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BOOK REVIEW : Life as an Autistic Adult--and Scientist : THINKING IN PICTURES and Other Reports From My Life With Autism by Temple Grandin : Doubleday $22.95, 220 pages

May 09, 1996|BETTYANN KEVLES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I can put myself into a 1,200-pound steer's body," Temple Grandin explains in "Thinking in Pictures." But while Grandin may be able to perceive the world from a cow's perspective, she cannot empathize with people. This is the paradox at the core of her identity as an autistic scientist.

An autistic scientist might seem like an oxymoron, but the miracle of this memoir is that Grandin illustrates that it is not. As neurologist Oliver Sacks reminds us in the foreword, there is a shelf of literature about autistic children but little about autistic adults. Some, like Grandin, do have successful lives and meet in support groups with other adults who are autistic.

Grandin explains how, like other autistic people, she identifies with "Star Trek's" irrepressibly logical and unemotional Mr. Spock. Like Spock, she has not known the aesthetic joy of a beautiful sunset or of romantic love. Yet she feels keenly the anguish of suffering animals and has had great success, of which she is understandably proud, in helping to alleviate it.

She describes a difficult childhood during which her tenacious mother struggled to communicate with her through what she can now analogize to two panes of glass.

Despite her communication problems, Grandin attended ordinary schools and had entered college before she realized that autism made her emotions differ in kind from those of non-autistic people. They are more childlike, she tells us, and they are dominated by fear.

These feelings, she believes, are close to the emotions of nonhuman animals. Her ability to put herself in a steer's body--to sense its elemental fear and learn how to soothe it--has helped her succeed as a biologist at Colorado State University. She is celebrated for designing animal feedlots and for the design of humane slaughterhouse procedures, which have been adopted by no less than a third of all livestock facilities in the U.S.

As a scientist, Grandin has studied the growing data on brain development. She realized how not only her emotions, but her thought processes differ from those of other people. She thinks in vivid three-dimensional pictures, which seem to run on a tape that she can fast forward and rewind at will.

She does not think in words.

This ability, she suggests, reveals that "the visual system may contain systems for mental imagery and image rotation" that have expanded in autism to make up for verbal and sequencing deficits. "The nervous system has a remarkable ability to compensate when it is damaged."

Because the brains of autistic people often reveal immature neural development in the limbic systems, Grandin believes that there is damage to the area of the brain that connects emotion to reason. This can be ameliorated, she reports, by carefully monitored dosages of neuropharmaceutical drugs, as well as by hormones such as estrogen.

After meeting an autistic second cousin of Albert Einstein, Grandin investigated her own family tree. She found many instances of people with learning problems, depression and different degrees of eccentric behavior.

She identifies autistic traits in well-known gifted people and wonders if "in order to be creative you have to be crazy."

This conclusion might please one group of readers: parents of autistic children to whom she offers advice for working with autism at different developmental stages. But this is no how-to book; it ought to capture the interest of intellectually curious readers for whom Grandin creates a vivid, looking-glass world.

Temple Grandin may well think in pictures, but she has mastered the written word in this highly readable account of life as a resident alien in our midst.

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