Susan reads: The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin

[Cover]I avoid books on autism. I don’t like the terminology of the “autism spectrum” and the snake oil cures that celebrities like to flaunt.  I have worked with the seriously autistic for more than 25 years – the hard-core institutionalized kind – and have little tolerance for someone who thinks their child is autistic simply because he’s an introvert.  And for the last 30 years I’ve had a profoundly impaired autistic foster son, and all that happy information for the mainstreamed four year old who might have Asperger’s does not apply to hard autism. Thus, I have avoided reading anything by Temple Grandin, the Holy Saint of autism.

My bad.

In The Autistic Brain, Grandin discusses very rationally the numerous scientific studies done on communicative autistics, how they often have an inner thinking self and an outer acting self, and how the two don’t often interact. The current psychiatric labels, she feels, do autistics a huge disservice by lumping so many people under one umbrella no one can tell who is who – and leads to misdiagnoses and disproportionate numbers. She discusses how functional MRI imaging shows the different ways different autistics perceive the world, and that one type of treatment will not work for all, and that it’s the brain that’s the issue, not the psychoanalysis. That reiterated some serious studies I had read years ago.  She talks about the part genetics plays, and how research has shown some links, but no answers at all.  Grandin stresses that education for autistics – whether the high-functioning Aspie who will find success in Silicon Valley or the non-verbal autistic who cannot dress himself independently – needs to focus on what strengths the person has, not what deficits, and that deficits can be improved by using strengths, and that these children, no matter what the functioning level, need to get out into society and learn even rudimentary social skills, for that is the only way they will ever progress.

Grandin’s discussion of picture-thinkers, pattern-thinkers, and word-fact thinkers set my mind reeling to the hundred or so autistic children I have worked with, and the lightbulbs went on over my head. I thought about things I have tried, things that have worked, and things that have failed in a whole new light, and cannot wait to try new trajectories w/ my son. Grandin made me feel good that we have defied the “experts,” taking my son – whom no group home would touch because his behaviors were so severe – to places like Manhattan, Baltimore, Boston, boats, trains, weddings, and more – with a 90% success rate.  She made me understand how J. can do things no “autistic” is supposed to be able to do. I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone dealing with an autistic person of any functioning level.  Thank you, Temple, for understanding.  You’ve taught this old dog some new tricks without all that quick-cure quackery, and made a believer out of me.

If you’re dealing with an autistic child, I also highly recommend Barry Neil Kaufman’s book Son-Rise, about his own autistic child. If you can, read the original version.  His later version (The Miracle Continues) delves too deeply into his new-age self-help foundation while the original deals only with his son.

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