“When I was young I thought that everybody thought the way I did. I kind of had a journey of learning how my thinking was different,” Grandin said.
People with autism are “bottom up” thinkers, Grandin said, immersed in the details of a problem. They develop and categorize information before coming up with a concept. Top down or more traditional thinkers develop the concept first.
“When I found out why they had this accident (at Fukushima) I just couldn’t believe it. How could they make a mistake that was so obvious to a visual thinker? The reason why they made this mistake is that the person who designs this reactor is a mathematical thinker, and he didn’t see that maybe when you live next to the sea it’s not a very good idea to put your emergency generators that run your very important emergency cooling pump in a non-waterproof basement.”
After more than 20 years, Grandin still travels around the country and overseas, lecturing about autism. She also spends part of her day answering letters from parents on her website.
“She’s been so willing to be present and to be engaged and to do it for so long,” Alessandri said. “Many people might get tired of it and want to retreat … That’s a tremendously burdensome role when you think of how much people are expecting of you all the time.”
Before launching into her lecture last week, Grandin paused to thank her mother.
“I want to thank my mother for keeping me out of an institution,” she said. “She was way ahead of her time.’’
In the 1950s and ’60s, autism was not understood, and Grandin’s mother struggled to teach her daughter social skills and words and to secure educational opportunities for her.
Autism was first identified by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943. Meanwhile in Vienna, Hans Asperger was studying and writing about the symptoms of what later became known as Asperger’s Syndrome
Grandin was not able to speak until she was 3 1/2. She has said that as a child she preferred her inner world. Until adulthood she could not look people in the eye. Birthday parties were torture, and the pain of certain noises was excruciating: “I was one of the high school kids that had a terrible time. … I got teased. I got thrown out of school, because I threw a book at a girl who teased me.”
Jaclyn Merens, a founding member of CARD, traveled from Boca Raton for the lecture. Her son, Daniel, 28, is unable to speak. When Daniel was diagnosed with autism, the statistics were one in 2,500, she said. Today, one in 88 children are on the spectrum, and one in 54 boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I would give anything for one minute to be able to ask my son questions,” she said.
Merens said she first saw Grandin speak more than 20 years ago, and is encouraged by Grandin’s own progress.
“Over the course of time, I’ve watched her develop a sense of humor,” Merens said.
While Grandin continues to educate others about how autistic people think, she is quick to note, “Autism is a very important part of who I am, but I don’t really want it to be the primary part.”
As for a cure, she has hopes for advancements for those who are unable to communicate. However, she cautions, autism is a wide spectrum with both gifts and challenges.
“If you totally cured autism,” Grandin said, “you wouldn’t have anybody to fix your computer.”