Wednesday, February 24, 2016

This Amazing World: Temple Grandin

I stumbled on the movie Temple Grandin over the weekend, and was utterly rocked by it. Inspirational but not sappy; thought-provoking but leaving you heart-filled, not emptied-out. It came out in 2010, so as usual, I'm late to the party. But so glad I finally made it.

It's a biographical movie about a woman with Autism, who grew up in a time when it was seen as a psychological issue (usually blaming the mom, who presumably had 'withheld love' at some mysterious yet crucial moment), and the usual course was to institutionalize. This alone just makes my heart break, for all of those patients, and their parents and families.

But because of her family, a few key mentors, and an unbelievable amount of self-determination and bravery, Temple was able to go to college, get a master's degree and a doctorate, and crucially -- is now able to communicate to others what it is like to have autism, and help shape treatment and education for those on the spectrum. She is a bridge. Of the most unique and sturdy stuff.

Her speech at an Autism convention (as portrayed in the movie)
Amazon Movie (free on Prime)

My favorite of her youtube speeches:
2013 at a Humanities Conference

Her shorter speeches cut a lot of context from things that she says. To better understand her, watch the longer one, but these are still great in their own right:
At Ted Talks
At Google

Her story is compelling for so many reasons, not the least of which -- while I'm pretty sure my brain never quite worked in the 'normal' way, the way it works now, post-illness is incredibly altered. Like there's a road-block across my normal though-processing that I'm constantly having to drive around.

Sure I might usually get where I'm going but it takes a lot of different inputs and workarounds to get there. So I'm fascinated by the brain scans she talks about, and the ways they are beginning to identify the biological reasons why some folks are just 'wired' differently.

I love the story of her 'aha' moment: around age 40, when she realized that the way her brain works -- thinking in pictures, but more than that -- like a search engine for images, translating everything into an image and then pulling up every picture she's ever seen that is associated with it -- is completely different from how other people think.

Here are some of my takeaways from the movie and from her talks, as I've been mulling them over the past few days:

- the 4 types of a 'specialist' brain (and there can be a mixture):
Photo realistic visual thinking - poor at algebra
Pattern thinking (spatial visualizer) music and math -- poor in reading
Verbal facts language translation -- poor at drawing
Auditory thinker - visual perception fragmented

- it's okay to be eccentric. We need people who think differently. It takes different skill-sets to problem-solve, create, and implement solutions.

- when does normal variation become an abnormality? the line between geeky/socially awkward and the Autism spectrum is incredibly blurry. Just like the line between artistic/creative and bipolar can sometimes be.

- we lose resourceful problem solving skills when we fail to teach kids things like cooking, building, and sewing. (Hands-on, practical things dealing with concrete problems and solutions). I would add -- things like recovering from mistakes, and learning how to fail.

- the importance of the call placed on all of us to help others build on strengths and overcome weakness; to show patience and make space for those who are 'different not less'.

- the idea that policy makers need to directly experience the consequences of their actions, and that most problems need to be solved in individual contexts -- "what to do about mainstreaming Autistic children" is not the right question -- what child, what classroom, what teacher, what parents -- these are very specific and very different circumstances that lead to completely different answers. One national solution (to any problem) is rarely going to be the best thing for any given person.

- the silos need to talk to each other -- gifted groups, autistic groups, teaching groups, creative groups, engineering groups --- the world is big and getting bigger every day, so we compensate by making the part of it we encounter smaller and more perfectly tailored towards what we know and like. Step Out. Amazing things happen when a doctor volunteers at a homeless shelter, or an art teacher volunteers at a hospital, or an autistic woman teaches a class on neuro-diversity to a group of corporate executives.

- get uncomfortable -- be around people and circumstances that challenge you. Build on your strengths, use them to compensate for your weaknesses. But be bold. Walk through the frightening Door Of Opportunity.

She says what she thinks. and sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. Especially in that moment right before they realize where she's going with a statement. Which is awesome. We are so good at filtering out everything we disagree with or are uneasy about. And good at filtering our own selves, playing down the most eccentric, unique, parts of us.

Here is this incredible person who walks out on stage and says exactly how she sees the world. Who gets to the truth of the matter. Steps over convention and gets things done. How rare and brave and wonderful.

More About the Research: 

'Autism discovery' - brain imaging reveals language development differences

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