Books: Be Different

September 8, 2011

I read this book shortly after reading Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin, and my first impression was how lackluster this seemed by comparison. Grandin’s book was absolutely fascinating, and I learned a lot from it. The first few chapters of Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, by John Elder Robison, were mildly interesting, but no more than that.

As I continued, though, Robison started to cover material that was new to me. I already know about how people with Asperger Syndrome, and more generally people with any autism spectrum disorder, tend to have particular routines and behaviors that are important to them, while paying little if any attention to the social conventions followed by society at large. The chapters on learning manners as an adult were of some interest because I had to also, though for different reasons. When Robison got into emotions and mirror neurons, however, I really got interested.

People with Asperger’s tend to appear unemotional to other people, both because they do not display the same emotional responses we are accustomed to, and because they tend to approach situations from a strictly logical perspective. What Robison explains, however, is that he feels all the same emotions, he just doesn’t understand what other people are feeling, or know how to express emotions the way most people do.

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Books: Animals in Translation

August 15, 2011

I had been intending to read a book by Temple Grandin at some point, but hadn’t gotten around to it. When I found Animals in Translation in the library catalog, I immediately put a hold on it. The book not only tells some of Grandin’s own story as a person with autism who has a successful career and communicates effectively, it explains a great deal about animal behavior, and touches on issues of language and brain research. Once I had finished reading The Big Burn, I read through Grandin’s book in a single day.

Besides touching on multiple subjects that are important to me, it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I had wondered what the writing would be like in a book written by a person with autism. Grandin had a co-author, Catherine Johnson, so I don’t know just how much of the “feel” of the book is Grandin’s and how much is Johnson’s, but I got the impression that I was hearing Grandin’s “voice.” (The acknowledgements section at the end of the book includes a section by each writer; Grandin’s section reads like the rest of the book, while Johnson’s reads quite differently.)

The writing is simple and straightforward, without the abundance of complex and subordinate clauses that many writers (including me) tend to use. Unfamiliar words (of which there are many, at least for a reader not previously familiar with the study of the brain and animal behavior) are explained clearly. I don’t think I ever had to go back and reread a paragraph because I hadn’t understood it the first time. But there was no sense of reading a book that had been deliberately simplified.

The focus of the book is understanding animal behavior. Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science, and has spent her career working with livestock (designing equipment for humane handling of livestock and providing consulting on various livestock handling problems). She had noticed, both in her academic research and her work with livestock, certain similarities between how she perceives things and how it appeared that animals perceived things.

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Your brain can make a difference

September 29, 2008

Like any parent, I want to do what I can to help my sons face the challenges of life. I can’t face the challenges for them; I have to look for ways to help them gain the skills, wisdom, and courage they need to face those challenges themselves. For my younger son, who has mild autism, this means dealing with frustration in constructive ways rather than having a meltdown, as well as trying new things (but I don’t want to push him too much and create unnecessary frustration).

Looking for books that might help me help him, I found myself at the Autism Speaks website. I had been there before, I think, but hadn’t spent much time there. (As my son grows and develops, the areas of most need change. It used to be language and social skills; now he does well with language and moderately well with social skills, at least for his age. So what I’m looking for to help him changes year by year.)

This time I somehow came across the Autism Tissue Program. I had long ago signed up to be an organ donor. When I am dead, I will have no use for my body, and if there are parts that can be of benefit to someone else, they are welcome to them. One part I hadn’t expected would be wanted was my brain, as brain transplants are strictly the stuff of science fiction.

But brain tissue is exactly what the Autism Tissue Program needs, because somewhere in the brain is the answer to the puzzle of autism. They particularly want brain tissue from people who had autism, but researchers also needs “normal” brain tissue for comparison purposes, and brain tissue from the family members of people with autism, to better trace autism-related genetic traits. So that means they can use anyone’s brain.

I realize that whatever may be found through examining my brain tissue isn’t going to do anything for my son. Research takes a lot of time. But some other mother’s son, someday, may benefit. And that’s a good enough reason for me.