To Douglas, autistic people represent a mutation of the species, a mutation we could all learn from and which would contribute to our survival as a species.
One of the outstanding examples of this is 66-year old Temple Grandin, who considers herself a livestock management expert first and autistic person second. She has a PhD and teaches animal science at Colorado State University. Grandin’s mother could have been echoing Douglas when she insisted that her daughter was “not less, just different” to the psychiatrists who diagnosed her and recommended she be institutionalized at age 4.
Now Grandin and other high functioning autistic people, covered in a book excerpt in Time magazine, are using science and more, to demonstrate the correctness of Douglas’s assertions.
Researchers at Riviere des Prairies hospital at the University of Montreal discovered in 2007 that the measure of the intelligence of autistic children varied greatly, depending on what kind of tests were given. When tested on information that could only be learned by social interactions, autistic persons scored low.
When tested on information obtained non-verbally, however, only 5% were labelled low functioning and one third demonstrated “high intelligence.”
For people placed anywhere on the spectrum of autistic behaviors, the ability to function without the scope of usual human emotion could be seen as a strength, as Douglas asserts. The emotions that most people live from create judgments and limitations. Autistic people would never be considered wrong from the point of view of Access Consciousness, but if they are able to function beyond the emotions that create such a limitation to the rest of us, would that in itself represent a mutation of the species into something greater than where most of us are functioning from?
Here’s an example. One researcher on autism, Michelle Dawson, was praised by a co-worker in her research for “seeing the positive” in autism. Dawson demonstrated her freedom from other’s judgmental assumptions in commenting that she didn’t see behaviors she was describing as positive or negative. “I see it as accurate.” Positive and negative are both judgments; Dawson was functioning beyond those judgments that limit so many of us.
Temple Grandin, in the excerpt from her newest book, The Autistic Brain, tells the story of a conversation with the director of a school for autistic children that tried to match students’ strengths with possible career choices. Grandin recalls, “When I asked her about how the school identified the strengths, the dierctor immediately began talking about how they helped students overcome social deficits.”
“If even the experts can’t stop thinking about what’s wrong, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism to think any differently?” asks Grandin.
Douglas, too, has noticed how the point of view of the wrongness of the “different”, including the autistic, has prevailed in most approaches to assisting autistic people to integrate in this society.
The article in Time magazine, excerpted from Grandin’s latest book on autism (with Richard Panek), identifies several of the strengths.
One of these strengths is “bottom up thinking.” Autistic people notice details far better than “neurotypicals.” When looking at a large letter made up of different smaller letters—for example a large letter H made up of tiny letter f’s, —Grandin’s ability to identify the small letters far exceeded that of the normal “neurotypical.” The disability labelled as “weak central coherence” or inability to see a big picture also showed up as superior ability to see details.
“Perhaps this is why in my work with animals I can immediately spot the paper cup or hanging chain that’s going to spook the cattle, while the neurotypicals all around me don’t even notice it,” says Grandin, describing a great example of what was labelled as a disability being used as a talent and contribution.
Douglas describes the autistic point of view as seeing even more of the whole picture than the rest of us.
Laurent Mottron, frequent collaborator of autism researcher, Dawson (mentioned above), comments that Dawson’s “keen viewpoint,” which is his description of her attention to detail, “keeps the lab focused on the most important aspect of science: data.” Another example of how what’s labelled as a deficit is actually a capacity and strength, if only we are aware enough to recognize it.
Yet another strength of the autistic mind is associative thinking. Grandin observes that if you ask her to think about a subject, her brain can go “pretty far afield” very fast. What if this was another one of the capacities of autistic people that Douglas was talking about?
Another expert on autism, Jennifer Myers, created a successful career as a computer coder for 9 years before being diagnosed at age 36 as having Asperger’s syndrome. In her first computer programming internship, her supervisor asked her to create a program in a language she had never used before. She astonished him by completing the task in an hour. A more “normal” thinker would have seen the differences between languages and assumed they’d have to learn the language. Myers didn’t need to know the language. To her, it was “just putting new words on the old thing.”
The attention to detail, which is the flip side of the ignoring the big picture that is judged a deficit of autistic people, can lead to exceptional creativity. By changing the shape of chutes that guide cattle into abattoirs, Grandin significantly changed the stress on animals (which is reflected in the taste of the meat) as well as reduced costs and human and animal suffering which occurred in the traditional methods. More than half the slaughterhouses in America now use her design.
Myers has switched from writing computer code to writing non-fiction about the autistic experience. For her, it was just a switch in code which required learning a new computer language, and that was easy for her.
John Elder Robinson, author of Be Different: Adventure of a Free-Range Aspergian, describes how the 8-10 hours a day staring at the wave forms of various sound waves as an adolescent enabled him to identify the individual waves forms of every kind of instrument. This extraordinary sensitivity allows him to eventually design guitars with extraordinary subtlety.
Grandin echoes Douglas’s point of view on autism and its strengths. “For so many people on the (autistic) spectrum, identifying their strengths can change their lives. Instead of only accommodating their deficits, they can cultivate their dreams.”