Temple Grandin on the autistic brain

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Temple Grandin. (Courtesy Temple Grandin)

First aired on The Sunday Edition 09/06/13

Well-known autism activist Temple Grandin's new book The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, argues that autism is too often thought to be a disease of the mind when really it is a disease of the brain. At 65, Grandin has had a long run with autism activism, a successful career in academia, authored several books, is the subject of a biographical film and made Time's top 100 list of influential people in 2010. She spoke with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright about her new book and the changes she's seen in the way autism is treated over the years.

Autism is a divisive topic within the medical community. Grandin argues for an approach that favours treating autism as a disorder with a wide spectrum. She says that there is nothing wrong with the autistic brain at large, rather autism occurs when there are variations within the brain's circuits. "It's an abnormal brain development and when you get into the milder versions of autism, it's just part of normal variation. There is no black and white dividing line between all the geeks and nerds who work in Silicon Valley and very mild autism."



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Since autism is so varied, Grandin sees the tendency to generalize the disorder to be problematic. "The only thing on the brain scan that is going to be absolutely universal are the social communication circuits that are messed up," she said. "Not everyone with autism is a visual thinker, you see we're getting locked into the label. The problem is that the label is overly broad." She goes on to say that the more you divide autism into subcategories, the harder it is to treat the condition.

Grandin recognizes a certain level of autism in most people and at the mild end, autism isn't problematic. The best way to help young children who are starting to display signs of autism is to challenge them and keep pushing them to work on their social skills. She attributes her success in the social world to her mother, who kept forcing her to push her own social boundaries.

According to Grandin, mild variation in the brain is useful to society and her autism helps her to think in a logical way. "Let's say autism never happened -- there'd be no radio stations and I mean radio wouldn't exist. Who do you think invented stuff like the radio? Who do you think keeps all this equipment running? It's not the social yak yaks...just a little bit of this autistic trait gives some real advantages but if you get too much of it then the genetics are complicated."