“I had of course, heard of Temple Grandin- everyone interested in autism has heard of her- and had read her autobiography… Reading her autobiography and her articles, one gets a feeling of how strange, how different, she was as a child, how far far removed from normal”
-Oliver Sacks An Anthropologist On Mars
The inner life of an autistic person is best narrated by someone with autism. This makes the non-fiction works in the autistic narrative especially useful. One of the most prominent members of the autistic community who has published an autobiography is Temple Grandin.
In Temple’s autobiography, Thinking in Pictures, she reflects on, “The number of studies on face recognition and eye signals greatly outnumber papers on how people with autism think” (165). Science does not paint a complete picture of autism as Temple laments. It becomes the job of the autistic narrative to fill in the gaps through first hand explanations of autistic behaviors that are unintelligible to a normal individual. Temple provides many explanations of autistic behaviors in her narrative.
In one instance Temple explains that although she could not tolerate being hugged as a child, “When I was six, I would wrap myself up in blankets and get under sofa cushions…” (58). To someone who is not autistic this appears to be quite a contradiction. On the one hand Temple did not like touch, but on the other hand she enjoyed outside materials exerting pressure on her body? Aside from that, the act of wrapping oneself in blankets and getting under sofa cushions seems odd. Temple goes on to explain that it is hard for an autistic person’s nervous system to process unexpected touch. The nervous system does not have adequate time to process the sensation however, when the autistic person initiates the sensation it can be quite therapeutic. Not only is behavior explained, but so is the inside workings of the mind of an autistic person.
Ann Jurecic quotes a passage from an article by Temple called “My Experiences with Visual Thinking Sensory Problems and communication Difficulties” about how Temple process abstract ideas. Temple explains, “I no longer use sliding doors to understand personal relationships, but I still have to relate a particular relationship with something I have read or experienced. For example, a fight between my neighbors was like the United States and Europe fighting over customs duties” (“Neurodiversity” 429). Temple is a visual thinker which means she thinks in pictures and not words. A relationship is a somewhat abstract thing, it is not as easy to picture as a sneaker or strength. To help her understand the complexities of social relationships Temple constructs a visual image for herself, that of the sliding door. As she grew older the image changed, but a concrete image must always remain in Temple’s conception of what a relationship means.
Towards the end of his interaction with Temple, Oliver Sacks records Temple as saying “If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not- because then I wouldn’t be me. Autism is part of who I am” (Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 291). Temple has learned how to live in a world where she is different. She thinks differently and that makes her particularly gifted in some respects, but inhibits her in some ways as well. Her ability to communicate with a neurotypical audience makes her autistic narrative an integral part of the social cure which the entire autistic narrative genre is creating.
Listen to Temple explain how her mind works