Monday, July 18, 2011

Temple Grandin

Both of these women are Temple Grandin.

The younger woman is dressed as is expected of an actress at a film premiere. She looks stunning. The classic pose – one-quarter turned, leading with the right shoulder – accentuates her lovely figure. She projects total confidence as she looks into the camera with a smile that is both friendly and seductive.

The older woman is dressed like a rodeo enthusiast on a night out. She faces the camera as one would an X-Ray machine, unflatteringly exposing the whole surface of her body to its clinical eye. She lets her arms rest limply by her sides, which gives her a slightly hunched look. Her gaze is fixed into the lens, but she does not or can not fashion a smile, just an air of puzzlement and suspicion. Not cold or aloof, but unfamiliar and slightly apprehensive.

Both of these women are Temple Grandin, although the younger one is also Claire Danes, and tonight she is thoroughly locked into the role of young movie star. She made herself look unattractive for a film. She wore no make up and dyed her hair a mousy brown and wore flashy rodeo clothes decorated with gold and silver cattle pins, and spoke in a tense, loud monotone. But would she even be permitted to look less than totally stunning, and be less than perfectly charming, at the film’s premiere? And which is her self? Could she wear trousers and a loud shirt, could she place her arm around the older woman’s shoulders or hips as the picture is taken? No, she must look the part that is required of her, standing next to this older, less attractive, visibly quirky woman, and have eyes and body only for the camera. As if the older woman weren’t there.

The older woman is Temple Grandin all the time, and she is so much more interesting.

Temple Grandin was born in Boston in 1947 and at age three she was diagnosed with infantile autism. In those days the condition was very poorly understood, the prevailing theory in the United States being that it was caused by a failure of the mother to bond with her child, and virtually the sole course of treament – or non-treatment, rather – was life-long institutionalisation.

Temple’s behaviour at this time would have to be characterised as profoundly disturbed: she was non-verbal and prone to screaming fits, aggressive physical outbursts and flinging or smearing her faeces. Her mother however refused to accept the bleak prognosis. She was convinced that Temple could be brought back from the strange, distant place to which she had gradually disappeared from the age of about six months. She taught Temple to speak and to read, and enrolled her at kindergarten at age five and then at primary school. It was around this time that Temple, while still exhibiting many of the behaviours associated with autism, began to demonstrate special abilities, chiefly in art and in technical disciplines. These talents were allowed to develop into a sufficient foundation for her to enrol at college. There were still several subjects in which she didn’t do well – languages were a weakness, and she could never master algebra – and by all accounts she had very significant social difficulties as a teenager, but she had already achieved by now what according to medical science ought to have been unthinkable.

It is on those late teenage years, in the transition between boarding school and college, that Mick Jackson’s HBO biopic on Temple Grandin is primarily focussed, and for sensible reasons: there is much drama in Grandin’s struggle at this time against the rigidity of society and the education system, as well as her own, and it generates a tension that is quite beautifully portrayed by Ms Danes. Out of this struggle came independence: a career as a scientist specialising in animal welfare and as a consultant for the meat industry and designer of more humane and efficient feedlots, slaughterhouses and facilities for cattle.

However of greater interest to a wider public is Grandin’s other life, as an advocate and chronicler of autism. The boundary between these two lives is marked by her double online presence – Temple Grandin’s animal science website, Temple Grandin’s autism website – but in fact they are deeply intertwined. One of Grandin’s most consistent claims is that it was her autism that allowed her to gain her remarkable insight into the inner lives of animals, and conversely it was by studying animals and the apparent similarities between their thinking and emotions and her own that she developed her theory of the autistic mind. Her writings reflect this, and so the introduction of Animals in Translation is as touching and insightful a document of her life with autism as you’ll find, just as Thinking in Pictures – her main treatise on autism to date – is full of fascinating accounts of and speculations on how animals think and behave.

The correlation is at the centre of Grandin’s work, and concerns both the modes of perception of animals and autistic people and their emotions. On the latter, Grandin writes:
Animals and people with autism have simpler emotions. They are either happy, angry, fearful, or sad. They do not have complicated mixtures of emotion. Another similarity is that fear is the primary emotion in both autism and animals. (Thinking in Pictures, 202)
But just as crucial to understanding the balance of these emotions is her description of how other mammals perceive the world, based on the observation of Grandin’s own predominantly visual thinking.
One day I was driving on the freeway when an elk ran across the road. A picture flashed into my mind of a car rear-ending me. That would be the consequence for putting on the brakes. Another picture flashed up of an elk crashing through the windshield, which would be the consequence of swerving. A third picture came up of the elk passing in front of the car. That would happen if I just slowed down. Now three pictures were on the computer screen in my mind. I clicked on the slowing down choice and avoided an accident. I think what I have just described is how animals think. (Thinking in Pictures, 221)

If it’s true that at the core of autism there is an inability to develop a theory of the human mind – that is to say to understand the inner life of others, what motivates people to think and behave in the way that they do – then it is paradoxically matched in Grandin by a highly sophisticated theory of the animal mind. Just as importantly, hers is also a computational theory, as we can not only observe in the use of computer-based analogies evidenced in the passage above, but also infer from her reliance on a compartmentalised model of the mind in which different functions are not deeply enmeshed but rather neatly distributed.

Computational theories are central not only to fields of research such as evolutionary psychology, but also to our pop understanding of how the mind works. I believe this to be one of the reasons of autism’s remarkable mass cultural appeal. If the geeks of The Big Bang Theory really are everymen and not just objects of voyeuristic ridicule, as I would like to propose, it is because autism – and especially its so-called high-functioning manifestation – is increasingly seen as a cultural condition that is relevant outside the bounds of its clinical diagnosis.

Memory is central to this. One of Grandin’s cognitive advantages, the skill that perhaps more than any other has allowed her to succeed as an engineer and as a scientist, is what she describes as her computer-like capacity to retain highly detailed images in her working memory and save them in her long term memory, creating a repertoire to be manipulated to produce ever more complex conceptual and technical designs. When she had her first professional breakthrough – the design of a dip vat for vaccinating cattle for John Wayne’s Red River feed yard in Arizona – Grandin could not secure the services of a draughtsman in time for her deadline. However just by looking over his shoulder for a few minutes she was later able to produce a perfect design by means of what she stresses was an entirely mechanical process of imitation, down to the detail of purchasing the same brand of pencils.

Now most of us don’t have photographic memories, or the capacity to remember long lists of symbols and names, but our computers do, and if we could just use them to remember everything then maybe we could do anything, or at least keep our jobs, and live more ordered lives.

This is the inverse of the fractured autistic reality described by Jeff Noon, but it still carries a significant measure of anxiety. The stress of conforming and acquiring the required level of marketable skills; the struggle to carve out one’s place in a world that is increasingly socialised by means of algorithms: these are pressures that make the emotional palette of autistic people more broadly shared. The fear for one’s livelihood, the darting around of the eyes in search of economic predators are anxieties that define our times.

(Some of the analogies are almost depressingly obvious. Grandin writes touchingly about the complex system of rules that she designed as a teenager in order to comply with the demands of her peers and of her educators – rules that she had to be develop painfully, step by step, since they made no intuitive sense to her, nor could she infer one based on the others. Now consider our social media platforms, consider Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and who follows whom and how you manage your lists and who gets excluded and why: this is a direct translation of neurotypical patterns of socialisation into an autistic puzzle.)

Sometimes with Temple Grandin one can be blinded by the insight and the achievements and forget about the person. In this respect she was fortunate to find in Oliver Sacks an early biographer, and I commend his 1995 essay ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’ – the wonderful phrase is hers – for a characteristically humane account of Temple Grandin and her struggle not just for personal affirmation, but for meaning in a life that had no place for conventional friendship or romantic companionship. I hope that there are philosophers out there studying Grandin’s remarkable hyper-object-oriented ontology (in Thinking in Pictures she reveals, tantalisingly: ‘To this day certain verb conjugations, such as "to be," are absolutely meaningless to me’ (15)), but it’s her ethics that is at the same time more hopeful and more challenging.

There is in Grandin – and Sacks was perhaps the first to notice it and put it in words – a deeply felt, almost harrowing desire to make a lasting contribution to improving the lives of domesticated animals and autistic people. It is likely this aspiration for enduring meaning that makes her especially upset at the thought of memoricide, at assaults such as those on the library and the Olympic stadium at Sarajevo, designed not primarily to kill people or damage buildings but to obliterate culture itself.

Grandin has in fact garnered more than just recognition: she has become a heroic figure. But along with the possibilities that her remarkable achievements have unlocked for us, along with the hope that she inspires, come the implicit, bundled expectations: that with appropriate support and dedicated parents any autistic person can, and therefore should, become, if not like Temple Grandin, at least high-functioning. It is not a claim that she would make herself, quite the contrary, but the expectations are heavy, and fraught, and Grandin’s own attitudes towards the divide between the polar ends of the autism spectrum remain somewhat problematic.

When she published her first autobiographical work, in 1986, Grandin spoke explicitly, as did noted researcher Bernard Rimland in the foreword, of individuals who ‘recovered’ from autism, amongst whom she evidently included herself. She also described her own journey with a very uncharacteristic turn of phrase:
In 1950 I was labeled autistic and groped my way from the far side of the darkness. (Emergence, 11)
It is possible that this characterisation of the more profound depths of Grandin’s autism as a darkness came to her co-author, Margaret Scariano. In her later work Grandin never referred to the experience of those pre-verbal years as a void – in fact some of the most remarkable passages in her writings are the ones in which she describes those early states of being, still intact in her memory, as being awash with sensation and thought. The obvious connection here is with the stunning short film In My Language, in which Amanda Baggs asks us to accept that that world of sensation is not devoid of meaning, to see past that ghastly label, low-functioning, and to broaden our conceptual model of what counts as a full mind and a full person.

By contrast Temple Grandin includes amongst her achievements ‘becoming more normal’.
More knowledge makes me act more normal. Many people have commented to me that I act much less autistic now than I did ten years ago. […] My mind works just like an Internet search engine that has been set to access only images. The more pictures I have stored in the Internet inside my brain the more templates I have of how to act in a new situation. More and more information can be placed in more and more categories. The categories can be placed in trees of master categories with many subcategories. For example, there are jokes that make people laugh and jokes that do not work. (Thinking in Pictures, 31)
We are deep in the fraught territory of ‘overcoming disability’ here, and we might ask what is the point of appearing more and more normal – measured against the cognitive cost, the sheer work of it – once one has already been accepted by the community. Indeed several high-functioning autistic people have reported that continually smoothing out their symptoms for the sake of social convention can breed its own anxieties. Grandin’s cautioning against the possibility that a cure for autism, should it ever be found, would rid the species of the geniuses and highly creative thinkers that a mild combination of the genes might produce – expressed most recently in her 2010 talk at TED – is similarly problematic in that it subordinates the validity, the meaningfulness of the life of autistic people on what they can achieve, their utility. And while it is not my place to pass judgment on this belief, or pretend to be able to grasp the anguish and the distress, the isolation and the unhappiness that autism can bring, there is a growing chorus amongst ASD sufferers against this view, and one of the strongest voices belongs again to Ms Baggs. And so perhaps low-functioning autism is the new frontier, the new disabling label, operating as the autism label did when Grandin did the unthinkable and wrote an autobiography.

The spectrum of autism itself is an emblematic thinking tool: it grades people according to the degree of strangeness, of otherness, according to whether or not they are capable or prepared to mimic normal behaviour, and function – that most loaded of verbs – amongst their peers. We may have come to a new place, a place where we are ready to accept that diversity has other dimensions that cannot be plotted on a linear scale. But if we are there at all we owe it also to the courage, the strength and the clarity of Temple Grandin.

Temple Grandin and Margaret M. Scariano. Emergence: Labeled Autistic. New York: Grand Central Publishing 1995.

Temple Grandin. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Orlando: Harvest Books, 2005.

Oliver Sacks. ‘An Anthropologist on Mars.’ In An Anthropologist on Mars (London: Picador, 1995), pp. 232-282.

The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, dir. Emma Sutton. UK, 2006. (Available on YouTube)

Temple Grandin, dir. Mick Jackson. USA 2009.

On an entirely separate note, Toby Manhire has written a very generous review of this blog for The Listener - you can read it here. I'll see you in two weeks.