Books: Thinking in Pictures

Having watched the movie Temple Grandin with my younger son a couple of years ago, I had been meaning to read one of the books actually written by Temple Grandin. When I was looking for something on my 2017 Reading Challenge list that would be “a book by written someone you admire,” reading something by Grandin suddenly seemed the obvious choice.

I chose Thinking in Pictures. I had expected it to be primarily about herself, but Grandin also discusses different types of autism and what life is like for autistic people in general (to the extent that it can be generalized, considered the broad spectrum of the disorder).

For someone with an interest in autism and the perspective of the autistic person, it is a fascinating view into a very different way of thinking and perceiving life. I read a good deal about autism when my son was younger and struggling a lot more with school and with social interactions than he does today, but what I had read was mostly about people with autism. Actually reading something by someone with autism assures the reader that the writer really knows what she is talking about!

It’s impressive that Grandin can write as well as she does, considering that she thinks in pictures, not words. Until I learned about Grandin, I had never heard of thinking in pictures. One just assumes that other people think the same way as oneself. Grandin, of course, made similar assumptions when she was younger, thinking that everyone thought in pictures the way she does.

I have generally thought of myself as a visual learner, but I certainly do not think in pictures the way Grandin does. I think in words, but it is easiest to remember words that I see, and often I can remember where on the page I read something. I also express myself best in writing, and I prefer using the computer because I can see what I have written more clearly than using pen and paper.

Grandin describes the difference between these different ways of thinking with the example of thinking of, for example, a cat or a steeple. People who think in words have a mental image of a cat or a steeple, but it is a generalized image, the sort that might be used as an illustration in a picture dictionary. Grandin has no generalized image of a cat or a steeple; she has a series of images of all the specific cats and steeples she has seen.

It’s hard for me to imagine – though I think the movie Temple Grandin does a good job of helping demonstrate how it works for her. It makes it harder for her to write a book, which is exclusively made up of words. Oliver Sacks, in his foreword to this book, points out the Grandin’s first book was disjointed and difficult for people to read, and that this one is much better in terms of readability. Some readers will still wish an editor had done more work on it, but I like knowing that this is how Grandin put her ideas together.

For her, as a consultant to the livestock industry, thinking in pictures is an advantage because she can see from a cow’s-eye view. She sees things that people generally miss, because we tend to ignore a lot of what we see because we consider those things unimportant. But it is those little things that can scare an animal, and Grandin sees them and shows how to change the animal’s environment to remove the things that scare them.

Some people may find it strange that Grandin can identify with animals this way, and yet do work for slaughterhouses whose business is killing animals. But Grandin explains that she sees her work as very valuable. Killing animals for food is a fact of life, but it can be done humanely, and her designs have greatly improved the way that animals are treated.

Grandin writes about different types of autism. I read elsewhere that she had at one time assumed that everyone else with autism also thought in pictures (once she found out that people in general do not), but later she learned more about the variety of ways that autism affects people.

She also writes about the families of people with autism. While the cause of the disorder is unknown (it is thought to be due to a number of factors), there is a genetic component. Parents of people with autism are often very intelligent, and they may have some autistic characteristics themselves, though not enough to be considered on the autism spectrum.

My sister’s son has Asperger’s syndrome (as she says, it does tend to run in families), and after he was diagnosed she commented on the characteristics of the autism spectrum that she recognized in herself. I also have noted some of these characteristics that I have. Anyone can have some of these traits, of course – it’s a question of whether one has significantly more than most people.

One characteristic that Grandin discusses that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere (in connection with autism) is her lack of emotional expression of religious faith. I am often bothered by my lack of emotional response to spiritual discussions or songs that seem to affect other people deeply. I believe, and I try to live out my faith, but I don’t feel it much.

For years I attended churches where I felt like an outsider because feelings seemed to be a gauge of one’s faith. They were clear that faith was not based on feelings, but a lack of emotional response was often assumed to be due to a lack of faith.

Even in the Presbyterian churches I have attended since getting married (to a Presbyterian, who is now a Presbyterian pastor), there is some of that, though not as much. Even my husband commented once recently that if someone could think about the depth of Christ’s suffering and not feel moved to tears, that person probably wasn’t really a believer. I said nothing, but those kind of comments bother me.

For a long time when I was younger I worried about whether I was really a Christian because I didn’t feel any assurance of salvation and had trouble relating to hymns like “There Is a Name I Love to Hear” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Eventually I concluded that it’s just something about the way I am as a person, not a reflection of my spiritual condition.

So perhaps it’s just because my brain is wired a bit differently, like my difficulty knowing when someone is telling a joke and my aversion to talking on the phone. (From years of working in an office I have gotten used to using the phone when I need to, but I always prefer to walk to someone’s office and talk in person if the discussion is too involved to do well by email.)

I read one review of this book by a parent of a child with autism, saying that there are much better books for educating parents on how to deal with their children’s special needs. And that’s probably true. But when I think about my own son’s uncertainty about whether he can really “make it out there,” it is great to read about the experiences of someone who has.

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