to animals, all but outright saying they are less than human (“way station” between ‘normal’ people and animals). To them I would say, “Stop trying to reading so much into it.” (What I would really mean is, “Stop being so normal.”)

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