The early days of autism

Temple Grandin has a new book out this year —The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum — and Slate has an excerpt: The Autistic Brain: The origins of the diagnosis of autism — and the parental guilt-tripping that went along with it. It’s only a couple pages, but it’s an insightful look at how the culture and level of knowledge at the time can lead to radically different diagnoses and treatment approaches.

Not familiar with Grandin?  Here’s the first part of a mid-2000s BBC documentary about her, which was how I was first introduced to this fascinating woman:


You can watch her 2010 TED talk, “The world needs all kinds of minds” (which is also the name of a 2012 documentary about her that is available online). And if that isn’t enough, there are clips online from the HBO biopic Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes, which won seven Emmys.

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Autism Awareness Month-April

Tomorrow starts the first day of Autism Awareness Month, each year the challenge is to find away to light your life up blue. For those who want to know more there is of course a Facebook page:

www.facebook.com/worldautismawarenessday

The official calender day worldwide is April 2nd.

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“Be special someplace else”

Learning the social norms of public spaces, including how to interact with the variety of people you’ll meet there, is generally part of our upbringing.  My most vivid memory from before age 5 is this: walking through the dairy aisle of a grocery store with my mom, looking around, and suddenly having her grab me and hiss that I needed to stop staring. I was baffled. Staring at what? She furiously told me, “Those people are our neighbors and they’re dwarves and it’s rude to stare.” That’s when it clicked that she was talking about a short woman and her shorter son nearby, who hadn’t previously registered in my consciousness as unusual in any way. My face burned red with confusion and embarrassment (and decades as a high self-monitor ensued).

Perhaps that’s why I found this Slate essay by the mother of an autistic teenager so interesting. She cites a couple of recent examples of public behavioral conflict involving an autistic man and a child with Down’s syndrome and writes about her own challenges. Do other patrons have a right to quiet enjoyment of a meal when there is an excited autistic child nearby?  Does the family of that autistic child have a right to have dinner in a restaurant without being hidden in the back?

Amy S.F. Lutz says this:

As anyone who’s ever parented young children knows, there are two ways of sharing: taking turns or using something together. Turn-taking seems to be particularly in vogue of late, at least when it comes to autistic people in the community: Zoos, amusement parks, bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, movie theaters and purveyors of just about any type of entertainment imaginable are setting aside time particularly for individuals with autism and their families. These are fabulous programs that allow autistic children to have fun and try new activities. They also take the pressure off parents…  Philosophically, however, it bothers me: What are my children, and my friend’s children, learning about the place of the disabled in the community?

It’s an excellent question. Let me turn it to another example that may be more personal for many of us: At the university, I have had a couple of classes with a young woman with an autism spectrum disorder. The first days were the most difficult as the professor and other students learned to expect her outbursts, lack of restraint, and her harsh tone of voice. She’s very smart and often insightful, but her behavior is disruptive and has an effect on everyone in the room. Weeks into the semester, frustrated groans and awkward laughter could still be heard from distant rows whenever she blurted out a random comment. (To their credit, both professors I observed in this situation did an excellent job of trying to manage her outbursts firmly but appreciatively and to encourage the rest of the students to participate.) What should our expectations be? Are the other students learning a free lesson in tolerance and acceptance? Does the autistic student’s right to participate in the classroom take precedence over the rights of the other students, who are paying the same tuition for the class?

These aren’t new questions, and our attitudes now may be more accepting, but I don’t think we’ve reached a consensus about what is fair — or at least best, if not fair — for everyone.

An ongoing Asperger’s narrative

There’s a common theme in much of the writing I enjoy: personal narratives from smart, introspective, odd people.  That’s why I can’t resist Penelope Trunk.  Penelope founded three start-up companies, wrote a bestselling career advice book, and she’s now homeschooling her children and making goat cheese.  She also has Asperger’s Syndrome and she speaks about her mental processes and challenges in clear, explicit posts like “Why I’m difficult in meetings” and “What it’s like to have sex with someone with Asperger’s“.

Penelope Trunk

Penelope can be controversial and shocking in her directness, and her blog mixes career advice, trendspotting, and her personal life.  It also provides a chance to see the world through the eyes of someone whose perspective may be very different from most of ours, described vividly and intelligently.  Worth a look.