“The World Needs All Kinds of Minds”

Everyone sees the world differently. We embrace new ideas, tackle difficult challenges, and sort through information in numerous ways. Some individuals accomplish these processes differently, albeit in a manner often considered non-traditional. In Oliver Sack’s An Anthropologist on Mars, he shares seven distinct neurological cases that challenge the way we think about “abnormalities.” In particular, he highlights the experiences of Temple Grandin, a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Grandin has embraced the effects of autism on her thinking processes and sees them as a personal strength, suggesting that autism can relate and be embraced as another form of intelligence.

 

Well known in the livestock industry and animal behavior studies, Grandin has designed livestock handling facilities, which have transformed cattle handling and slaughtering practices. Besides her extensive contributions in the animal science field, Grandin is a distinguished autism awareness lecturer and activist. As an individual with autism, Grandin has a unique perspective on the world, one that she shares through numerous publications and lectures.

 

This unique perspective enables her to see the world visually. When asked to describe how she processes her ideas, Grandin share that there is something “mechanical about her mind, and she often compares it to a computer…seeing her own thinking as ‘computation’ and memory as computer files. She sees the elements of her thoughts as concrete and visual images.”[1] The ability to see the world in a visual way has enabled Grandin to offer creative and ethical solutions to treatment of animals in the slaughtering industry.

 

Through a number of interviews and discussions, Grandin has connected her particular thinking abilities, largely a result of her autism, with thinking, learning, and educational theorists, such as Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner’s theories suggest that each individual has a particular set of intelligences, which include: visual-spatial intelligence, individuals interpret ideas visually and spatially; bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, individuals learn and understand through movement; musical intelligence, individuals have a sensitivity to rhythm and sound; interpersonal intelligence, individuals develop a sense of understanding by interacting with others; intrapersonal intelligence, individuals develop a sense of understanding through their own interests and goals; linguistic intelligence, individuals use words to engage their understanding of a topic; and logical-mathematical intelligence, individuals solve questions through reasoning and calculations.

 

Through his interactions with Grandin, Sacks found that “Temple inclines to a modular view of the brain, the sense that it has a multiplicity of separate, autonomous computational powers or “intelligences”—much [like] the psychologist Howard Gardner.”[2] Grandin and neurologists attribute her visual thinking style to her autism. While at first glance, this may suggest an “abnormality” in Grandin’s neurological make-up it is not so much an abnormality as it is a difference. Through his book, Sacks also shares the story of The B’s, an autistic family and their view on autism: “Bordering on normality meant…We know the rules and conventions of the ‘normal,’ but there is no actual transit. You act normal, you learn the rules, and obey them.”[3] However, the family clarifies that this also means having “respect for their differences.”[4]

 

Sack’s interview and experiences with Grandin suggest a similar mindset. He found that while she was aware of the things she was “missing in life, she was equally aware of her strengths…that these strengths, the positive aspects of her autism, go with the negative ones.”[5] For Grandin, her visual thinking abilities have been a positive aspect of something traditionally considered a negative disorder. Giving her a window into a unique form of intelligence.

 

[1]Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 280.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid, 276.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid, 277.

15 thoughts on ““The World Needs All Kinds of Minds”

  1. Kahla I really liked how you pointed out the positive aspects of Grandin’s autism. I think so many people assume it is only negative, but clearly there are also benefits. I wanted to share an article from the Boston Globe that recently came out that addresses Massachusetts decision to recognize and support adults with autism. (http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/04/21/does-autism-awareness-finally-mean-something-massachusetts/GbD8hK6Lusja17dMvJQ1zI/story.html) The article points out that states have been trying to find a way to capitalize upon the skills of adults with autism and to support them in order to “gain autonomy and social and economic self-sufficiency.” Although this has not been officially voted into law yet, it appears to me a major step forward.

    1. Thank you for this article, Michelle. I think what it and Kahla’s post point out is that we need to re-think the typical way we structure education and systems of care for people with different thinking and behavioral patterns. Just because people do not fit into society’s one size fits all model doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything of value to offer. In fact, as we continue to search for new and innovative solutions to the world’s mounting challenges, it could be that people who think outside the box, such as Grandin, will become essential.

      1. Accommodating people’s differences is certainly a popular theme in museums. It certainly is an attractive way to view people’s skill sets and learning styles, but I don’t know if education is going to go that way. Our current emphasis on lecture-based learning and our reliance on standardized tests to rate performance gear most education towards a very particular skill set. I really think it’s up to museums to fill a good portion of the educational void that’s left by this.

      2. You bring up an interesting point Rick. In Grandin’s Ted talk (provided as the link “numerous publications and lectures” above) she talks about the need for schools to employ teachers that get kids with autism interested in a particular topic. In both the talk and Sack’s book Grandin talks about how one of her teachers was able to develop her interest in agricultural engineering, a field to which she has contributed greatly. If schools are slow in reaching out to students with autism, I think it is the duty of museums to introduce these students (all students in general) to topics they are interested in.

  2. Last year my mother became convinced that I have a form of autism even though I have never been diagnosed. She insisted that I read up on aspbergers and I did. From what I read, it didn’t sound like a disorder at all. It seemed more like a personality profile, and I couldn’t figure out why it was labeled a disorder. I was so glad when I read this post because it helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. I’m very happy that someone else thinks it is another form of intelligence, or another way to perceive the world. A different way to see the world isn’t inferior. It just means you have strengths in areas other people don’t.

    1. I loved Temple Grandin’s story. I felt inspired reading about all of her accomplishments and how she perceives the world. I found it to be beautiful, her connection with animals and the studies she has done- both in animal studies and autistic studies. I too see autism as another form of intelligence, another way to perceive the world, and another way to advance humanity.

      1. I agree, Araya. The passage from “An Anthropologist on Mars” that discusses the design of the cattle herding machine vis-a-vis Temple’s worldview was especially interesting. Even though she designed a machine that, ultimately, killed animals, she had enough empathy to design it with the animals’ perception of their surroundings in mind.

      2. I’m with you, Araya. During her TED Talk and the book, I was struck by her work in schools. She mentions how she, and many of the kids she’s worked with, were very good in one thing (art, in her case), and not as good in another (Algebra). Having been a substitute teacher, it got me thinking about the way kids think and how there can’t be a single approach to engagement. Connecting that to museums: I think sometimes exhibit designers, content developers, and educators can get stuck in one single approach to a topic, which has either been prescribed by a client or is simply a program outline they are used to using. But true interpretation has to involve meeting the child on their terms and based on their thinking strategies.

      3. In Sacks’s book, Grandin mentioned she empathized with Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation. As a big fan of the show I guess it was a really great way to help me understand the perspective even further. And you’re right Araya and Eric, it’s about a worldview. In the show, Data (an android) was continually on a pursuit to understand humanity. By no means do I want to compare people with autism to robots, I just saw the same yearning for understanding that is portrayed in the series, not to mention a greater affinity with animals. I wonder if Gene Rodenberry had a concept of autism when he created Data…

  3. Your points about multiple intelligences made me think of my time here at CGP. I feel very strongly that the program could do a better job accommodating people with various personalities, intelligences, and disabilities. Generally CGP students are expected to be “on” all the time, focused, and aggressively professional. I know I’ve struggled with this personally, and know many of my classmates have suffered terribly from feelings of inadequacy and being abnormal. I think Temple’s story really illustrates we need to be more understanding and accommodating to other personalities.

    1. I agree with you and I wonder if these can be applied to education overall and not just here. I think that way Americans view education is very regimented and creates a very difficult environment for people who are different and learn differently from the “main stream.” I also wonder how teachers and professors play into students feeling of being abnormal or different and if they do so is it intentional or unintentional.

    2. I agree. I think the pressure put on students and teachers in K-12 education to perform well in standardized tests and stick to particular curricula has left teachers feeling stuck and students not getting everything they really need to thrive academically and creatively.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head when writing this statement: “not so much an abnormality as it is a difference.” I think this is so true. As posts here and the posts this week have shown, our society requires a re-thinking of how we define what is abnormal. I feel that our society to some extent (though we certainly have a long way to go) has come to celebrate difference in terms of race, culture, and religion but not as much in terms of ability and disability. Seeing people as people rather than defining them by a “disorder” or seeing them as a case study is so important.

    1. This week’s reading reminded me of some of the issues we discussed during our conversation about eugenics. What is considered a disability has changed over time because what we view as normal likewise changes. In the past, being left-handed was a disability. Parents were concerned about the impact this would have on their children. Some would ban them from using their left hand and would train them to use their right. I am left-handed and I don’t think this has limited my life in any way. It’s not bad, just different. I think you’re right, Emily. The shift to celebrating differences is something we need more of when it comes to people with disabilities.

      1. Last night, I was watching some of the Autism Speaks commercials, which I found very sad and almost a way to stigmatize autism but that aside, I came across this video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ez936r2F35U. In the video, the young woman who is autistic, criticizes how Autism Speaks funds research on prenatal testing to see if your fetus will be born with autism and how they are funding to find a cure, she states in the video, that you cannot cure or overcome autism, it is something that you are born with.

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