Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin
-01- [Temple Grandin] provided a glimpse, and indeed a revelation, that there might be people, no less human than ourselves, who constructed their worlds, lived their lives, in almost unimaginably different ways.
-02- And we get a glimpse—this perhaps the least imaginable of all—of her total bewilderment about other people’s minds, her inability to decipher their expressions and intentions, along with her determination to study them, study us, our alien behaviours, scientifically and systematically, as if (in her own words) she were “an anthropologist on Mars.”
-03- We sense all this despite (or perhaps partly because of) the touching simplicity and ingenuousness of Temple’s writing, her curious lack of either modesty or immodesty, her incapacity for evasion or artifice of any kind.
-04- It is said by cognitive psychologists that autistic people lack “theory of mind”—any direct perception or idea of other minds, or other states of mind—and that this lies at the heart of their difficulties.
-05- I was struck by her rapport with, her great understanding of, cattle—the happy, loving look she wore when she was with them—and her great awkwardness, by contrast, in many human situations. I was also struck, when we walked together, by her seeming inability to feel some of the simplest emotions. “The mountains are pretty,” she said, “but they don’t give me a special feeling, the feeling you seem to enjoy … You look at the brook, the flowers, I see what great pleasure you get out of it. I’m denied that.”
-06- This process of association is a good example of how my mind can wander off the subject. People with more severe autism have difficulty stopping endless associations. I am able to stop them and get my mind back on track.
-07- Charles Hart, the author of Without Reason, a book about his autistic son and brother,
-08- My own thought patterns are similar to those described by A. R. Luria in The Mind of a Mnemonist.
-09- my mind constantly revises general concepts as I add new information to my memory library. It’s like getting a new version of software for the computer. My mind readily accepts the new “software,” though I have observed that some people often do not readily accept new information.
-10- As a child, I left out words such as “is,” “the,” and “it,” because they had no meaning by themselves. Similarly, words like “of” and “an” made no sense. Eventually I learned how to use them properly, because my parents always spoke correct English and I mimicked their speech patterns. To this day certain verb conjugations, such as “to be,” are absolutely meaningless to me.
-11- Teachers who work with autistic children need to understand associative thought patterns. An autistic child will often use a word in an inappropriate manner. Sometimes these uses have a logical associative meaning and other times they don’t. For example, an autistic child might say the word “dog” when he wants to go outside. The word “dog” is associated with going outside. In my own case, I can remember both logical and illogical use of inappropriate words. When I was six, I learned to say “prosecution.” I had absolutely no idea what it meant, but it sounded nice when I said it, so I used it as an exclamation every time my kite hit the ground. I must have baffled more than a few people who heard me exclaim “Prosecution!” to my downward-spiraling kite.
-12- In order to get out without shattering the door, I had to ease it back very carefully. It struck me that relationships operate the same way. They also shatter easily and have to be approached carefully. I then made a further association about how the careful opening of doors was related to establishing relationships in the first place. While I was trapped between the windows, it was almost impossible to communicate through the glass. Being autistic is like being trapped like this.
-13- Many people are totally baffled by autistic symbols, but to an autistic person they may provide the only tangible reality or understanding of the world. For example, “French toast” may mean happy if the child was happy while eating it. When the child visualizes a piece of French toast, he becomes happy.
-14- She had no idea why the objects were so important to Jessy, though she did observe that Jessy was happiest, and her voice was no longer a monotone, when she was thinking about her special things.
-15- The word “cricket” made her happy, and “partly heard song” meant “I don’t know.”
-16- Recent studies of patients with brain damage and of brain imaging indicate that visual and verbal thought may work via different brain systems. Recordings of blood flow in the brain indicate that when a person visualizes something such as walking through his neighbourhood, blood flow increases dramatically in the visual cortex, in parts of the brain that are working hard. Studies of brain-damaged patients show that injury to the left posterior hemisphere can stop the generation of visual images from stored long-term memories, while language and verbal memory are not impaired. This indicates that visual imagery and verbal thought may depend on distinct neurological systems.
-17- Scans of autistic brains have indicated that the white matter in the frontal cortex is overgrown and abnormal. Dr. Courchesne explains that white matter is the brain’s “computer cables” connecting up different parts of the brain while the grey matter forms the information processing circuits. Instead of growing normally and connecting various parts of the brain together, the autistic frontal cortex has excessive overgrowth much like a thicket of tangled computer cables.
-18- More knowledge makes me act more normal. Many people have commented to me that I act much less autistic now than I did ten years ago.
-19- THE FIRST SIGN that a baby may be autistic is that it stiffens up and resists being held and cuddled. It may be extremely sensitive to touch and respond by pulling away or screaming.
-20- Today, autism is regarded as an early childhood disorder by definition, and it is three times more common in boys than girls. For the diagnosis to be made, autistic symptoms must appear before the age of three. The most common symptoms in young children are no speech or abnormal speech, lack of eye contact, frequent temper tantrums, oversensitivity to touch, the appearance of deafness, a preference for being alone, rocking or other rhythmic stereotypic behaviour, aloofness, and lack of social contact with parents and siblings. Another sign is inappropriate play with toys. The child may spend long periods of time spinning the wheel of a toy car instead of driving it around on the floor.
-21- In fact, many Asperger individuals never get formally diagnosed, and they often hold jobs and live independently. Children with Asperger’s syndrome have more normal speech development and much better cognitive skills than those with classic Kanner’s. Another label for Asperger’s syndrome is “high-functioning autism.”
-22- The diagnosis of Asperger’s is often confused with PDD, a label that is applied to children with mild symptoms which are not quite serious enough to call for one of the other labels.
-23- The only accurate way to diagnose autism in an adult is to interview the person about his or her early childhood and obtain descriptions of his or her behaviour from parents or teachers.
-24- Research has very clearly shown that autism is a neurological disorder that reveals distinct abnormalities in the brain. Brain autopsy research by Dr. Margaret Bauman has shown that those with both autism and disintegrative disorder have immature development of the cerebellum and the limbic system. Indications of a delay in brain maturation can also be seen in autistic children’s brain waves.
-25- Studies by many researchers are showing that there may be a cluster of genes that can put a person at risk for many disorders, including autism, depression, anxiety, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and other problems.
-26- Studies at the University of Minnesota by Thomas Bouchard and his colleagues of twins reared in different families show that basic traits such as mathematical ability, athletic ability, and temperament are highly inheritable.
-27- A summary of these studies concluded that roughly half of what a person becomes is determined by genetics and the other half is determined by environment and upbringing.
-28- normal children talk to themselves to help them control their behaviour and learn new skills. Since autism is caused by immature brain development, it is likely that echolalia and self-talking, which occur in older autistic children, are the result of immature speech patterns.
-29- When a person with autism improves because of either educational or medical intervention, the severity of a cognitive or sensory problem may diminish, but the ratio between the two seems to stay the same. What remains inexplicable, however, are rigid thinking patterns and lack of emotional affect in many high-functioning people.
-30- Many parents and teachers have asked me where I fit on the autistic continuum. I still have problems with rapid responses to unexpected social situations. In my business dealings I can handle new situations, but every once in a while I panic when things go wrong. I’ve learned to deal with the fear of travelling, so that I have a backup plan if, for example, my plane is late. I have no problems if I mentally rehearse every scenario, but I still panic if I’m not prepared for a new situation, especially when I travel to a foreign country where I am unable to communicate. Since I can’t rely on my library of social cues, I feel very helpless when I can’t speak the language. Often I withdraw.
-31- Like most autistics, I don’t experience the feelings attached to personal relationships.
-32- I talk to more and more parents of children with a diagnosis that switches back and forth between Asperger’s and ADHD. Many parents have told me that stimulant ADHD medications such as Ritalin (metehylphenidate) and Adderall (a combination of four different types of amphetamines) have greatly helped their children. It is likely that some individuals on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum share traits with ADHD.
-33- Research has also shown that the serotonin systems in the autistic child’s brain are highly abnormal. This may explain why doses for SSRI antidepressants often need o be kept very low to prevent agitation.
-34- Genome scans of families with many cases of autism indicate that at least ten genes are involved. They also found that the probability of having a second autistic child is 2 to 8 percent. Researchers have also confirmed previous studies that show that relatives of people with autism will often have many milder autistic-like symptoms. I have observed that the probability of having a child with low-functioning autism increases when both parents and their families have many autistic traits.
-35- The computer and technical industries depend on people with attention to detail. The real social people are not interested in computers. Herbert Schreir of the Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, believes that intermarriage of “techies” explains why people have noticed high pockets of autism around Stanford and MIT Universities.
-36- The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that there are three to four autism cases per one thousand children.
-37- From as far back as I can remember, I always hated to be hugged. I wanted to experience the good feeling of being hugged, but it was just too overwhelming. It was like a great, all-engulfing tidal wave of stimulation, and I reacted like a wild animal. Being touched triggered flight; it flipped my circuit breaker. I was overloaded & would have to escape, often by jerking away suddenly. Many autistic children crave pressure stimulation even though they cannot tolerate being touched. It is much easier for a person with autism to tolerate touch if he or she initiates it. When touched unexpectedly, we usually withdraw, because our nervous system does not have time to process the sensation. One autistic woman told me that she enjoys touch, but she needs to initiate it in order to have time to feel it.
-38- I was one of these pressure seekers. When I was six, I would wrap myself up in blankets and get under sofa cushions, because the pressure was relaxing.
-39- My life was based on avoiding situations that might trigger an attack.
-40- Some of the sounds that are most disturbing to autistic children are the high-pitched, shrill noises made by electrical drills, blenders, saws, and vacuum cleaners. Echoes in school gymnasiums and bathrooms are difficult for people with autism to tolerate.
-41- When two people are talking at once, it is difficult for me to screen out one voice and listen to the other. My ears are like microphones picking up all sounds with equal intensity. Most people’s ears are like highly directional microphones, which only pick up sounds from the person they are pointed at. In a noisy place I can’t understand speech, because I cannot screen out the background noise. When I was a child, large noisy gatherings of relatives were overwhelming, and I would just lose control and throw temper tantrums.
-42- Some of the problems autistics have with making eye contact may be nothing more than an intolerance for the movement of the other person’s eyes. One autistic person reported that looking at other people’s eyes was difficult because the eyes did not stay still.
-43- The application of physical pressure has similar effects on people and animals. Pressure reduces touch sensitivity. For instance, gentle pressure on the sides of a piglet will cause it to fall asleep, and trainers have found that massaging horses relaxes them.
-44- The effects of gentle touching work at a basic biological level. Barry Keverne and his colleague at the University of Cambridge in England found that grooming in monkeys stimulated increased levels of endorphins, which are the brain ‘s own opiates. Japanese researchers have found that pressure on the skin produces a relaxed muscle tone and makes animals drowsy. Pigs will roll over and solicit scratching on their bellies when rubbed.
-45- Research on rats and cats has shown that the center part of the cerebellum, the vermis, acts as a volume control for the senses.
-46- Some people believe that people with autism do not have emotions. I definitely do have them, but they are more like the emotions of a child than of an adult. My childhood temper tantrums were not really expressions of emotion so much as circuit overloads. When I calmed down, the emotion was all over. When I get angry, it is like an afternoon thunderstorm; the anger is intense, but once I get over it, the emotion quickly dissipates. I become very angry when I see people abusing cattle, but if they change their behaviour and stop abusing the animals, the emotion quickly passes. Both as a child and as an adult, I have felt a happy glee. The happiness I feel when a client likes one of my projects is the same kind of glee I felt as a child when I jumped off the diving board. When one of my scientific papers is accepted for publication, I feel the same happiness I experienced one summer when I ran home to show my mother the message I had found in a wine bottle on the beach. I feel a deep satisfaction when I make use of my intellect to design a challenging project. It is the kind of satisfied feeling one gets after finishing a difficult crossword puzzle or playing a challenging game of chess or bridge; it ‘s not an emotional experience so much as an intellectual satisfaction.

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