Books : reviews

Temple Grandin.
Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism.
Vintage. 1995

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 29 September 2003

I first came across the fascinating story of Temple Grandin in Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars. Here we get more background and detail. I was initially attracted to this book by the title -- I know I don't think in words (it is sometimes very frustrating trying to translate thoughts into speech or text across this "impedance mismatch"), but I also know I don't actually think in pictures or diagrams -- because I can't draw them, either. However, what does it mean to think in pictures? Grandin gives a very vivid account of the way her mind works, and it is very different from anything I've heard of before: the vividness of the images, the ability to manipulated them, the degree of recall, the lack of generalisation.

The book is a collection of chapters describing different aspects of her life and her condition. The affect of autism on her perception, having to explicitly learn to respond to social cues, the squeeze machine, use and abuse of medication, designing slaughterhouses -- it's all here in a plain matter-of-fact style that is nevertheless deeply engrossing.

To start with, the factual descriptions lead you to think, well, okay, she has different perceptions, but maybe that's not so remarkable, just different. But towards the end, she describes the various panic attacks she suffered as a result of her condition, panic attacks that nearly made her into a housebound agoraphobic. The discussion again is remarkably matter-of-fact. It takes a little while to realise that she was having these debilitating attacks at the same time as she was building her highly successful career. That is a truly remarkable achievement.

Temple Grandin, Catherine Johnson.
Animals in Translation: the woman who thinks like a cow.
Bloomsbury. 2005

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 3 April 2007

This is a mixture of an autobiography and an animal behaviour/training manual. A fascinating mixture, because Dr Temple Grandin, high functioning autistic and distinguished animal behaviourist, claims that these two aspects of her life are linked: she understands animals because, being autistic, she thinks the same way they do.

There is some truly fascinating stuff in here, not only about autism and animals, but also about the significance of human-animal relationships: how we coevolved with domestic animals (dogs, horses, cows), and how they are an important part of our society that we are in danger of losing. Grandin weaves her own experiences, and those of animals she has worked with, into a thought-provoking thesis. It is so refreshing to read a down-to-earth unsentimental account of animals that doesn't anthropomorphise them, an account that recognises that they are animals, not people, yet that they are deserving of respect and humane treatment. And that fully humane treatment must recognise how they are different. The difference boils down to two aspects: that they are governed more by fear, and that they notice and react to details, not just the abstractions that (non-autistic) people see. Hence they are often reacting fearfully to details we don't even see, but that Grandin, by virtue of her autism, does.