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Gadfly's thoughts on Grandin's latest book

Posted May 02 2013 12:00am
Late last night I finished reading Temple Grandin's new book, To date, I feel it is her most interesting book.  Also, it's extremely well written.  Of course, Grandin had an assistant author (as she's had for many of her previous books) work with her, so it's hard to tell how much of the writing or even research comes from Grandin herself.

Grandin now concedes she was mistaken about all autistics being visual thinkers which is gratifying.  

It deals with Grandin's pursuit of scientific answers about her own brain by becoming a research subject for various scientists.  Most recently, a group in Utah scanned her brain.  I already wrote A blog post about this previously.

To recap, the group didn't really find anything new or revolutionary that could be applied to all autistics in general or even Ms. Grandin in particular.  They found an increased brain volume.  This is a finding that has been found by other  groups in other persons with autism.

They found her left lateral ventricle was much larger than her right.  Grandin speculates that this could be the reason she's had trouble learning algebra and following directions.  Scientists have said it's possible that the right ventricle was damaged somehow and the left ventricle grew much larger to compensate.  This could explain some of Grandin's superior abilities in visual thinking and design, but more about this later.

Studies of her white fiber tracts using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging found highly connected areas of her brain to the visual cortex.  This is something else that could explain some of her talents.

It showed a larger amygdala which Grandin felt might contribute to her anxiety attacks.

Cortical thickness in her left entorhinal cortices was greater than controls.  This is a path that goes to the hippocampus, the structure in the brain that creates short term memories.  This might be why Grandin has exceptional memory abilities.

She also stated that her cerebellum was 20% smaller than typical controls in a scan she underwent under the auspices of neuroscientist Eric Courchesne.  She speculated that this might be why she's had impaired motor skills and has had trouble learning to ski.  I was also a research subject of Courchesne's not long after Grandin.  He found that part of my cerebellar vermis-a part of the cerebellum, but not the whole thing- was smaller than in normal controls.  However, this finding has not been replicated in autopsies of post mortem brains.  Motorically, many autistics are intact.  The cerebellum controls both fine and gross motor coordination, and Grandin's ability to draw and perhaps other perceptual motor abilities are not impaired.  I asked Courchesne why that might be and he told me that if the problem occurs early enough, a cerebellar impairment won't affect motor performance.  Developmental lesions are different than adult lesions.

In addition to overconnectivity in some parts of an autistic brain, there have been findings of underconnectivity to areas involving longer connections.  This may be why some abilities and social skills are impaired in autistic people while other areas, which have shorter connections to the brain, are intact or even greater than in non-autistics.  This may explain superior abilities in some autistics.

Grandin also had a visual tract that was 400% larger than a typical control.  However, it seems to me that drawing conclusions from one control subject is not really valid.

There is also the theory that this might help find a biomarker for autism, but I think we're a long way from that.  

One of the problems with these findings, rampant in autism research, is that they are limited to persons on the higher end of the spectrum since more severely autistic persons have problems with compliance and sitting still in a scanner which would cause artifacts in the readings.

Scanners are also limited in finding certain things and postmortem autopsies may be a better way to go, though there's a shortage of autistic brains. 

In the past, Grandin has implied that all cases of autism have one underlying genetic etiology, claiming that if autistic genes were eliminated from the gene pool we would have no creativity and every invention from the spear to the cell phone would never have been created.  Some years ago, I wrote a piece attempting to refute that notion.  She also stated that the reason autism genes have remained in the gene pool is that they serve some sort of evolutionary purpose.

Since her writings on that subject, the science seems to have refuted a lot of her past statements.  For example, work done by Jonathan Sebat and others has found numerous cases of autism are precipitated by spontaneous mutations that aren't inherited.  She now seems to have changed her tune to accommodate the change in times and concedes that there isn't one autism genes but rather many different genetic conditions, involving various modes of inheritance or spontaneous development of mutations can lead to this condition.

In spite of this, she still asserts that half of silicone valley are undiagnosed persons on the spectrum but provides no evidence of this.

One area in which she hasn't changed and is repetition from her previous writings is her pat solutions for helping autistic people become employed.  She states that obsessions can be channeled into successful careers and only gives one or two isolated examples and applies this to the entire spectrum.

It is gratifying that she emphasizes the importance of social skills in gaining and maintaining employment.  This is in contrast to neurodiversity advocate Ari Ne'eman, someone who has never worked or been to a job interview or filled out a job application,  who has stated that social unpleasantry in the workplace should be overlooked as a criteria for hiring and evaluating people's job performance. 

One aspect that I believe Grandin overlooks is the fact that neurotypical social skills can't be easily taught to autistics that that stressors in the workplace might trigger meltdowns and other episodes where socially unpleasant behavior will result in the autistic employee's termination.  She states that an autistic's attention to details make him suited for a job as an airport security screener, overlooking the fact that this is a job involving people contact under sometimes adverse circumstances which the autistic might not be socially adroit enough to deal with. 

Though I believe this book does have some flaws, I do recommend it as a worthwhile read. 
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