Friday, February 26, 2010

Temple Grandin's TED Talk on Autism

After listening to Temple Grandin’s TED talk, “The world needs all kinds of minds,” I spent a lot of time learning more about Temple and her accomplishments. As a child, Temple Grandin suffered from severe autism, but as an adult she became famous for developing more effective and humane protocols in the cattle industry and she become a prominent speaker to help others understand autism. She posits that her acute visual thinking (and hampered verbal abilities) helped her gain insight into the animal mind and this is the cause for her success in the cattle industry.

In addition to her TED talk, I also listened to the BBC special “The Woman Who Thinks like a Cow.” I would strongly recommend watching this video if you want to gain some insight into Temple’s life and accomplishments. I also plan to check out one of her books sometime in the near future.

I think Temple does a fantastic job of accomplishing two things: 1) helping the audience understand how autistic people think and 2) emphasizing the need for individuals with “autistic-like” traits and encouraging those with “unique [minds]” to find jobs that suit their abilities.

For reasons of brevity, I will simply encourage you to watch the TED talk if you want to gain insight into how an autistic mind works. However, I would like to think more carefully about Temple’s second point.

Temple emphasizes that society needs different types of thinkers for different types of jobs. For example, she often remarks that an autistic mind is well-suited for a job in Silicon Valley. Now, I do agree that we should be aware that people (such as highly functioning autistic individuals) can very talented at certain things but bad at other tasks. However, I think she occasionally takes this argument a little too far.

Namely, I think Temple overestimates the role of autistic individuals in society and underestimates the tragic life of severely autistic individuals. Previous to this TED talk, she claimed “[society] would still be socializing around the fire if it was not for autistic individuals.”  When questioned about this claim during the question and answer session after her TED talk, she responded “Who do you think made the first spears? An Asperger guy.” While it is true that many highly functioning autistic individuals can have a heightened sense of perception and analytical abilities, it is not safe to assume that social skills are always antagonistic to analytical thinking. There are many individuals who have both verbal and visual talents. For example, a good physician needs both analytical and communication skills in order to succeed at his or her job. Although I agree that most people have a dominant style of thinking, overall aptitude varies significantly between individuals and it is not necessarily safe to assume that verbal and visual skills are mutually exclusive. To be fair, Temple does mention that about one-half of autistic individuals will never learn how to talk and therefore cannot maintain a job and independent lifestyle. For this reason, I question Temple’s broad claim that autism genes are good for society. Autism is a spectrum of disorders, and severe autism devastates the lives of many individuals. Even Temple has to take antidepressants in order to conduct everyday functions (as I learned from the BBC special). Therefore, I think it is good to have individuals with a “brush” of autism, but I also think that society would benefit from the development of novel therapeutics that could correct the developmental delays in communication associated with autism and/or genetic diagnostics that can help predict if a child is likely to develop a case of severe autism.

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