Temple Grandin’s theories on autism

As you probably know, the Temple Grandin biopic, starring Claire Danes, is showing this Saturday evening.  Here is Temple on the movie.  Grandin has done a great deal to benefit animals, by designing more humane slaughterhouses, stockyards, and encouraging other innovations.  She also has promoted the idea of talented autistics and helped raise that notion to a very high profile.  I have enormous respect for what she has done and I would gladly see her win a Nobel Prize if the appropriate category for such a prize existed.

That said, researchers disagree with Grandin's theories on autism in a number of ways and my own reading leads me to side with the researchers on some issues.  Many non-autistics defer to Grandin on autism because of her life story, her remarkable achievements, and yes because of her autism.  I thought it would be useful to offer a more skeptical view of a few of her claims:

1. Autistic individuals do not in general "think in pictures," though some autistics offer this self-description.  Grandin repeatedly refers to herself in this context.  I don't read her as claiming this tendency is universal or even the general rule, but the disclaimers aren't as evident as I would like them to be. 

2. There is little evidence to support her view that autistics "think like animals."  Here is one published critique of her theory: "We argue that the extraordinary cognitive feats shown by some animal species can be better understood as adaptive specialisations that bear little, if any, relationship to the unusual skills shown by savants."  You'll find a response by Grandin at that same link.  I'm not totally on board with the critique either (how well do we understand savants anyway?), but at the very least Grandin's claim is an unsupported hypothesis.

3. Grandin tends to brusquely classify autistic children into different groups.  She will speak of "the nerds who will do just fine" (see the eBook linked to below) as opposed to the "severely autistic," who require that someone take control of their lives and pound a bit of the autism out of them.  There's a great deal of diversity among autistics, and autistic outcomes, but I don't see that as the most useful way of expressing those differences.   Autism diagnoses are often unstable at young ages, there is not any useful or commonly accepted measure of "autistic severity," her description perpetuates stereotypes, and Grandin herself as a child would have met criteria for "severely autistic" and yet she did fine through parental love and attention, which helped her realize rather than overturn her basic nature.  That's not even a complete list of my worries on this point; for more see my Create Your Own Economy.

4. Grandin supports some varieties of intensive behavioral therapy for autistics.  Many research papers support those same therapies but those papers do not generally conduct an RCT and furthermore many of the said researchers have a commercial stake in what they are studying and promoting.  In my view we don't know "what works" but my (non-RCT-tested) opinion is that giving autistic children a lot of fun things to do — fun by their standards — and a lot of information to study and manipulate, gives the best chance of good outcomes.  (In any case "spontaneous improvement" is considerable, so anecdotally many therapies will appear to work when they do not; nor is there a common control for placebos.)  Many of the behavioral therapies seem quite oppressive to me and if we don't know they work I am worried that they are being overpromoted.  Grandin has in some ways the intellectual temperament of an engineer and I am worried that she has not absorbed the lessons of Hayek's The Counterrevolution of Science.

5. Grandin refers to herself as more interested in tangible results and less interested in emotions.  She is entitled to that self-description, but it is worth noting that most individuals in the "autism community" would not consider this a good presentation of their attitude toward emotions.

There is a recent eBook (selling for only $4.00), consisting of a dialogue between myself and Grandin, mostly on autism and talented autistics but not just.  For instance we also talk about our favorite TV shows, including a discussion of Lost, and there is a segment on science fiction and the future of humanity.  I try to draw her out on autism, cognitive anthromorphizing, and attitudes toward religion, but she is reluctant to offer her opinions on that important topic.  I would describe the eBook as a good introduction to her thought on autism and society, while also giving an idea of how someone else (me) might differ from some of her basic attitudes.


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