You Haven't Read Temple Grandin?

Our de Grummond Book Club (for adults reading children’s and young adult books) was in the midst of a spirited discussion of Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird when someone mentioned Temple Grandin.  I asked, “Who is Temple Grandin?” and got a shocked chorus of “You haven’t read Temple Grandin?” [Book lovers can be that way sometimes.]

I remedied my problem with a Sunday afternoon read of The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek. Writing from the perspective of a high-functioning person with autism, she clearly identifies herself primarily as an expert on livestock, a professor, a scientist, a consultant and secondarily as a person with autism.

My first encounter with the autism spectrum was a very thick file folder given to me by the junior high counselor filled with articles on Asperger’s Syndrome in preparation for a student I will call Joey. He would be in my class of eighth grade gifted students. Temple confirms in her book that children in the autism spectrum commonly qualify as gifted. Joey fascinated me with the things he did well and his lack of social skills. I have remained interested in the mental and social workings of those who fit this description.

Temple sets the tone for her book early. “If all genetic brain disorders were eliminated, people might be happier, but there would be a terrible price.” As a reader, I asked myself, “What price?”

Temple’s conversational manner makes her scholarly exploration readable and folksy to non-experts. She describes her sense of balance as “lousy,” Rather than go into a long string of statistical data, she says, “You can look it up if you’re interested.” She compares current knowledge of autism to cleaning out a closet when the mess looks greater than at the beginning but with a sense that progress is being made.

Gradually, Temple unfolds the answer to the price question, balancing throughout the book the idea of honoring the strengths of the person with autism while addressing the weaknesses. She calls for making necessary adjustments for those who are autistic but holding them accountable for reaching their own possibilities. Opening her last layer, she discusses three major areas of exceptionality among autistic people, citing those who are picture thinkers, pattern thinkers, and word-fact thinkers, and their contributions to society. What a great loss – or price – if we turned them into “normal” people!    

My mind returned to Joey as I came to her conclusion. Joey and I had some challenging moments, but I wish I had a video to show you the eighth grade end-of-year awards ceremony. The principal asked me to present the award from an area-wide writing competition where I had submitted student work. I would be hard put to tell whether Joey’s or his classmates’ faces showed the greatest surprise as I called his name for winning second place. I saw him in Temple’s portrayal of word-fact thinkers. He was an excellent writer.

If you have an interest in the autism spectrum as a parent, teacher, friend, or fellow human being, I recommend this book and other Temple Grandin writings.