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.” 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.” 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.” However, the family clarifies that this also means having “respect for their differences.”
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.” 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.
Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 280.