Posted by David
Temple Grandin with Horse
We just watched a movie about Dr. Temple Grandin, the famous autistic woman who specializes in ‘thinking in pictures’ and thinking like cattle. I have read about her before in a book called An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sachs. It’s a fascinating book.
What struck me about the movie was that supposedly she had photographic memory. Really? In years past, I haven’t believed that people could actually have photographic memory. I’ve thought the phenomenon to be either a lie or just a self-misrepresentation, i.e., one might think that they have photographic memory, but that they are actually just really good either at using mnemonic devices or at visualizing.
When I was younger my dad would say that he couldn’t see things in his head, something I also couldn’t believe. I thought that actually he could see things, but just fuzzy and probably no more fuzzy than most other people. I now believe he might not consciously be able to see things, but that he processes his visualizations differently than I do. He can refute me here.
There seems to be different types of thinkers out there. The types are probably connected to the different types of senses: eyes, ears, smell, taste and even touch. I’d probably class smell and taste together, but maybe not.
Like Temple, I’m a visual thinker, probably because of my limited speech as my brain developed. (I was a stutterer in grade school and secondary school.) Or maybe it is the other way around. My tendency toward visual thinking limited my speech and reading, but that’s a chicken-egg issue not to side track us here.
So, what kind of thinker would my dad be? Certainly, he will need to class himself, but I’ll give it a shot. He’s probably an auditory ‘visualizer.’ What I see in pictures, he probably hears in his head or ‘thinks’ in his head. This might also be what makes him musically gifted…and me not musically gifted. Now, of course, we all cross the borders of these types. We all visualize and we all audiate. But most people excel in one way or the other based who they are and whence they came.
The savant, on the other hand, would be someone who is really good at one particular way of thinking and not good at the others. Something in their early childhood, during brain development, hindered one or more aspects of their character which focused them into another way of thinking and acting. Temple Grandin would seem to be an example of a savant, which makes me think that she may actually have photographic memory, or at least some very heightened ability to visualize something she looked at briefly. But I’m sure even her photographic memory fades quickly, but we’ll need to ask her!
I do recall having a few dreams in my life that were heightened visually. The scenes were so vivid and so detailed, that I remember thinking (during one dream in particular) that there’s no way that my brain could be manufacturing this level of detail. I still remember one of these dreams, but the detail did not remain. It has all turned to fuzz. This does remind me that I do believe memory is beyond the individual. We may be tapping into more than just our lowly brains can muster.
During the past few years, I’ve had the fortunate experience of being able to substitute in some classrooms at our local high school and interact with autistic children. Most of the autistic kids are in distant, deep, and far away in a lonely world. They seemingly have no keen ability, unlike Grandin, with the exception of one of the students who is an exceptional abstract artist. My experience has made me think that the reason some autistic children are exceptional visually is because of the cutting off of the auditory communications with others. By diving inside themselves, locking and throwing away the key, all they have is the visual world that they’ve entered and they lose their ability to communicate effectively with others. They live in that visual world, a beautiful, comfort-filled, yet difficult and frightening place.
In regards to autistic children, there are five interesting factors that I think tell their story. 1) Autistic children are very stubborn and get frustrated easily (at least the ones I know). 2) Two of the highest density locations for autistics are Redmond, WA (Microsoft) and Silicone Valley (smart parents). 3) First-born children are more likely to be autistic. 4) Children of older parents are more likely to be autistic. 5) They are usually ‘normal’ as infants and even toddlers.
The five factors above tell me a compelling story: Autism may very well be a social disease, caused by society’s relentless push toward ‘success’. And it seems to be potentially preventable in some children when young. Smart parents of bright stubborn children shouldn’t push their children to learn too much, or they might just climb back inside their heads and learn that it’s safer inside than out. Certainly, they must be engaged physically, mentally and emotionally. That’s the key. But how to do that seems to be the big question and must be tailored to the individual. Let’s have our kids enjoy childhood and give them opportunities where they can excel. Leading a horse is a lot easier than pushing one. But then again maybe as a species, we just have hit the limit on intelligence and autism is the side effect.
I say all this fairly blindly; my kids aren’t autistic. My 4-year old is very stubborn and wonderful and difficult, but I can’t even imagine what it’s like having an autistic child. The parent must know patience like no other parent.
The most severly autistic boy I know is profoundly stubborn. He’ll throw a fit before he’ll do anything a teacher wants him to do. He can’t talk, he can barely walk, yet he can move a mouse quicker than any 18-year old whizz kid from China. Supposedly, he was a normal 3 year old.
But it seems like it’s generally untreatable once the brain is set in its mold—barring a miracle. The rut in which these people walk is deeper than we can climb down to them. And since it’s partly due to the stubborn nature of humanity, it’s a door they must open to get out. And we sure can’t yell down at them to get them out. That will push them deeper.
The choice of the will is the beautiful story in the Temple Grandin movie we watched. She spoke of doors and going through them. How scary those doors were looming for her. But she kept opening doors. It was her will and her choice to get out and she made it, thank God.
But my favorite of Einstein’s words on religion is “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” I like this because both science and religion are needed to answer life’s great questions. Even scientists such as Richard Feynman, who rejected religion and poetry as sources of truth, concede grudgingly that there are questions that science cannot answer.
-Dr. Temple Grandin