There is another way

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism. By Temple Grandin. Bloomsbury Pounds, 8.99 (pbk)

A BBC Horizon documentary about Dr Temple Grandin earlier this year called her "The most famous autistic woman on the planet". The title of the programme, reflecting the way she believes her mind works, was: "The woman who thinks like a cow".

That she's achieved that kind of soundbite celebrity is due not only to the clarity with which she describes autism from within, but to the remarkable way she perceives the world.

Using her powers of visualisation - "thinking in pictures" - she can see, and run in her mind like a recording, any kind of system or mechanism that the rest of us struggle to bring to life. She describes what it's like to do that in this book, newly published in the UK (it came out in the US in 1995).

Growing up in American cattle country, and always easier with animals than with human beings, Temple Grandin began to design more efficient and humane systems of walkways, ramps, pens and gates for handling, guiding and restraining the beasts as they made their way to vaccination, into anti-parasitic "dips" or to slaughter. Her methods and structures gained the respect of hardened people in a conservative industry and she went on to design livestock handling systems across the USA and beyond, becoming a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University.

That's an absorbing story in itself, but what makes Temple Grandin's work really valuable to anyone living or working with autism is her series of insights both into what people with autism experience and how they can be helped. As a child, for example, visiting her aunt's ranch in Arizona she saw a "squeeze chute" used to hold cattle steady while they were vaccinated. So when she had one of the panic attacks to which she was susceptible, she got into the squeeze chute.

"I asked Aunt Ann to press the squeeze sides against me and to close the head restraint bars around my neck. I hoped it would calm my anxiety... Five seconds later I felt a wave of relaxation, and about 30 minutes later I asked Aunt Ann to release me."

Later, she designed human "squeeze machines", and her book explains why pressure, and other sorts of physical therapy - always controlled by the user - have their place in helping people with autism. Her book works across a range of areas, from brain science to animal husbandry. Above all, it punctures the arrogance of assuming that there's only one right kind of thinking. As author and neurologist Oliver Sacks writes in his foreword, "If Temple is profoundly different from most of us, she is no less human for being so, but, rather, human in another way."


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