Monday, September 26, 2011

The mystery of high functioning autism

I used to think of Temple Grandin as someone who'd been severely autistic as a child but made extraordinary progress during adolescence and early adulthood. My impressions came largely from Grandin's Thinking in Pictures, in which she notes that at two and a half she had "no speech and no interest in people," and then mostly discusses her adolescent and adult years. It was only in the last month, when I finally got around to reading Grandin's earlier memoir, Emergence, that I realized how much of her extraordinary progress must have occurred in early childhood.

Here she is, for example, as a fourth grader:

One time when I was visiting my friend, Sue Hart, we were playing in her hayloft. From the loft we looked down on the garden of Mrs. McDonnell, our fourth grade teacher. Sue said, "Bet you can't throw the red jack ball into Mrs. McDonell's bird bath."
So I threw the ball from the loft and bounced it out off the bird bath. For some reason, I don't know why, there were about a hundred big brown empty whiskey bottles up in that hayloft. Sue said, "Why don't you throw a whiskey bottle out?"
So I threw the bottle and it smashed the bird bath... We proceeded to throw everyone one of those whiskey bottles out of the hayloft against the fourth grade teacher's chimney, her sidewalk, her porch, her rose bushes. There was broken glass all over her garden.
The next day in school Mrs. McDonnell told the class about the terrible damage that had been done to her garden. I wasn't about to get caught so at lunch time I sat down next to Mrs. McDonnell in the cafeteria. "Mrs. McDonnell, what a terrible thing to happen to your lovely garden," I said.
"Thank you, Temple, for caring." Mrs McDonnell smiled warmly at me.
For once, I looked her straight in the eye and told her that I had no idea who had ruined her garden. "But I was at my friend Sue's house," I said, "and we saw Robert Lewis and Burt Jenkins near your house yesterday."
"Thank you for telling me this, Temple. You're a nice little girl to care."
...
I didn't feel bad about getting [Robert and Burt] in trouble. They might have done it if they'd thought of it.
A few paragraphs later we find her proposing to her cousin that they did up his neighbor's yard after he complains that they are tattletales and says he'd "sure like to fix them."  When Peter worries that he'll get blamed, Temple giggles "Who's to blame? The dogs did it."

A number of things are remarkable here:

So I threw the ball from the loft and bounced it out off the bird bath: understanding linguistic idioms and social gambits ("Bet you can't...")

What a terrible thing to happen to your lovely garden: complex language, conversationally appropriate remarks, and sophisticated deception.

Mrs McDonnell smiled warmly at me: facial expression reading.

They might have done it if they'd thought of it: complex perspective taking.

Who's to blame? The dogs did it: sophisticated, non-literal subtext.

By Junior High her deception (and interest in others) becomes even more (self-sacrificingly) sophisticated:
When I think about it now, I realize that part of my mischief... was the thrill of wondering what would happen--the reaction of my peers--and if I'd get caught. A good example of this was gym class, where I'd wait until the other girls had gone into the gym and then hide their classroom clothes. When gym was over, I laughed and laughed to myself as I watched them run around trying to find their clothes... I always hid mine, too, so I wouldn't be a suspect.
If you watch and listen to Temple Grandin today, and if you know what to look for, you see immediately that she's the real thing. Her face, her gaze, her gestures, her tone of voice, her responses to spontaneous questions: all of these cry out Asperger's. But the social and linguistic skills of her early childhood--so seldom the focus of today's discussions and publications about her--cast all of this in a new light. Now the big mystery isn't how Grandin became such a high functioning adult, but how she went from "no speech and no interest in people" at two and a half to the level of social sophistication we see at nine or ten, and how, despite all this early sophistication, she still remains, after all these decades, so squarely on the spectrum.

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