The Autistic Brain: Thinking across the Spectrum
Temple Grandin Richard Panek
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013 ($28)

When Grandin, best-selling author and autism activist, began giving lectures on the disorder in the 1980s, it wasn't difficult to spot the audience members with autism because they were mostly on the severe end of the spectrum. Today, however, her audiences are filled with shy kids and those she calls “Steve Jobs, Jrs.” The shift is indicative of the increasing visibility and broadening definition of autism spectrum disorders, which, by the latest estimate, affect one in 88 children. In The Autistic Brain, Grandin and science writer Panek trace the evolution of autism and look ahead to scientific advances and educational reforms.

Diagnosed with autism in 1949 at age two, just two years after it was first proposed as a disorder, Grandin has had a front-row seat to the entire history of autism. Psychoanalytical theories of the 1950s and 1960s that blamed cold, distant mothers gave way to diagnostic categories based on checklists of behaviors. Although these categories are tweaked, the idea that autism is defined by its behaviors has stuck. Grandin believes that a new era of science will finally look beyond these outward manifestations to the biological underpinnings of autism.

Grandin has always been an eager participant in brain-imaging studies, from the earliest MRIs to the latest high-definition fiber tracking, which can pinpoint brain abnormalities similar to the way x-rays reveal broken bones. Perhaps the extra connections in her white fiber tracts account for her superior visual memory, and maybe her extra long left ventricle explains her poor working memory. Researchers now accept that no single brain configuration or gene is responsible for autism but more likely represents aggregates of traits: underconnectivity or overconnectivity between different brain regions or “risk” genes that make a child more susceptible to environmental factors. Grandin runs through dozens of candidates, occasionally in numbing detail, but the overall effect is palpable excitement over an emerging biological definition of autism.

Paradoxically, Grandin says, even as autism has become more recognized, those on the spectrum may feel more powerless. She cautions against “label-locked” thinking that gives those with a diagnosis an overwhelming sense of their deficits. She advises parents and educators to identify individual strengths—she describes visual, verbal and pattern thinkers—and to develop these into job skills. The Autistic Brain can both enlighten readers with little exposure to autism and offer hope and compassion to those who live with the condition.

Movingly, Grandin urges researchers to solicit more self-reports from people with autism, a resource often dismissed as unreliable and too subjective. But subjectivity is the point, she says. Many autistic behaviors, from rapid eye blinking to temper tantrums, may be coping mechanisms for a variety of sensory problems that go untreated. How would you know what it feels like to live with autism if you don't ask?