Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin

I read this book after seeing an interview with the author on C-SPAN’s In Depth program a few weeks ago. She describes herself as a high-functioning autistic. If you get a chance to hear her speak, you should do it. She is unusually direct and unaffected. Grandin is now a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. The book is an unusual mix of autobiography and discussion of her work in designing structures for cattle and other livestock. She believes that her logical, unemotional way of experiencing the world, common for autistics, has helped her understand animals. If you admire the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, she was the “Anthropologist on Mars” (her own description of herself) that gave him the title for one of his books on unusual neurological cases.

She says that she is typical of many with autism in having a hypersensitivity to touch (others have it to light or sound). This can cause the autistic person to avoid making physical contact in order not to be overwhelmed with the sensation. Yet she needed the physical contact, or near to it, so she developed a “squeeze machine,” something out of Kafka in one of his more benign tales, in which she would lie while foam-covered plywood panels held her tight. A commercial version of this machine later went to market. Grandin used this experience to come up with something similar for cattle on the way to a swim through the dip tank or to take a captive bolt in the head. She is gratified that she has found a way to make the animals’ last moments peaceful.

She does not easily understand verbal descriptions and instead thinks in pictures. Her memory is like a videotape that she can rewind and scan at leisure. She has found a career that matches her skills. She also tells some funny stories about her lack of social graces but recognizes her limitations and relates how she has worked to overcome them.

There are some chapters that don’t convince as well as others, notably one where she labels various historical figures as autistic, and another where she gives her opinions on which drugs work best on autistics. She has written several other books, which by their titles appear to go either in the autobiographical direction or the animal science direction.

The book is worthwhile to appreciate how someone with a disability actually can have some real strengths because of, not in spite of, that very disability. “If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not. Autism is part of who I am.”

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