Saturday, February 20, 2010

When does a nerd turn into an autistic?

That was a priceless line from Temple Grandin's TED talk as she argued that autism is a continuum. Grandin gave us a glimpse into how her mind works: "I think in pictures", she stated in her brusque no-nonsense manner. Where normal people (her term, not mine) see the big picture, she sees the detail.

This focus on visual detail has been crucial in her career of working with animals. She has seen, where others haven't, what spooks an animal. To most people, a person walking and a person sitting on a horse are conflated to the same thing. But not to an animal. And not to an autistic with a focus on the detail rather than the big picture. Such insights have been the key to Grandin's successes in humane livestock handling.

It was interesting to see Grandin talk quite soon after seeing her interviewed in the movie The Horse Boy. To my chagrin, I'd missed the movie at Toronto Hot Docs, where it was known as Over The Hills And Far Away. The movie chronicles the story of an autistic boy Rowan Isaacson, for whom being with animals was about the only thing that could soothe him. His family takes him on a pony trek in Mongolia to visit shamans, after which he reaches a new level of behavioural calmness.

Grandin's also the subject of an autobiographical movie, named simply Temple Grandin, that aired recently on HBO. Must keep an eye out for that one. It got great reviews.

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