After reviewing the Temple Grandin film (2010), we were suitably intrigued! And so we went off to buy The Autistic Brain, her 2014 book co-written with science writer Richard Panek.
It’s a fascinating insight into neurodiversity. The brain is a mighty complex thing (see The Beautiful Brain by Ramón y Cajal), but autism affects it in ways the medical world doesn’t fully understand.
But this book from Dr. Grandin shows us where we’re up to with our knowledge, thanks to her sterling efforts to understand herself.
The Autistic Brain: Exploring the Strength of a Different Kind of Mind
Right, so this work is split into two parts:
- The Autistic Brain
- Rethinking the Autistic Brain
Part I takes a look at where we’re at with human understanding of autism. Diagnoses date back to 1943 when Austrian-American psychiatrist and physician Leo Kanner (1894-1981) released a paper proposing the condition.
His pioneering work found a set of similarities children would display, such as not wanting to be with their mother or having extreme aversion to eye contact.
Temple Grandin (born on 28th August, 1947) showed many of these traits. She wasn’t studied, unlike a young boy called Donald in the early ’40s. Dr. Grandin sites:
“He had frequent tantrums, often didn’t respond to his name, found spinning objects endlessly fascinating. Yet for all his developmental problems, Donald also exhibited unusual talents. He had memorised the Twenty-Third Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) by the age of two. He could recite twenty-five questions and answers from the Presbyterian catechism verbatim. He loved saying the letters of the alphabet backward. He had perfect pitch.”
Whilst studying Donald, Kanner soon noticed similar traits amongst other children. And there was a constant pattern of:
- The need for solitude.
- Obsessive behaviour.
- A focus on repetition.
- The need for sameness.
Dr. Grandin puts it like this:
“To be alone in a world that never varied.”
Despite Kanner’s pioneering work, one of the difficulties he faced (and wouldn’t realise early on) is how vast the spectrum is. Dr. Grandin highlights:
“By the time of the revision of the DSM-IV appeared in 2000, diagnosticians were using pervasive developmental disorder and autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) interchangeably. At one end of the spectrum, you might find the severely disabled. At the other end, you might encounter an Einstein.”
Cut to 2014 and the understanding of autism has advanced considerably. Over the last 20 years, advancements in knowledge and understanding has been exceptional.
Part of the focus has been on understanding how autistic brains work. And Dr. Grandin has been at the centre of that research, taking every opportunity since the 1980s to have her brain scanned with many and varied MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging).
The HDFT (high definition fibre tracking) scans of her brain she includes in the book reveal a lot. Such as how “disorganised” her speech production and representation areas are compared to the controlling areas of the brain.
The left lateral ventricle in her brain is also enormously enlarged, 57% longer than the right. These project into three lobes of the brain- the front, occipital, and temporal.
Dr. Grandin’s extends into her parietal cortex, which is associated with short-term memory. This seems common for many autistic people, as they can’t recall information in short order.
Efforts from studies show autistic people have:
- Thinner temporal cortex: It processes sounds and speech.
- Thick front cortex: It’s associated with complex social and cognitive needs.
What Dr. Grandin does is explain, and postulate, over the possible reasons why autistic behaviours come to be. For example, there’s a chapter dedicated to sensory overload issues—Hiding and Seeking.
This is one of the most debilitating areas for people with autism, rendering some people incapable of functioning in society. But it can be difficult for researchers, family members, and friends to grasp the nature of the problem:
“A person who can’t imagine living in a world of sensory overload is very possibly going to underestimate the severity of someone else’s sensations and the impact on that person’s life, and even misinterpret behaviour as a sign of one sensory problem when it might be another.”
For children dealing with these issues, and parents raising them, they may come across a constant and self-defeating pattern of zero progress, lots of frustrations.
But Dr. Grandin is very clear on how parents can help their kids overcome their diagnosis. And it’s all about seizing the moment. None of which is easy; there’s a lot of trial and error to be had.
Part II of the book is Rethinking the Autistic Brain. It takes all the scientific developments from part I and applies it to people leading neurodiverse lives. Key chapters are:
- Looking past the labels
- Knowing your own strengths
Of course, Dr. Grandin (who turns 75 on August 29th) knows all about the struggles of all this.
She grew up in an era when many people were institutionalised for their differences and struggles. And she was lucky to avoid that fate—her mother battled to ensure it didn’t happen.
Dr. Grandin thinks visually. And that’s allowed her to develop a successful career, first as an animal behaviourist. Then as an academic and scientist.
Much of her early years, through to adulthood, were chaotic and difficult. She had debilitating panic attacks, depression, and sensory overload. But since the 1980s, the medication she’s taken helps control some of her issues.
The rest is all down to her methodology in controlling her issues and working on her strengths. See her providing a talk and it’s like she’s not autistic, such is her command of the situation.
She explores creativity, for example, and how the autistic brain works here:
“The autistic brain might be more likely, on average, to make a creative leap. An attention to details, a hefty memory, and an ability to make associations can all work together to make the unlikely creative leap ever more likely.”
This has all been Dr. Grandin’s life. The book showcases her dedication to understanding her world, all for the greater good.
Her work has been beyond pioneering and lays down the foundation for future generations of families. And as a medical book, it’s up there with the very best—from The Divided Self (1960) to The Collected Schizophrenias (2019).
Fascinating and timely, we think The Autistic Brain is a vital modern work.
It highlights the remarkable, often random, complexities of the human brain. Plus, the need for compassion in helping people who are “different” to establish themselves in a world not built for them.
Depictions of Autism in the Media
Many people won’t read The Autistic Brain, and much else related to the topic, unless their life is directly affected by it.
As for most people, their only experience of autism will be from seeing it portrayed in media texts—films, TV, books, video games etc. The likes of Rain Man (1988) being an early example and a performance Dustin Hoffman has been widely praised for.
So, we’re going to close this review with a nod to some content from August 2021. Notably, our mental health at the movies podcast and a wider look at how the media handles neurodiversity.
In Rain Man, it’s spelled out to viewers what the issue is.
Many other portrayals are much more nuanced and depict a high-functioning form (even though that terminology is falling out of use now).
Think of Niles Crane in Frasier.
Niles (“Dr. Crane!“) is highly intelligent and has an incredible abstract understanding of human behaviour. He works as an esteemed psychiatrist.
He’s just not very good at applying his remarkable educational achievements and knowledge into the real world. The result is a continuous string of bumbling antics, all despite his professional expertise.
We must also nod to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), an excellent film with an incredible performance by one Adam Sandler.
Again, it’s not mentioned at all in the film—he’s not diagnosed. But the behaviour is all there:
- Social awkwardness
- Repetitive and unusual behaviours
- Temper tantrums
Most cinemagoers would be unaware that it’s clearly autism. We saw one review of the film suggest Barry Egan (Adam Sandler’s character) is obviously suffering from schizophrenia.
Others just think he’s a little weird, but hey that’s Adam Sandler films for you.
The Temple Grandin TV film from 2010 is incredibly noteworthy, as it makes the issue accessible for even a primetime television audience to understand.
But, again, Grandin has an overt case of autism that was picked up immediately in childhood. Others from her era didn’t receive the crucial diagnosis, which leads us to Rebecca Hall’s performance in Christine (2016).
Hall explained in numerous 2016 interviews she made inferences on footage she watched of Christine Chubbuck (a broadcast presenter in the 1970s) and took from it subtle masking behaviours.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Christine Chubbuck was autistic. It’s speculation. But there are a number of indicators from her life (many of which are shown in Christine) that suggest she was undiagnosed.
Film buffs watching won’t necessarily realise that at any time during the film, but that’s kind of the point. It isn’t spelled out to them, like in Rain Man.
Here’s the complexity of the spectrum and how it can affect people’s lives differently.
There are other notable films: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Snow Cake (with an excellent performance by Sigourney Weaver), and Being There (with Peter Sellers).
These depictions are important as they help to shape public perceptions of issues like this, so it’s encouraging to see directors offering sympathetic and intelligent narratives.
It doesn’t need to be spelled out to viewers in patronising or simplistic fashion.
But with the help of films, neurodiversity can find steady feet for the future. And that can help millions more around the world feel more at ease in their surroundings.