The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum
By Temple Grandin and Richard Panek
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Reviewed by Linda M. Olsen, M.Ed.
The authors write, “Isn’t the diagnosis of autism based on behavior? Isn’t our whole approach to autism a result of what experience looks like from the outside “acting self”, rather than what the experience feels like for the inside “thinking self?” They discuss the advances in neuroimaging and other ways of better understanding the person labeled “autistic”.
When autism was first diagnosed by Leo Kanner in l943 he and others thought the causes could be biological or psychological. Were autistic symptoms caused by nature or nurture? Did they come into the world like this or did they acquire them from bad parenting? Thinking by doctors and scientists has changed since then and continues to do so. Temple Grandin reports this is due to the use of new research; neuroimaging and genetic research. She also stresses the importance of looking at the symptoms individuals exhibit one by one, not all together. It is the authors’ strong contention that the brain needs to be examined not just the symptoms. This new way of thinking about autism is that it is not in the mind, but in the brain! They discuss the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which shows us what the brain actually looks like structurally and the Functional Magnetic Resonance (FMRI) which shows the brain actually functioning in response to sensory stimuli. What this does is to match behaviors of the ASD diagnosis to the biology of the brain. They contend that a diagnosis based in biology is near at hand not just basing it on behaviors.
Temple Grandin shares her personal story of when she had a series of MRI scans in 2010. From these scans they discovered there was a disturbance to her parietal cortex which could explain why she had trouble performing tasks that required her to follow several instructions in short order. Her problems with algebra could be explained by this same disturbance because it is associated with math skills. Thousands of neuro-imaging studies of autistic brains show a solid match between autistic behavior and brain function. She says, “diagnosis based not on behaviors alone, but on biology as well would make a big difference in predicting deficits and targeting treatments”.
This is where the importance of examining genetics is a contributor to understanding where autism comes from. The authors discuss at length research and many studies that the person’s DNA plays in autism. Heredity along with possible environmental factors should also be considered. Such things as the mother’s diet during pregnancy, and harmful fumes should also be taken into account. Finally, neuro-imaging helps to answer the question of what does that look like in the brain. Genetics has allowed scientists to answer the question, “How does the brain do what it does?”
In sum, the message of the book is that neuroimaging and biology steer us to examine symptoms individually instead of all together as the label “autism”. By doing this we can discover each person’s strengths and concentrate on further developing these. This helps to make them feel better about themselves and able to contribute more to society. Temple shares that when Richard Panek and she started working on the book, they worked well together because their brains were wired differently and they were able to complement each other’s strengths. The authors’ hope is that all the evidence pointing out that autism is in one’s brain and genes will affect
potential employers and others in a more positive way towards those diagnosed as autistic. Included is a section that names specific jobs that would suit picture thinkers, word fact thinkers, and pattern thinkers.
I found The Autistic Brain to be a
positive and hope-filled read.