Friday, 10 October 2014

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

Reviewer: JW Hicks, author of Rats

What we thought: If you’ve read Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Daniel Tammet’s autobiographical Born on a Blue Day, you’ll find this narrative-essay written by an autistic, utterly fascinating.

In Thinking in Pictures, Dr Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, allows us to see what it’s like to be an autistic, and gives us a glimpse into a quite other kind of mind.

As a child she confronts the overwhelming sensations of smell and sound and touch that she cannot blot out. She screams and rocks, shutting out chaos and terror by focusing on grains of sand for hours on end. Gradually she gains the beginnings of speech and starts to overcome her fear of contact. With the help of a remarkable science teacher who recognises her unusual potential, she channels her obsessions and becomes a world-renowned expert on cattle psychology and behaviour, a passionate advocate of their humane treatment, and a leading authority in the field of autism. As well as studying cattle, Grandin studies us, as if she were “an anthropologist on Mars.”

Grandin likens herself to Data, the android in Star Trek, who yearns to be human, and compares her mind to a computer. “You look at flowers, I see what great pleasure you get out of it. I’m denied that.”

Grandin never ceases to ponder and explore her own nature and feels “thinking in pictures” gives a special rapport with cattle and is in some way akin to their own mode of thinking.

Words are a second language to her. She translates spoken and written words into full colour movies which run inside her head. As an equipment designer, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage. Her imagination works like CGI, and she has video memories of every item she has ever worked with; from steel gates, to latches, to concrete walls. She has the fantastic ability to create new designs using these remembered templates, and tests them by running three-dimensional visual simulations in her mind. Unlike ‘normal people’ Grandin sees design faults on a drawing before the equipment is even installed and soon realises that normal thinking patterns lack visualisation skills, rendering non-autistics fault-blind.

Learning to read she had problems learning words that could not be thought about in pictures. Nouns were easy to remember because they relate to pictures but spatial words like overand under had no meaning for Grandin until she had a visual image to fix them in her memory. As, if and the, proved difficult words to master.

Thinking in Pictures comes across as a mesmerising mix of scholarly treatise and autobiography. The reader not only learns the scientific aspect of autism, but experiences the actuality of an autistic life. This compelling book tells how it really is. Thinking in Pictures is not only a guide to understanding autism, but a step by step account of Temple Grandin’s integration into our so-called normal society.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A mix of real life and real science

Avoid if you don’t like: Facts and real-life experiences intermingled.

Genre: Autobiography

Available from Amazon

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