Machines and Mentors: Response to Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin is an extraordinary person by any measure. A world expert on animal science, industrial design, and engineering, Grandin has achieved a level of academic and professional success higher than any of us can reasonably hope for ourselves. She’s written both scholarly papers and popular books, and her designs for the livestock industry are used around the world. In Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, Grandin explores how her her unique way of thinking and being in the world have helped her to understand her own successes and challenges in life.

As I read chapter after chapter of Grandin’s, Thinking in Pictures, I found myself encountering a narrative style that was unique to me. Though it’s subtitled “my life with autism,” Grandin’s own personal narrative frequently falls out of focus for long periods of the book. Indeed, rather than focusing on her personal narrative as the central structuring feature, as many memoirists would, Grandin focuses the chapters on aspects of autistic life and experience more generally. It often feels much more like a book about autism, with her own life offered as one rich example of an autistic. So each chapter contains one part Grandin’s life story, one part literature review from clinical autism research, and one part storytelling from her knowledge of autism memoirs and her personal interactions on national tours talking about autism.

One challenge of this approach is that she does not always telegraph her transition between these components very clearly–as a result, within a single paragraph she might discuss her own childhood autism symptoms, clinical studies on verbal development, and advice for teachers, all without any clear transition. The effect of each chapter is cumulative, drawing together various strands to represent an aspect of autistic life as an impressionistic whole. Because autism is so many things, and because knowledge about it comes from so many different sources, this panoramic view substitutes for declarative statements about what autism is or is universally like. The effect in the memoir is mesmerizing, and it encourages me as a reader to be pliable and to follow Grandin’s lead to more fully understand different ways of being in the world.

Thinking back to my discussion of G Thomas Couser’s work on disability memoirs, I have been trying to decide where Grandin’s memoir would fit in terms of the rhetoric of disability. What is Grandin trying to achieve in this work? Is it politically efficacious for disabled people?

It seems to me that much of Grandin’s work is aimed at helping neurotypical (NT) people understand autism in all its complexity–seeing the beauty and possibilities of autistic experience as well as the realistic challenges. She does not sugar-coat the hard parts about being autistic in a NT world. (The opposing term to NT is neurodiverse or ND.) But I am left with the feeling that the main aim of this book is to encourage NT people to embrace autistic ways of being as valuable. In this regard, Grandin must dispel prejudices against autistic people as hopeless, pitiable, and deficient. Instead, she offers ways for NT people to imagine autistic people as employable contributers to society, if only they would be adequately taught, supported, and respected for who they are (rather than rejected for who they are not).

In her chapter “The Ways of the World: Developing Autistic Talent” Grandin talks about the unique challenges people on the spectrum face in achieving academic and professional success. Again, this chapter does many things at once. It’s one of the most straightforwardly autobiographical chapters, following Grandin’s education and professional development from her when she entered formal education in a preK program for the hearing impaired and brain damaged to her present day, working as an academic, public lecturer, and freelance consultant for the livestock industry. Using evidence from her own experience, she argues for the importance of personal mentorship for autistic people, especially from those who are willing to try to understand autistic difference, rather than simply normalize it. For instance, Grandin’s high school science teacher did not discourage her fixation on cattle behavior; instead, he encouraged her to dive deeper into this obsession, to become an expert, and to pursue higher education as a way to learn even more about the topic. At the same time, this mentor helped her navigate the difficult social landscape of NT high school life: Mr Carlock’s science lab was a refuge from a world I did not understand” (107).

Grandin extrapolated this experience to talk more broadly about how autistic talent can be encouraged at school. One general principle is that fixations (a typical feature of ASD diagnosis) should not be treated as a problem to be corrected; instead mentors and teachers should try to find ways to help autists pursue their fixations in productive ways. For instance, if someone is fixated on boats, Granding thinks teachers should use the fixation to get the student interested in math, physics, design, and engineering principles. She also sees the rise of computer and internet-related fixations as a potential boon for autistic people, since jobs in the tech sector tend to accept people on the spectrum more readily than other industries, and programming skills are highly valued at the moment.

At the same time that Grandin finds rewarding intellectual pursuits to motivate her involvement in the academic and professional worlds, she also finds mentors willing to help her navigate social challenges she faces because of her autism. As she explains when discussing the rules of behavior at her rural liberal arts college, she had to learn social behaviors through explicit heuristics, making rules about what could and could not be done in a college environment. (She calls the arbitrary taboo rules “sins of the system,” for instance the high stakes rules against having sex or smoking in the dorms.)

Indeed, this is the second part of the importance of mentorship for Grandin: at the same time as good mentors are able to recognize and foster talent in autistic people, they also need to provide direct social instruction to help them understand how to interact with NT people. For Grandin, what’s important is understanding that as an autistic person who thinks in pictures rather than in verbal language, she literally thinks differently from those around her. That knowledge allows her (and other autistic people she advises) to be more cognizant of their differences and to anticipate how NT people will perceive them. Again, citing her own experience, Grandin attests to the importance of mentors who help her to understand appropriate personal demeanor, grooming, speech in school and workplace settings. If autistic people had better access to this kind of responsive and thorough mentorship, she argues, they would be more able to succeed professionally, as she has.

While she names the real challenges autistic people face in succeeding in the professional world, she also sees autism as a source of power:

In some ways, I credit my autism for enabling me to understand cattle. After all, if I hadn’t used the squeeze chute on myself, I might not have wondered how it affected cattle. I have been lucky, because my understanding of animals and visual thinking led me to a satisfying career in which my autistic traits don’t impede my progress. But at numerous meetings around the country I have talked to many adults with autism who have advanced university degrees but no jobs. They thrive in the structured world of school, but they are unable to find work. Problems often occur at the outset. Often during interviews, people are turned off by our direct manner, odd speech patterns, and funny mannerisms. (111)

This passage has interesting implications for my thinking about access for ND people in higher education, and it also has compelling activist overtones on the most practical level. She claims that for some people on the spectrum, the regimented social conventions of academic life provide a level of stability that is useful. However, interviews and other Kairotic exchanges (I’ll talk about this more soon when I write about Margaret Price’s book about mental disability and academic life) put ND people at a disadvantage, exposing them to impediments based on NT prejudice. Rather than focusing on autistic deficiency, however, she aims her message at her NT audience:

Employers who hire people with autism must be aware of their limitations. Autistic workers can be very focused on their jobs, and an employer who creates the right environment will often get superior performence from them. But they must be protected from social situations they are unable to handle. (114)

I want to think more about Grandin’s take on activism in this book. She herself is a highly verbal, emenently successful autistic person; and yet she speaks with great certaintly about the limitations of people on the more severe end of the spectrum, as she does in this passage. Another moment at the end of that chapter confronts this issue directly. Talking about the ND movement, she acknowledges that drives to “cure” autism would remove from the human population important forms of creativity and genius. However, she also says “In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive.”  (122) This is not a stance that sits well with my perspective of disability activism or what I’ve learned from disability studies. It seems like Grandin’s activism might be limited only to the most capable people on the spectrum; that since her message is aimed at NT employers, educators, and parents, she does not have an answer for how to imagine life for severely disabled people in the workforce or in schools. I’m not sure where this observation will take me, but I don’t think I can leave severely impaired people out of my thinking. A thread to chase later.

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