Oliver Sacks is a neurologist and author of An Anthropologist on Mars that looks at several neurological conditions and how they affect people and their behaviours. The book is very engaging and Sacks (1995) takes us on a journey with these individuals in their own environments. One such person was an American professor Temple Grandin, who has a PHD in Animal Science and is a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour. She speaks publicly about being on the Autistic Spectrum and how she has overcome the restrictions the condition inflicts upon her. She also speaks openly about her own personal experiences.
The word Autism still conveys a fixed and dreadful meaning to most people, they visualise it to be a mute child, rocking, screaming, inaccessible, cut off from human contact. And we almost always speak of autistic children but never of autistic adults as if such children never grow up or were somehow mysteriously spirited off the planet, out of society. Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (1995).
Autism spectrum disorders over the last ten years have increased to 1 in 110 and is more common in boys than girls. An individual with ASD requires different approaches in parenting and teaching and can have a huge impact on the person and family members.
An individual with autism perceives the world differently. They are very rigid in thinking and find the rest of us confusing. They need to adapt to the world they live in and use their positive strengths to form relationships with their peers.
Autism can affect an individual functioning normally in developmental stages of childhood. It may not become obvious until around the age of two, but sometimes not until later, even six and is often not diagnosed in girls until teenage years.
The individual has a social impairment that affects their inability to connect with peers, lack of regard of social cues, improper behaviours, limited use of gestures, peculiar and stiff fixed look. Asperger’s Syndrome (Tony Attwood).
ASD can present from mild to severe and it is imperative to get an early diagnosis so the individual can start therapies to improve behaviour, social communication and interaction.
Sacks (1995) explains about the myths of Autism and the findings of Kenner and Asperger. He tells about the refrigerator mother theory that became unfound and recognized the autistic child’s desire for sameness. He also explains how the autistic child becomes removed from the world around them and why they could not speak. This explains why Temple Grandin still did not speak at aged three and failed to meet the usual developmental milestones. Sacks did wonder how she ever moved from her diagnosis of Autism at the age of three with her fixations and violent rages which almost led her to be institutionalised, to becoming an expert in her field and a world-wide lecturer.
AUTISM AND SPECIAL INTERESTS AND ROUTINES
Individuals with autism often have a special interest that seem to take over the individuals time and life. These are different to compulsive disorders as the individual needs these in order to feel relaxed or to provide a routine.
Sometimes in families it can become a challenge as the individual may not want to talk about or do anything else. There can be strategies that can be tried, to eliminate or reduce a special interest.
This can include, controlled access which can be very successful and also the introduction of motivational activities using the individual’s special interest as a reward and something that can be earned.
If these strategies are successful, we can improve the individual’s concentration levels for longer periods of time and encourage constructive applications of their interests. These individuals can then have a very rewarding career.
Temple Grandin (1990) describes how one her teachers used her special interest in a positive way.
Mr Carlock used my fixation on cattle squeeze chutes to motivate me to study science and learn how to use the scientific indexes. He told me that in order to really learn about my interests I had to learn scientific methods and study in school. The psychologists and the councillors wanted to get rid of my weird interest, but Mr Carlock broadened it away from a narrow fixation into the basis of a lifelong career. Today I travel all over the world designing stockyards and chutes for major meat-packing firms. Recently I designed a more humane cattle restraint device that will probably be adopted by the major beef packing plants. Now I am leader in my field and have written over 100 technical papers on livestock handling. If the psychologists had been successful in taking away my cattle chute fixation, maybe I would be vegetating somewhere watching soap operas.
There is also evidence that the introduction of a routine can provide predictability and eliminate chaos and uncertainty in an individual with autisms life. When they experience change a routine may be required to reduce anxiety and provide regularity.
It is important for the carer to ensure the routine doesn’t become too excessive or too predictable and as they get older the requirement of routine seems to lessen. If we can make sure there is a limited amount of change, we can lessen anxiety and improve their means of coping.
THE CASE OF TEMPLE GRANDIN
Sacks (1995) talks of Temple Grandin and how she developed huge concentration levels and an intense attention to detail that earned her PHD in Animal Science. She used her special interest to become hugely successful in her field. She credits her visualization abilities to helping her understand the animal she works with. She has also realised from working with other people that her visual abilities far exceeds that of others.
While growing up Temple had demonstrated many autistic characteristics saying she felt like a trapped animal and describes her sensory processing as severally heightened. She explains that she sometimes would hear the world with agonizing volume. She didn’t understand rules or human relationships. At three years old she became destructive and sometimes violent.
People with Autism find it hard to understand and control their emotions. This does not mean that they have an inability to care for somebody but gets confused easily by other people’s emotions and finds expressing their own emotions challenging.
This ability to understand emotions can become natural to many individuals but may need to be taught to an individual with Autism. There are many strategies we can use and projects can be undertaken, using one emotion at a time.
In the case of Temple, she could understand simple emotions but not complex ones and the games people play. She struggled to understand how people behaved in different circumstances and had to educate herself by constantly reading journals.
Although learning these emotional skills can seem like a huge task, there is a huge positive response to strategies and therapies when the individual is intelligent and motivated.
AUTISM AND UNIQUE TALENTS
Sacks experience with Temple led him to believe that autistic individuals have unique talents. The stereotypical society think that Autistic individuals are abnormal or disabled. The abilities of these individuals may be different but should be accepted by society and should not be the basis of handling these children differently (Sacks 1995). Sometimes the long-term outcomes are very positive and the individual with ASD can progress to a point where the diagnostic criteria for ASD do not describe what qualities remain.
He pierces into the world of Autism and views it as another view of the world. Children develop and acquire lots of skills at different stages. Some people think that you can fix autism and that these individuals are sick. The strengths and weaknesses of these individuals depends on the severity of the Autism. (Robertson 2010). Society needs to adopt a new approach to these individuals so they can become more accepted.
Temple, Sacks describes, found it difficult to understand social language but thrived on the language of science and technology.
An Anthropologist on Mars focuses on disorders, one of them being Autism. Autistic individuals can possess exceptional talents that go beyond neurotypical children. An autistic individual may have unique talents rarely seen in a normal child. Temple Grandin was an exceptional individual with Autism who became a Professor in Animal Science and lectures all over the world about living with Autism. Sacks analyses Temple Grandin and concludes that Temple was a virtuous human being who had a passionate sense of right or wrong. An autistic individual can use their special interest with proper guidance and support to forge a life long career. Like Temple they can learn the skills necessary to live and work in this environment. They can be taught social and interactive skills that come naturally to a normal neurotypical child. Autistic individuals such as Temple construct the world in a different way. Temple may appear to lack social skills but is skilled in other representations.
Grandin, T. (1986). Emergence Labeled Autistic
Attwood, T. (1998). Aspergers Syndrome ,A Guide for parents and professionals
Duetsch, S. (2011) Autism Spectrum Disorders
Chuthapisith, J. ; Ruangdaraganon, N. (2011) Early Detection of Autism Spectrum Disorders
Grandin, T. (1995) Thinking in Pictures
Sacks, O. (1995) An Antropologist on Mars New York: Vintage Books
Robertson, S (2010) Nuerodiversity, quality of life and autistic adults. Disability study quarterly vol.30