by Temple Grandin
Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2009
During the last 10 years, many people have told me my talks keep getting better and smoother. One thing many people do not realize about people on the autism spectrum is they never stop growing and developing. Each day I learn more and more about how to behave and communicate.
Autistic thought is bottom up thinking instead of top down, like in most people. To form a concept, I put lots of little pieces of information together. The normal person forms a concept first and then attempts to make all the details fit. The older I get the more data I collect and I become better at forming concepts. Being exposed to many new experiences has helped me load more information into the database in my mind, my memory. I have more and more information to help me know how to deal with new situations. To understand something new I have to compare it to something I have already experienced.
Internet in My Head
The best analogy to how my mind works is this: it is like having an internet inside my head. The only way my internal internet can get information is through reading or actual experiences. My mind also has a search engine that works like Google for pictures. When somebody says a word, I see pictures in my imagination. I have to have visual images to think. When I was younger, the library of pictures in my head was much smaller so I had to use visual symbols to understand new concepts. In high school, I used door symbols to represent thinking about my future. To think about my future after high school, I practiced walking through an actual door that symbolized my future. Without the door symbol, my future was too abstract for me to understand.
Today I no longer use door symbols because they have been replaced with pictures of other things I have experienced or things I have read. When I read a book with descriptive text, I translate it into photo realistic pictures. As more and more different things are experienced, the more flexible my thinking becomes because my “photo internet” in my head has more pictures and information to surf through.
Exposure to New Things is Essential
Exposing children and adults on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum to new things is really important. Mother was always making me try new things, and some I did not like, but I still did them. When I was about 12 years old, Mother enrolled me in a children’s sail boating program, two afternoons a week, all summer. It was a poorly run program and I hated it after the first few sessions because I had no buddy to do it with, yet I completed all the sessions. The lesson I learned was that if you start something you have to finish it.
As an adult I motivate myself to keep learning through extensive reading and personal/professional experiences. In the last 10 years of my life, from 50 to 60, I have still improved. One revelation I had around age 50 was learning that humans use little eye signals that I did not know existed. I learned about eye signals from the book, Mind Blindness by Simon Baren-Cohen. When I read autism literature I gain great insight from both personal accounts of people on the autism spectrum and neuroscience research. Scientific research has helped me understand how my brain is different. That has helped me comprehend “normal” people better.
At 60 I realized that training I had in my childhood and teens really helped me later in life. High school was torture with the incessant teasing and I was a goof-off student with little interest in studying. For years I have written about how my science teacher motivated me to study so I could become a scientist. His mentoring was extremely important. Lately I have realized that although I was not studying in school, I had very good work skills that helped me later in the world of employment. I did lots of work that other people appreciated. I cleaned the horse stalls, shingled the barn roof, and painted signs. Even though I got obsessed with these activities, it was useful work that other people wanted done. To be successful, people on the spectrum have to learn how to take their skills and do an assignment. The ability to do an assignment (follow directions, stay on task, complete it in a satisfactory manner) was taught to me from a young age. In grade school, my ability in art was encouraged but I was repeatedly asked to create pictures of many different things (again, producing work for others). I enjoyed the praise I got when I drew a picture of something somebody else had requested.
Parents and teachers can lay the groundwork for a child’s later success in life by exposing the child to many new experiences. But children and adults of all ages can continue to grow and evolve in their behavior and thinking. It is never too late to expand the mind of a person on the autism spectrum.
Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.
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