For the most part, Temple Grandin’s autobiographical work of non-fiction, Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports form My Life with Autism, functions as a case study in which the author delves into many different aspects of living with autism. She cites examples of other autistic individuals and provides a bevy of additional research and authors to support many of her observations. However, the majority of her observations predominantly revolve around her own life experience of living with this condition for nearly 50 years (at the time of initial publication). The principle theme which ties together many of Grandin’s revelations relating to various forms of behavior, thought, and emotion that are attributed to autism is distinctly neurological. The author reveals that people without autism typically have a verbal thought process, whereas she and other autistic people think in images.
Her thesis is extremely convincing based on the evidence she offers from her own life. The author reveals the fact that she traditionally struggled in school and with the learning process (being placed in special education) until she became acutely aware of the difference in her mode of thinking, and was able to exploit it to her advantage to reveal her considerable intellect. From a basic, functional level, this revelation regarding her propensity for thinking in pictures helped to catapult her development. It is critical to note the role that both traditional educators and family members played in helping her realize she thinks via pictures and uses the process of association to garner true meaning from words. Her mother supplemented the author’s formal education with thirty minutes of reading a day, and was given free license by a neurologist to follow her own instincts in helping Grandin to accommodate for her differences in learning.
Interestingly enough, however, the principle problem Grandin had to overcome related to her autism was not related to her education but rather to her tactile relationship with others and the world at large. The author always had a severe aversion to hugs due to the fact that they significantly contributed to a sensation of overstimulation. Moreover, such physical contact made her yearn for her preferred form of contact, a sort of uniform pressure on her body in confined spaces. The effects of such pressure eventually helped to alleviate some of the severe anxiety Grandin occurred due to her different means of socializing, behavior, and communicating with individuals—which was exacerbated by a dearth of comprehension of non-verbal cues, a trait that is common in autistic individuals.
Aside from realizing that she is a visual thinker and that the power of association could aid her ability to learn and to function in society at large (let alone read), the other biggest revelation that impacted Grandin’s life was visiting an aunt in Arizona who had a ranch in which there was a squeezing contraption for cattle. It is difficult to determine which of these epiphanies produced a more profound effect on the author, although she definitely observed aspects of the former while engaged in the latter experience. In addition to starting her on her life’s path of working with and designing facilities for cattle, Grandin’s witnessing of the aforementioned contraption motivated her to build one for herself at home. The therapeutic effects of such a machine not only helped to alleviate her anxiety, but also served as a starting point for designing additional machinery which she would continue to do professionally. More importantly, her experience on the ranch among the animals (particularly the cattle) allowed her to discern certain similarities of perceptions between them, herself, and other autistic people, which would influence her to labor in animal rights and on the behalf of autistic people as well.
The true value of this manuscript, of course, is not just the revelatory information that helped to inform and ameliorate the author’s life, but the connections she draws between them and their use for autistic people in general. As such, she covers a wide variety of aspects of life that are inherently different for autistic individuals than those without them. The principle point of commonality in the advice that Grandin gives for these various aspects of life that are connected by autism is that the most important aspect for accommodating this condition is to be cognizant and educated about its myriad manifestations. The author eschews the notion of a panacea, and advocates utilizing a number of correctives to individual symptoms that provide a synthesized approach to solving differences associated with autism. For instance, she extolls the virtues of medication (particularly anti-depressants and anti-anxiety substances) when used in combination with the other approaches pertaining to awareness and education about autism. She also recommends individuals to get around perceived social barriers by making friends and developing intimacies with people in their own area of specialty. Another example is music therapy.
I think Grandin’s narrative provides a good deal of fresh insights regarding autism and a fair amount of hope in dealing with it as well. In my opinion, its primary benefit is in urging autistic individuals to utilize a holistic approach to dealing with their condition. I think she also provides a fair amount of evidence that autism is simply a difference in cognition, emotional intelligence and in behavior, and is not a disability. She provides plenty of examples of creative, accomplished people who are autistic, including some extremely famous and wealthy personages. I believe the persistence and the perseverance with which she dealt with her condition is inspirational, especially for those who may be dealing with autism or who have a family member who is. By utilizing her life as a case study from which others can learn from, Grandin provides a great service with Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports form My Life with Autism. As such, it was an enjoyable book to read.
Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism. New York: Vintage Press.