Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review - Thinking in Pictures

Thinking In Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with AutismI recently finished reading Temple Grandin's book, Thinking in Pictures. I had already read her earlier work, Emergence, Labeled Autistic and reviewed it here. I have to admit I am fascinated by her life and soak up everything I can learn about her and from her. To date this is the closest thing I can find to getting inside my daughter's head to understand more about how she experiences the world around her. That may sound strange if you aren't familiar with the language barrier that we still struggle with just to relate events of the day. Yesterday my daughter told me she had said a "bad word" at school and had to promise the principal she wouldn't say it again. After several minutes of asking questions and deciphering I learned that she had said, "stupid clock" and evidently somehow the principal found out (maybe just the "stupid" part) and sat down to talk with her about it during lunch. I still don't know if she was in trouble over it, or how the principal found out or a lot of the other details. Talking about these things too much (giving them too much attention) can sometimes backfire into repeat performances, which obviously I want to avoid since she promised the principal she wouldn't say it anymore. So after learning enough to get the general idea I changed topics (knowing in the back of my mind that I may need to follow up with the principal at some point). This is just one daily incident that a neuro-typical kid either wouldn't tell their parent at all (for fear of getting in trouble) or would be able to explain fully without being lead along by questions and clarifications. Imagine trying to really probe her emotions (which she doesn't really get anyway) or asking her to explain how she perceives light, sound, temperature, surprises or facial expressions...all topics that I'd really like to understand better.

Temple Grandin has been there and has enough written clarity to explain her experiences in terms that I can understand and relate to. I have no illusions that her experiences are identical to my daughter's, but particularly in Thinking in Pictures she has also interviewed other adults with autism to supplement her own experiences and give a more well-rounded description of how autism affects the way people think.

I found the idea of thinking in pictures to be a little hard to grasp. I am a very weak visual learner (maybe because I have had poor eyesight since age 6?). I am more auditory and kinesthetic. Still when Temple talked about running a video in her mind to visualize a new piece of equipment or a new design project, I could relate it to my own tendency to replay conversations in my head -- usually coming up with the perfect comeback hours after it is needed. I am not sure if my daughter is visually oriented or not. I know that visual aids (schedules, signs, rewards, etc.) are helpful to her and that she has an amazing sense of color, but I don't know if she remembers things visually or not. I'll be looking for signs of this skill.

The other key analogy Dr. Grandin makes in Thinking in Pictures is the similarity of fear-based responses in animals (particularly cattle) and individuals with autism. She talks about the loud whooshing sound of air-brakes on buses and semi-trucks and how they can cause cattle to balk. Although my daughter has overcome a lot of her anxiety triggers, this is one thing that she still struggles with. As we walk to school she often walks with her hands over her ears when buses are nearby and sometimes freezes and refuses to walk past them. I can't understand the root of this fear, but knowing it is a common trigger I try to remember to just support her as we walk by instead of getting frustrated when she freezes. There are other anxiety triggers that we continue to work around and take baby steps toward eliminating. Many of them have to do with restrooms - another place where that whooshing sound occurs and in this case has added other associations that trigger anxiety - doors that don't latch, automatic flushing mechanisms, stainless steel fixtures, multiple stalls, and on it goes. One trigger begets many triggers and any one of them may peg the anxiety meter and make an everyday event become an obstacle to surpass.

There is also a chapter on Dr. Grandin's religious views, which was interesting to read. I think my daughter is beginning to understand on a thought level the tenets of our Christian faith, and I am hopeful that soon she will make that faith her own in her heart. It was interesting to see how Dr. Grandin thinks about these things. There is also a chapter about dating and romantic relationships which may be important a little later on here...

Although I don't think I learned a lot about the main points of autism, Thinking in Pictures sort of filled in the details and made some of the finer points come into focus. I recommend reading it if you have a similar passion of wanting to understand this challenging disorder.


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