WSJ profile of Temple Grandin

Via Ann Althouse, here is an excellent profile of professor Temple Grandin (who suffers from high-functioning autism). The profile is marred by one repeated embarrassing typo: spelling “Asperger” as “Aspberger”. Ann Althouse wonders if that was Cleopatra’s last meal.

A few choice quotes:

‘Who do you think made the first stone spear?” asks Temple Grandin. “That wasn’t the yakkity yaks sitting around the campfire. It was some Aspberger sitting in the back of a cave figuring out how to chip rocks into spearheads. Without some autistic traits you wouldn’t even have a recording device to record this conversation on.”

Heh.

As many as one in 110 American children are affected by autism spectrum disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.

[…]

People on the “[autism] spectrum” tend to be just as obsessed with things and the way things work as they are uninterested in social relationships. And, as Ms. Grandin observed, people interested in things make important advancements—particularly in engineering, science and technology.

Which is not to say she romanticizes this disorder. […] What sets Ms. Grandin apart is that she knows what autism feels like, and, unlike so many others with the disorder, she can articulate it.

Last week, the American Psychiatric Association unveiled its proposed revisions to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the bible of the field. Up for revision are Aspergers and autism. The association recommends scrapping both and replacing them with the umbrella label of “autism spectrum disorders.”

“From a scientific standpoint, Aspergers and autism are one syndrome,” Ms. Grandin says, reflecting the scholarly consensus. “Aspergers is part of the autism spectrum, not a separate disorder.” But “the problem is you have a whole lot of people that have labels and identify with the label.”

There is, she says, a “strong genetic basis” for autism, and she has a “very typical family history” that includes anxiety and depression on both sides of the family, intellectual giftedness, lots of food allergies and engineers (“my grandfather was an engineer who invented the automatic pilot for airplanes”). This is why, she says, “there tends to be a lot of autism around the tech centers . . . when you concentrate the geeks, you’re concentrating the autism genetics.”

Many talk of an autism epidemic—has there been a spike in autism lately? “You know the geeks have always been here. They used to call them geeks, nerds and dorks. Now they’re getting labeled [Asperger]s—there’s just a point where it’s just normal personality variation.”

Of course, pretty much every psychological or (in this case) cognitive disorder is just a more extreme version of personality traits that can be found in “normal” people.

[H]er advice [about raising children with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism] is simple: It’s about hard work. Young children need 20 or 30 hours a week of one-on-one time with a committed teacher or mentor. Money, Ms. Grandin says, should not be an obstacle. If you can’t afford a professional teacher, find volunteers through your church or synagogue, she says. Parents need to teach 1950s-style social rules “like please and thank you, basic table manners, how to shop.”

There have to be high expectations. She’s worried about the “handicapped mentality” that she thinks is increasing. “When I see these kids with 150 IQ and their parents want to put them on Social Security [disability], it drives me nuts.” These kids “will come up to the book table and start talking about ‘my Aspergers.’ Why don’t you talk about becoming a chemist, or a computer programmer, or a botanist?”

She continues: “It’s important to get these autistic kids out and exposed to stuff. You’ve got to fill up the database.” Silicon Valley and the tech companies are like “heaven on earth for the geeks and the nerds. And I want to see more and more of these smart kids going into the tech industry and inventing things—that’s what makes America great.”

Ms. Grandin lives in a simple apartment in Fort Collins, Colo., and has used the profits from her books to put students through school. “Four PhDs I’ve already done, I’m working on my fifth right now. I have graduate students at Colorado State—some of them I let in the back door, like me: older, nontraditional students. And I’ve gotten them good jobs.”

Now here is somebody I take my hat off for — or cover my head for, in Jewish culture 🙂 Read the whole thing, as they say.

Big Mike, a commenter at Althouse’s, offers a first-person perspective:

Asperger’s syndrome is not a disability. It merely means that one has trouble putting oneself in other people’s shoes, and viewing things from other people’s perspective. The ability of individuals with Asperger’s syndrome to read body language is impaired, and they tend to be socially inept.

(It has not escaped my notice that this perhaps sounds like a few of the regular commentators on this blog.)

But that’s nothing that can’t be learned, provided one understands what the problem is and is willing to study the human beings around you the way psych students in college study lab rats. High school is Hell, but by college an Asperger’s person should be able to get by and even thrive.

One can have Asperger’s and still be a champion athlete. One can have Asperger’s and still learn to work well in teams, though an Asperger’s person will always do better in situations that focus on individual performance. One can still woo and win a beautiful woman. We do have (oops!) brains that are better-wired for mathematics and the hard sciences, and we tend to be well above the norm as problem-solvers. Because we have had to study human beings more thoroughly than regular people, Asperger’s people can do quite well as a trial lawyer or actor (not that there’s that much difference one from the other).

But high school is really Hell.

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