Tag Archives: autism

Temple Grandin Goes to Hollywood

Claire DanesAsperger’s Syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum first identified in 1944 by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, has become a popular dramatic plot device in television shows such as House, Bones, Law & Order and Degrassi: The Next Generation. It defined the fascinating profile of the literary protagonists in Mark Haddon’s 2003 award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 posthumous work, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Now Claire Danes is pegged to play the role of Temple Grandin, in an HBO movie to be released in 2010.

Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal. But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.
~~ Temple Grandin

Grandin overcame the limitations imposed by the disorder to become a top scientist in the field of humane livestock handling.

High school was especially harsh for Grandin, who was called “tape recorder” by other kids because she repeated things over and over, and she was hypersensitive to many forms of sensory stimulation. She eventually graduated with degrees from several universities, going on to write influential essays on animal welfare and designing humane slaughterhouses. She appears regularly on the news talk show circuit and was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, and Errol Morris’ First Person: Stairway to Heaven.

In part, the fascination with Asperger’s is due to the growing social acceptance of neuro-diversity – a buzzword that aims to promote an awareness that not all brains are similarly wired. Many of the books about the disorder have been written since the 1990s, and along with that interest has come a revisionist diagnosis of many creative and scientific geniuses.

The ascendancy of Asperger’s as a popular fictional device or “It Disability,” as some have called it, is partly due to the fact that patients often present as “normal,” except for their social awkwardness and obsessive interests.

Hollywood likes to portray them as tragically misunderstood and endearingly eccentric.

“Any kind of awareness in the mainstream culture is good, I suppose. But it’s a double-edged sword. You have to ensure that it doesn’t negate the severity of the problem,” says Margot Nelles, founder of the Aspergers Society of Ontario.

Aspergers: Separating Reality from Hollywood.


Animals in Translation

Animals in TranslationEarlier, we blogged about Dr. Temple Grandin, an astonishing woman with autism.

For many years, toddlers who, like Grandin, couldn’t speak and raged for no clear reason were usually institutionalized. Grandin, who is now in her late 50’s, was almost certainly the first such child to grow up to become a specialist in animal behavior.

When Thinking in Pictures, Grandin’s second book, appeared in 1995, experts had learned that autism was a spectrum disorder; in other words, its triad of difficulties — social problems, behavioral problems, obsessiveness — hobbled some people more than others. Grandin calls it neurodiversity.

Temple Grandin put the lie to many assumptions about autism. Of course, she wrote, autistic people have to learn social rules — in a methodical, structured way — but their obsessions may not be handicaps; they may even provide certain advantages. After all, Grandin herself had channeled her fixations and sensory differences into a successful career designing livestock equipment.

Her amazing new work, Animals in Translation, is crammed with facts and anecdotes about her favourite subject: the senses, brains, emotions and amazing talents of animals. Written with Catherine Johnson, who may have provided its colloquial, informal tone, Animals in Translation expands on an idea Grandin first sketched in Thinking in Pictures: that her autistic sensory perceptions (in particular, her intense focus on visual details) enable her to take in the world as animals do. In fact, she argues that autistic people and animals see, feel and think in remarkably similar ways.

Birdy CollageAlthough startling, this observation serves mainly as a segue into Grandin’s larger point. Animals — not just chimps and dolphins, but dogs, crows, pigs and chickens — are, she contends, much smarter and more sensitive than we assume.

There seem to be no features of human thought that animals don’t share to some degree, except perhaps the ability to craft complex conceptual metaphors. Most of the hallmarks of so-called human uniqueness turn out not to be unique: mathematical skills, introspection, forming and executing plans, language and tool-making.

She writes of prairie dog communities that have developed highly complex communications with the characteristics of human language, including sophisticated use of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Prairie dogs are at the very bottom of the predator/prey pyramid; Grandin speculates that development of a complex language was essential to their survival.

She also cites the intelligence of birds, which remember complex migratory paths after the first one-way flight, and documents tool-creation by a crow who bent wire into various shapes to extract food.

When she describes the emerging relationship between early humans and wolves, she notices how much we learned from canid social relationships, to our benefit.

Grandin’s most startling assertion is that many animals are smarter than us in the ways that count for them. We’re simply not equipped to perceive their intelligence, any more than they are equipped to understand what we’re doing when we speak to one another. But Grandin sees it all the time. She literally sees things other humans don’t, and claims that animals do too.

Human beings have lived for aeons immersed in a vast congress of reasoning, perceptive, communicating beings. But overlaid, in parallel, on this planet are numerous strands of sentience that have to be judged not in comparison to us but according to their ultimate impact on the animals that use them.

Intelligence, language, consciousness and tool-making therefore have to be considered not as values in their own right, but as strategies; their value lies in how well they fit a particular species’ needs. They fit ours very well, as it turns out.

But Grandin’s new book implies that the landscape of neurodiversity and intelligence is considerably more complicated than we’ve thought. She demands greater respect for the beings we live with – especially those to whom we have adapted.

Image: Christine Marie Art

Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin“Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal.’ But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.”

Dr. Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures was interviewed by NPR in August, 2006. Here is an excerpt.

Because I have autism, I live by concrete rules instead of abstract beliefs. And because I have autism, I think in pictures and sounds. I don’t have the ability to process abstract thought the way that you do.

Here’s how my brain works: It’s like the search engine Google for images. If you say the word “love” to me, I’ll surf the Internet inside my brain. Then, a series of images pops into my head. What I’ll see, for example, is a picture of a mother horse with a foal, or I think of “Herbie the Lovebug,” scenes from the movie Love Story or the Beatles song, “Love, love, love…”

When I was a child, my parents taught me the difference between good and bad behavior by showing me specific examples. My mother told me that you don’t hit other kids because you would not like it if they hit you. That makes sense. But if my mother told me to be “nice” to someone, it was too vague for me to comprehend. But if she said that being nice meant delivering daffodils to a next-door neighbor, that I could understand.

I built a library of experiences that I could refer to when I was in a new situation. That way, when I confronted something unfamiliar, I could draw on the information in my homemade library and come up with an appropriate way to behave in a new and strange situation.

When I was in my 20s, I thought a lot about the meaning of life. At the time, I was getting started in my career, designing more humane facilities for animals at ranches and slaughterhouses. Many people would think that to even work at a slaughterhouse would be inhumane, but they forget that every human and animal eventually dies. In my mind, I had a picture of a way to make that dying as peaceful as possible.

I believe that doing practical things can make the world a better place. And one of the features of being autistic is that I’m good at synthesizing lots of information and creating systems out of it.

When I was creating my first corral back in the 1970s, I went to 50 different feedlots and ranches in Arizona and Texas and helped them work cattle. In my mind, I cataloged the parts of each facility that worked effectively and assembled them into an ideal new system. I get great satisfaction when a rancher tells me that my corral design helps cattle move through it quietly and easily. When cattle stay calm, it means they are not scared. And that makes me feel I’ve accomplished something important.

Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be “normal.” But I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures. I believe in them.

Dr. Temple Grandin has traveled all over the world, designing livestock facilities in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand. She has designed one-third of all livestock facilities in the United States with the goal of decreasing the fear and pain animals experience in the slaughter process.

As head of Grandin Livestock Systems and Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, many may claim that Grandin has overcome the difficulties autism poses. However, Grandin’s achievements are not in spite of autism; autism, in fact, has played a complex and integral role in her life. She has slowly learned ways to live with autism and minimize its effect on daily activities.

Le Parfum

Le Parfum, the story of a murderer, is the work of the German writer, Patrick Suskind. This novel has been translated from the original German into 45 languages. A movie, starring Ben Whishaw and Dustin Hoffman, was adapted from this bestseller in 2006.

Le Parfum

The novel takes place in France during the 18th century. It tells about the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man who possesses an extraordinary sense of smell.

Jean-Baptiste was born into the stench of the fishmarket at the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris. His mother, who had borne four bastards before him, gave birth standing behind her fish stall, and threw the baby onto a pile of rubbish as she had done with the others. But this baby was different. The newborn started crying, and attracted the attention of passers-by. This ended with his mother being arrested and condemned to be decapitated for attempted infanticide.

Little Jean-Baptiste was handed over to several nurses in succession, but none of them wanted to have anything to do with him. He was greedy, and worse, he had no odour. They all knew how sweetly babies smelled, but Jean-Baptiste was strangely different. He ended up with Madame Gaillard, a woman without emotion and without a sense of smell, for she had lost the latter in a childhood accident. She collected children and looked after them for a suitable fee. It was in her house that he learned to recognize the smells of his surroundings – flowers, grass, wood, water… But the other children sensed that he was somehow different, and rejected him from the start, even attempting to suffocate him.

One day, Madame Galliard had had enough of Jean-Baptiste, and handed him over to Monsieur Grimal, a tanner who needed man to help him. Young Jean-Baptiste worked hard at his disagreeable and dangerous tasks.As a result, Monsieur Grimal gave him permission to go out for an hour every day. During his free time, Jean-Baptiste roamed around Paris and explored every nook and cranny in search of the most extraordinary smells.

One evening, during the feast celebrating the coronation of Louis XV, Jean-Baptiste sensed a perfume that he had not experienced hitherto. This magnificent perfume led him across the entire city to a young girl in the Rue des Marais. Overwhelmed with desire to possess this perfume, Jean-Baptiste strangled her and tore her clothes off, to better savour her scent. He escaped the scene of the crime, but not without planning to become the best perfumer in Paris.

Later, his plan started to come to fruition. He arranged to deliver some goatskins to a master perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini. Visiting Baldini’s shop was overwhelming. It was chock full to the rafters with perfumes, unguents, pomades, herbs and oils, and had a laboratory with a wealth of essences.

Baldini scoffed at his offer to come and work as an apprentice, but he was quick to convince the master that he could formulate the most delicious perfumes. He started by replicating Amor and Psyche, a perfume by Pelissier for which all Paris was clamouring. Then he improved on it. At Baldini’s, he was hungry to learn all of Baldini’s techniques, and Baldini was well rewarded by his efforts. Of course, the magnificent scents that he invented were sold to the adoring Parisiennes under Baldini’s name.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille

Despite his success, Jean-Baptiste was frustrated by his inability to capture the scent of objects like glass and stone. More importantly, he would have liked to replicate the smell of the young girl in Rue des Marais. Baldini confided to him that there were other, more sophisticated techniques that were used, and that these could be learned in the city of Grasse.

It wasn’t long before Jean-Baptiste left Baldini’s house and set out to learn these techniques.

As soon as he had left Paris, Jean-Baptiste felt a certain well-being. At first, it was the experience of fresh air, away from the stench of Paris, but after awhile, he noticed that what he really disliked was people themselves. As a result, he wandered into the mountains of Auvergne and became a recluse for a period, living in an imaginary kingdom of scents.

Eventually, he set out for Grasse, and there he found work as a perfumer-apprentice. His goal was to create a perfume that was not only human, but superhuman – so powerful that anyone who inhaled it would fall under its spell.

One day, he sensed, far away, the odour of a young girl. This girl was the beautiful Laure Richis, daughter of the consul. Jean-Baptiste knew that he absolutely needed to possess this scent, but she was still too young. He knew that it would take two more years for her pheromones to have the time to ripen and be perfect for his perfume.

During this time, twenty-four murders were committed in Grasse. Each time, a beautiful young virgin was murdered, and her hair was cut off. Terror was the order of the day, and fathers were at a loss as to how to protect their daughters from the murderer who took only the best.

One night, it was time for the twenty-fifth. Jean-Baptiste stealthily climbed into the bedchamber of Laure Richis. He killed her quickly with a blow to the head, wrapped her in oiled cloths to extract her scent, cut her hair off, and removed her chemise to preserve the odours therein.

When the news of Laure’s death spread throughout Grasse the next day, the citizens decided to make every effort to capture and bring to justice her murderer. After several days, they ended up at Jean-Baptiste’s house, where they dug up the hair and chemise, as well as those of other victims.

Jean-Baptiste was summarily arrested and condemned to death.

His execution was fixed for five o’clock that afternoon, and the good people of Grasse arrived early in the morning, so as not to miss a minute of the spectacle.

As he ascended the scaffold, Jean-Baptiste sprinkled a little of Laure’s scent on him. The crowd went wild and abandoned all reason. They could see no reason why this pure and innocent man should be executed. Love was in the air, and Jean-Baptiste was the god who had brought it.

It couldn’t last, of course, so Jean-Baptiste headed for Paris before the effect on the crowd had worn off. He ended up in the old neighbourhood where he had been born.

Tired of his own solitude, and after the exhilarating experience in Grasse where he was adored by the crowd, he just wanted to be loved. But none of this was possible without his perfume. He was nothing without it, in the eyes of the world.

He sprinkled the remainder of Laure’s essence on himself, and was immediately surrounded by an adoring crowd. This time though, they advanced on him and, after they were finished, there was nothing left. He had disappeared