Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Autistic Brain - Thinking Across the Spectrum

I almost didn't read The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin (April 30 2013). It has been sitting in my "To Be Read" pile for 6 weeks and is due back at the library tomorrow, but I decided to pick it up today and I'm so glad that I did.

Author Temple Grandin was born in 1947 and was autistic before it was a common part of childhood. She brings an unique perspective to the book, being high-functioning herself and having devoted much of her life to studying Autism in its many forms.

What made this book particularly interesting was the neuroscience involved. They have the capability now to scan brains and see how those with autism are wired differently. The amazing thing is that even among those with autism, there is considerable variation among their brains, depending on the individual strengths and weaknesses of each person. For example, Grandin has great difficulty with balance (a common trait in those with autism) and discovered that her cerebellum is 20 % smaller than the in the brain of a neurotypical person. 

Also, she discusses possible causes of autism. With my own children, I have always felt that it was genetic. David was different from the day he was born (I only realized this is insight, but it is definitely true). There is a long history of mental illness in a family and it always seemed to me that he got all those unfortunate genes, only ramped up a bit - that somehow the gene was tweaked just enough in my eggs to cause the issues (due to environment?). Grandin talks about the DRD4-7R gene which has been linked to anxiety, depression, epilepsy, dyslexia, ADHD, migraines, ocd, and autism. Five of those things run in my family. I know there has been some research suggesting that those who take antidepressants during pregnancy are more likely to have an autistic child (I never have), but what if the connection is the depression itself - that genetic disposition to have something wrong with that gene? It's something to think about.

Later in the book, she emphasizes practical strategies for those with autism, especially for those on the higher end of the spectrum, to make great use of their strengths and to find employment. She disputes the currently popular idea that 10,000 hours practicing something will make you good at it, maintaining that you need at least minimal talent in an area to make that true. For those with autism who are profoundly ungifted in certain areas, all that practice will only lead to frustration, not improvement. Instead, one needs to focus on one's strengths and make the most of them. She wants people, including well-meaning educators and parents, to stop focusing on what is wrong with those with Autism and start focusing on what is right with them. Working on deficits is important, but it isn't everything. See beyond the label.

I found this book extremely interesting. It is definitely geared to help those on the higher end of the spectrum, but if you know and love an Aspie, this book is for you.

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