This is the third and final segment of my interview with Dr. Temple Grandin, noted author and animal handling expert. You mentioned before that connection between autism and genius, Temple. And in fact you have a whole chapter in your book about that. I'm sure that some readers will find that controversial. Can you give some examples of what you're talking about?
Einstein today would be labeled autistic. He had no language until age three
and when you read
biographies of Einstein, when he was a child he had a lot of autistic traits:
not very social,
a lot of solitary play with blocks and with playing cards, a typical autistic
two ways nature can build a brain: it can build a brain to be more a thinking
brain or to be more social.
It takes a kind of process of circuits in the brain to make a person really social. Basically, with the mild form of autism, which is Asperger's, you think of all the people who work in the computer field. There are tons of them that are not diagnosed, that are just Asperger mild autism. Geeks and nerds and Asperger's are the same thing. People on the spectrum tend to be more interested in things than interested in just social chitchat. And if you didn't have any people in this world interested in things, we'd still be living in caves.
But let's take this from the other side. The other side is that autistic kids often suffer from the insensitivity and cruelty of their peers.
I had a terrible time in high school. I was just teased absolutely horribly. It was terrible.
You can speak about that personally. And I'd like to hear about that. But I'd also like to discuss something else. At some point, you learned how to adopt some social graces in order to be able to function.
You have to learn social rules like being in a play. I didn't even know that people had all these secret little eye signals until I read about them in a book when I was 50 years old. I didn't even know they existed. You have to learn social rules like saying "please" and "thank you" and being polite and not pushing in line just like being in a play. Sort of like, you go to a foreign country; what are the customs of the foreign country? You have to just learn social rules sort of like you're acting in a play.
It's like learning a foreign language.
How was it when you were in high school? Did you realize how different you were from everybody else?
I couldn't figure out why I didn't fit in. The only places I could get away from all the teasing was with the shared interests. The other students that were interested in horse back riding or science lab, they were not doing the teasing. Those were refuges away from teasing, those specialized activities. And I think it's very important to get these young Asperger nerdy kids into these specialized activities where they're going to have peers who are also interested in computers or playing music or playing chess or building robots or anything. If I hadn't had my science teacher when I was in high school, I would have been in a real mess.
Can you tell our readers in what ways he was such an important figure in your life?
One of the things he did was to get me to start studying. I wasn't studying. I didn't see any point in going to school. Once I became convinced that I wanted to achieve this goal of becoming a scientist, I stopped messing around and started studying. Because now I had a goal of becoming a scientist.
Let's go back to learning this language and being in a play and understanding how you have to function to get through life. You also had a mentor who walked you through it, which must have been important, who clued you in.