Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Q&A Temple Grandin: The Wiring


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate.)


One autistic child may love the vacuum cleaner, and another will fear it. Some are attracted to the sound of flowing, splashing water and will spend hours flushing the toilet, while others may wet their pants in panic because the flush sounds like the roar of Niagara falls.

I know what it is like to feel my heart race when a car horn honks in the middle of the night. I have hyperacute senses and fear response that may be more like those a prey-species animal than of most humans.

I have observed that there is a great similarity between certain chanting and praying rituals and the rocking of an autistic child.
     Temple Grandin, "Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism"

HB: Given all the variations, what would you put forward as a definition of autism?

TG: Autism is a neurological disorder. A child is born with it. It's caused by immature development of the brain -- that's been verified by brain autopsies studies -- and not by bad parenting or the environment.

HB: The cold parent, the "refrigerator mother," used to be cited as the cause.

TG: That's definitely not true. It's neurological.

HB: Have they isolated which parts of the brain it effects?

TG: It's the amygdala, the emotion center, and the lower parts of the brain -- limbic system and cerebellum -- which control movement and integrate the timing of different brain systems. It's not damage like having a tumor; it's immature development. The severity of the autism varies with the severity of the immaturity.

Some of the studies have found extra circuits in parts of the brain involved with visual thinking. And autistic brains tend to be slightly enlarged. There's a point in childhood when excess circuits are pruned out. It's called synaptic pruning. Some researchers think the autistic brain is slightly larger because some of the synaptic pruning didn't take place.

HB: So there's not only underdevelopment but also over development.

TG: In certain areas. It's like if I was a computer I'd have a hundred gigabyte hard drive but very little processing. You give the person extra storage but it's at the expense of processing.

If you say the word, "boat," to me I see pictures of specific boats; I don't have a boat concept. So how do I form a boat concept? I have to look at all these slides and videos I have in my memory of individual boats, and then ask, what's the common denominator that describes all boats? Well, they all float on water, and they're used in transportation for various purposes.

Also, my thinking is associative, not linear. It's like surfing the World Wide Web.

HB: Don't we all think associatively?

TG: Some people are much more linear than others. Most people, if I say the word boat, get kind of a generic picture of a boat. For some verbal people, there's no picture there at all.

HB: You do what everybody does but you do it consciously. You're more aware of your own processes.

TG: That's right, my processes aren't hidden. The only things in my mind I don't see are things, for example, like the circuits for walking.

HB: Does the fact that your mental processes are more transparent to you make you feel more mechanical?

TG: Some of the artificial intelligence scientists believe they can make a computer that duplicates the brain. A lot of people say they can't. I feel it's possible because I can see how a lot of my thought processes work.

HB: After reading you about the primacy of visual thinking in autistics, I didn't understand how autistics could take to the written word. Then I joined an Internet group about autism and was quickly informed about hpyerlexia [a condition that includes obsession with writing coupled with difficulties in verbal communication and social interaction].

I found that writing, as a formal system with rules and without face-to-face contact, was often much more congenial to autistics than speech.

TG: A lot of these kids who are hyperlexic learn what the words mean by pairing pictures of the word. To get meaning and content out of those words, they have to link them to pictures.

HB: I asked someone on the Internet who writes extremely well what communication would be like in person. He answered it would be much more difficult; my face would give him no more information than the ripples on the surface of a lake.

TG: That's the way I am. I don't pick up information from faces. If I can talk to someone on the phone that's as good as seeing them; that's where I pick up nuance. All this eye business . . .

HB: It's true, you're not looking at me.

TG: Eyes don't make any sense to me.

HB: What happens when you look at my eyes?

TG: I find it sort of aversive. Eyes move around a lot. I'd rather concentrate on what your voice sounds like. I want to listen to your tone. That's my cue. It's the cue that animals use. My thinking is a lot more like animal thinking. Animals are very sensitive to tone of voice. Eye contact means threat or challenge.

HB: Oliver Sacks took the name of his book, "An Anthropologist From Mars," from a phrase you used to describe yourself.

TG: I had to learn everything about how to act and play. When I was a little kid I knew I was different but didn't know why. Then I got to college and read a magazine that said that cavemen couldn't make tools unless they had language. I wondered why they needed language to develop tools.

I didn't realize the full extent of the difference until I did "Thinking in Pictures" and started questioning people. It's the same with sensory problems. When I was little sound hurt my ears. I didn't realize there was something biologically different about me that made the sounds more difficult. I just thought that other people were somehow stronger. I didn't realize my sensory capacity was somehow different.

HB: Then there's someone like Jerry Newport, a kind of genial man who could never keep a job, partly because he'd always bring one of his parrots to work with him. 60 Minutes did a segment about him that described his key moment as occurring when he went to see "The Rain Man." When the autistic character was asked to multiply 4,343 by 1,234 in his head, Jerry Newport said 5,359,262 out loud even before Dustin Hoffman got the answer on screen. The people sitting in front of him turned around to look. And he said to himself, "Uh oh. I'm autistic."

TG: Jerry has a savant ability with numbers; I am not able to do that. Jerry's not as visual as I am. There's a continuum. At this end you've got a brain layout that is very visual. Here is the Jerry Newport type -- not very visual, super numbers, super memory. Around here you get a nonverbal, severely handicapped person who has to have supervised living. As you move away from Jerry, the sensory problems tend to get worse. Donna Williams [author of "Nobody Nowhere: the Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic"] is around here. Her sensory problems are so bad she can't see and hear at the same time. She has to listen to something or hear something; she can't do both simultaneously.

HB: You write about autistics who perceive sound as color, who can see and be disturbed by the flicker in the sixty cycle per second light bulb, and who hear well beyond the normal range of hearing.

TG: Even though I take anti-depressants to calm down a lot of my reactions, I can be in a hotel and if someone whistles on the street my heart, literally, starts pounding.

HB: One woman on the Internet described her autistic son, who is not usually very verbal, as becoming fixated on television aerials and how television works. Why this fascination with television?

TG: We got a TV when I was about five, and I used to watch the Howdy-Doody show. I knew it came through the aerial on the roof, so one time I went outside to see if I could see the pictures. I thought there'd be a picture and another picture, like sheets of photographs going into the aerial.

I knew where the station was, a great big tower, and I never saw any pictures come out of it. I wondered how Howdy Doody got down the antenna into the TV, and then how he came down the wires.

HB: How does being correctly diagnosed help an autistic person?

TG: He is now aware of how his thought processes were different. I used to get into fights at engineering jobs. I'd say, how could those engineers be so stupid? Can't they *see* it won't work?

HB: You've written that a certain amount of good old autistic rigidity can do you good. It helps you get the job done.

TG: It gives you motivation. If I had taken anti-depressants in college I might not have done as well. I might have lacked the drive.

There's too much of a tendency for autistics to say the world ought to adjust to them. I think there needs to be some compensation made for some sensory problems. But what a lot of people need to do is make themselves really good at something, like artwork for example, or computer programming, that you can do as a job. There's a tendency to do too much bitching and not enough building up of talents.

HB: In your first book, "Emergence, Labeled Autistic," you wrote about "the anxiety that my emotions will overcome me and I will not fulfill my destiny." Is it common for high functioning autistics to feel there is something special about them, that they have a destiny?

TG: A lot don't. Fortunately I had a good science teacher who directed my fixations toward science.

HB: "Emergence," was written with someone. Any unevenness is brushed out. You wrote your new book, "Thinking in Pictures," alone, and it has occasional signs of autism, abrupt transitions, sudden leaps of thought not easy for the reader to follow.

TG: Those leaps of thought are obvious to me. I'm going to write another book in which I try to explain how associative thinking works like links on the Internet. You might get a web page on bicycles and you might want to know how you can go from bicycles to dogs. Maybe it's something about dogs chasing bicycles. And then there's a link to a site about obedience training in dogs. There is a logic to it. It's not totally irrational.

HB: You write: "When I want to describe how I really feel about something, I can express myself better in writing."

TG: I'm more in touch with emotion in writing than I am verbally. When I'm doing an interview like this I've got so many stored things to say.

HB: My job is to get past that.

TG: You won't get past it.

HB: You make two kinds of analogies to yourself. One is to animals.

TG: Animals don't ask much of you. They're simple. I feel very calm when I have cattle around me.

HB: The other comparison is to software and machines -- to the World Wide Web, the Internet, computers.

TG: Before I used all this computer talk, I referred to photographs and movies in my head. The reason I use Internet talk is because there is nothing out there closer to how I think than the World Wide Web. The way the pages are linked associatively is exactly how I think.

I tell people, if you really want to understand how I think, why don't you just go to the Internet, type the word "streetcar" into it. Start there, and see where it takes you.

HB: In a sense, the day of autism has come, what with "The Rain Man," your books, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Spielberg's [forthcoming] movie about Jerry and Mary Newport. And you indicate it's not entirely accidental. This is the age of associative thinking, the age of the Internet. And we are fascinated with the relationship between humans and machines, with machines becoming hostile or friendly, with people learning to feel for machines. Think, for example of "Bladerunner" and the "Terminator"  movies.

TG: Spielberg at one point was interested in making a film about me. One of the reasons he didn't is there was no romance. He wanted a love interest. And I just don't have that.

Anxiety got worse as I got older. If I had taken anti-depressants in college, it would have damaged my drive and my motivation. If I didn't taken them in my early thirties, I would have had a nervous breakdown.

Anxiety is the very big problem with a lot of autistic people. I have talked two of my autistic friends into taking Prozac, and they said it's absolutely the best thing that ever happened. It's helped them calm down so they can handle things at work. One of the people is a lady who designs circuits to control automated factory equipment, again, a specialized thing she made herself really good at.

There's a strong genetic basis to autism. Many parents of autistic kids are doctors and engineers, brilliant and socially aloof. It takes a lot of disk space up in the brain to do fancy socializing and to integrate all the emotions. Autistics have all that disk space freed up.

HB: Star Trek's Data was a hero to you. You're saying if ever got all the human emotion he wanted, he'd wouldn't be such a useful high speed calculator.

TG: There are theories about channelization in the brain, which means certain circuits get blown and all the brains resources get channeled into one thing, like visual thinking. My emotions and the information in my mind are not seamlessly merged together. They do not necessarily mix. I can separate emotions from memories. I know people who can't even click on the memory of, say, their divorce. I at least can open the file and look at it.

HB: You quote Leo Kanner, the man who came up with the diagnosis of autism in 1943, as saying that autistic people who do well are those who had some profound experience of self-knowledge in adolescence.

TG: They had to realize they had to change some of their ways. For me it was mentors who helped me realize there were some things I had to change.

HB: Do you think it's possible that for some people the decisive influence can come from a book?

TG: Yes. I've had other autistic people write me and say, I've read your book and now I realize what I am.

HB: What kind of material do you read?

TG: Lots of factual stuff, science and news magazines. And reading about good design turns me on. Some animal rights activists want to shut down the meat plants. I want to design a practical way to make them better. My design is used in a third of all cow slaughter houses in this country.

HB: You try to minimize the anxiety the animal feels.

TG: The animals are scared of the same things that scare autistic kids, something that looks out of place, a puddle of water, a piece of paper on the floor, shiny things, people moving around up ahead.

HB: You pose the question, "Why would a leopard in a concrete cell at the zoo and autism have similarities?" What's the answer?

TG: The pacing. The leopard does it because of sensory deprivation. The autistic does it because sensory stimulation is so overwhelming he has to pace and rock to block the painful stimuli.

HB: What about autistics and humor?

TG: The humor is visual, too. And a lot of my emotions are simpler, like child's emotions. I can be walking through the airport, laughing. I park in the parking lot and for three whole trips there's been a dead pigeon. And I got to thinking, what if I pick up this dead pigeon, where could I put it? I'd see a little hole in the balcony railing and think, stick it halfway in the hole. There's a lot of sculpture at the airport, so I thought I could make it look like part of the sculpture. I had stepped over this dead pigeon a whole bunch of times at the airport. Denver just doesn't pick up its dead pigeons. I was thinking maybe I could put it right in front of the door of the maintenance department.

HB: And other people's humor?

TG: I have to learn those times when people are kidding. I have trouble with it.

HB: Was there anything, besides Data and Spock, that you liked about "Star Trek"?

TG: It had clear cut moral principles. I like my moral principles to be simple. I'm intellectually complex when it comes to science and designing equipment but emotionally, I'm a child. I've replaced emotional complexity with intellectual complexity.

HB: Do you still use your hug machine?

TG: When I'm at home. But I'm never at home very much. I've learned to get along without it. Most of my time was spent trying to avoid stress most. Somehow I thought if I could figure out my psyche, I'd stop being nervous. I spent years doing that until medications came along.

HB: How do stress and anxiety pertain to visual thinking?

TG: I don't think they do. I used to think there must be a psychological reason for anxiety. I didn't know it was just biology, pure biology.

HB: Just weird wiring.

TG: Yes. It's part of the syndrome. The nervous system is hyper hyper hyper. The sympathetic nervous is turned up all the time in a lot of autistic people.

I'd have anxiety attacks over nothing. The mind being what it is, I'd try to link them to something. Going after my destiny had to do with my thinking I could make the anxiety go away. An abused child has reason for anxiety. It's trauma-induced. I didn't have that. My hearing is oversensitive, my touch system is oversensitive and stimuli that are insignificant to most people would trigger an anxiety response in me. Pure biology.

HB: At the end of "Thinking Pictures", you say you would like the place where an animal dies to be understood as a sacred place: "There is a need to bring ritual into the conventional slaughter plants . . . Not words. Just one pure moment of silence. I can picture it perfectly."

TG: Killing an animal is not the same thing as mowing the grass. A life ends. That's something you take seriously. What does the word "sacred" mean? You do not treat it as an ordinary thing. Killing cattle is not the same as running grain through a mill.

HB: What are your feelings about religion?

TG: When I was in the fifth grade it seemed ridiculous to me that one religion would be better than another. It's sort of like phone companies. They all do the same thing, whether it's MCI or AT&T, British Telecom or Sprint.

HB: You've said that when you're with an animal, you can tell how it feels, the way a doctor should be able to do with a patient.

TG: But they don't see it.

HB: You mean that literally, don't you?

TG: I think so. 

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