On an NPR This I Believe feature, livestock facilities designer Temple Grandin had this to say:
Because I have autism, I live by concrete rules instead of abstract beliefs. And because I have autism, I think in pictures and sounds. I don’t have the ability to process abstract thought the way that you do. Here’s how my brain works: It’s like the search engine Google for images. If you say the word “love” to me, I’ll surf the Internet inside my brain. Then, a series of images pops into my head. What I’ll see, for example, is a picture of a mother horse with a foal, or I think of “Herbie the Lovebug,” scenes from the movie Love Story or the Beatles song, “Love, love, love…”
. . . I believe that doing practical things can make the world a better place. And one of the features of being autistic is that I’m good at synthesizing lots of information and creating systems out of it.
When I was creating my first corral back in the 1970s, I went to 50 different feedlots and ranches in Arizona and Texas and helped them work cattle. In my mind, I cataloged the parts of each facility that worked effectively and assembled them into an ideal new system. I get great satisfaction when a rancher tells me that my corral design helps cattle move through it quietly and easily. When cattle stay calm, it means they are not scared. And that makes me feel I’ve accomplished something important.
Grandin’s complete essay can be found here.
As painful and challenging as it may be for a family to deal with an autistic child, Temple Grandin’s essay raises a few questions about our collective attitudes about autism that stand out in bold relief against the backdrop of a world ready to belch away its 4 billion-year-old gas attack we have come to appreciate as life on Earth. Although scientists seem to disagree whether increases in autism rates reflect an actual increase in the prevalence of autism or merely an increase in the diagnosis of it, it is intriguing to think that the characteristics of autism that Temple Grandin celebrates in her essay — the ability to synthesize massive amounts of information, the ability to create new systems from such syntheses, a practical outlook — are capabilities which seem tailor-made for dealing with the dizzying amount of information that we are creating for ourselves so rapidly here in the 21st century.
The non-autistic response to the speed of information creation today is often to let the info-stream get the better of you, leaving you to achieve varying levels of social and emotional dysfunction, or to live in a defeated, vacuous, non-productive haze. Some people have the ability to live easily in a kind of every-day, blood-hardy contentment while navigating the traps and snares of the Earth’s information explosion, but of course, we seem to be in the minority. (And, to be frank, I’m often accused of being mentally retarded or a sociopath whenever I can achieve a state of bliss amidst a state of chaos — but maybe that’s just me.) Abstract thinking is highly valued within our society, as is language acquisition — but they’re not necessarily the best survival tools we have. They often produce counterproductive results — particularly as the world around us crumbles, and the most socially-functional among us persist in talking and thinking the world’s problems to death.
Various information theorists opine that humanity, generation after generation, has always seemed to be able to stretch its capacity to deal with ever-increasing amounts of information — and that this phenomenon can almost be characterized as an immutable law. Is it unreasonable to think that autism is a clever adaptation of our tiny brains to an exponentially more complex informational framework?
If this kind of thinking offends you, do forgive me for being optimistic about autism — I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, and my zazen went particularly well this morning.