Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review - Emergence, Labeled Autistic

I have been thinking about this book quite a bit lately. It is a book I read shortly after our daughter's initial diagnosis of an autism disorder. I was reading everything I could about autism, but I was especially interested in trying to "get inside" my daughter's head and understand what she was experiencing. A good friend recommended this book. For those who may be unfamiliar, Temple Grandin, the co-author of this book and several others on related topics, is autistic. She was diagnosed with autism as a toddler (early 1950s) and struggled to overcome her various challenges and succeeded in many ways. Her mother, in particular, refused to accept certain expert opinions that her daughter's autism was cause for sending her away to an institution. Instead she devised an intervention program with speech therapy, play therapy, and individualized education programs at private schools. Thanks to her mother's perseverance, Dr. Grandin eventually learned about animal behavior, earned her Ph.D, and now teaches animal science at Colorado State University.

Dr. Grandin writes about several interesting facets of her autism. One is that doorways had a great sense of meaning to her. In particular she was anxious about passing through automatic doors, essentially having to force herself to run through them in order to enter a store; but at the same time she was always looking for what she called the "door to heaven", a doorway that would lead her to a place of comfort and calm. She also learned that she liked to feel pressure all along her body, but could not accept this sensation from human contact - a hug or embrace. While visiting her aunt she discovered a cattle chute and experimented with developing a device for people that would provide the "right" amount of pressure to calm them. Her experiments with this device eventually lead to her career in animal science.

One thing I've learned from reading this book is that reading one autistic person's biography is not sufficient for "getting into the head" of another autistic person. There is a saying that if you know one autistic child then you know one autistic child, and I have found it to be quite true among our special needs community. There are some interesting parallels, though, in Dr. Grandin's story and things I observe in my daughter. Doorways signify transitions, a common challenge for people with autism. Interestingly, my daughter is currently fascinated with the automatic doors at our nearby supermarket because there are four swinging automatic doors, but only two are for going in and two are for going out. The other day she wanted to go "out" one of the "in" doors and I explained that it wouldn't be safe to do that because if someone else was coming in she might get hit with the door. Now she just wants to choose which door to go in (or out) but she always comments on how we have to go in (or out) the right ones. Another similarity is the need for pressure. My daughter currently seems to crave this around her head area. When she is at home she has a white mesh laundry bag that she ties around her head as if it is a wig of hair.

Dr. Grandin's story is one of challenge and success, and one that I think is quite enlightening and a must-read for those who live and work with autistic individuals. It is definitely an encouragement to all parents of special needs children to support their children in any effort to find their place in the world. It just might be a very significant place.


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