My interest in autism stems from the recent diagnosis of my niece as autistic. There is a wide range of symptoms, most of which are believed to be caused by genetics although there has been speculation on the possibility of processed foods and heavy metals in the environment today as the cause but this has not been definitely proven.
My sister did have a history of eating disorders prior to giving birth, so I do suspect that processed foods in the American food market has much to do with the huge increase in the amount of autistic children born in our generation.
I just finished watching the movie Temple Grandin. I have a new hero. Here is a person with autism who was able to gain not only a sense of normaly but who earned a PhD.
Dr. Grandin opened the way for future generations of autistic people and showed the world the potential that these children have. Some people who have a new agey mindset have even included these children among the 'indigo' children, the new breed of highly evolved humans who think outside the box, who see the world differently, who have a different mind.
This is Diversity 301. I truly believe that our use of the idea of diversity as a human value, learning to respect people of different ethnicities and sexualities, that is only the beginning of a journey towards a fuller understanding of human nature. Diversity must also include what psychotherapists refer to as different personality types.
To truly understand human diversity, we need to understand the human mind in all its capacities, most of which we never fully develop because our education system is meant to help us gain job skills and be productive and oftentimes does not take into consideration individual psychological configurations. Autistic people think differently. They see the world in images, some live in a world of sound or process their thoughts as images because their brains are wired differently.
Different does not mean less: some autistic persons are geniuses. Mozart was autistic. So was Einstein. So is my niece :) She's in pre-school now in a special ed class, and is well ahead of her class in terms of her ability to put symbols or letters together, she can count and she leads the class when they sing songs! She appears to easily tune into songs and that makes her a very cheerful child.
Many of these persons, because of their peculiar gifts, in other cultures have been considered shamans and cultural scouts who discovered or invented new ways of doing things based on a new way of seeing reality, and then brought those gifts back to their tribe or culture.
Dr. Grandin gave a talk at TED entitled Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds where she talked about how she was able to think like a cow and engineered the infrastructure that is in use today in most of the farms in the US that ensures that cattle are treated humanely: her focus was on making sure that the animals remained calm throughout most of the process of the feeding, treatment and even slaughter. This is born from her compassion, but also from her ability to easily think like a cow, of mentally being able to become a cow which is something that shamans of more primal cultures are able to do: they are able to think like animals they see in nature and hence they are able to harness the abilities of these animals.
In the movie, the constrast in her mind between the cow that lives and how she suffers, experiences reality, thinks and feels during life versus the piece of meat that is left once the cow leaves her body in the slaughterhouse is enormous. Upon seeing the bodies of animals or people who had just died, she used to ask: "Where did it go?". In other words, she is attuned to the presence and the mind of the being who is there.
Most of the people that work in slaughterhouses are so used to their own cruelty and to the idea of cattle as commodities that the concept of a living being who thinks, suffers, experiences panic or calm, who has specific needs and who thinks in a certain way escapes them.
The comparison of Dr. Grandin with ancient shamans turns a bit sour when we consider that she was mockingly and dismissively called 'Dr. Doolittle' by one of her employers because she was trying to understand what the different kinds of mooing meant. In the end, she helped us to see the world as cows see it, and to more efficiently and compassionately handle them.
But there are also introverts and extraverts who all have different needs and skills, as well as people who have more of an emotional brain versus rational or intuitive brains. Many job descriptions require persons to be outgoing and people-persons, and while it is good to put in the extra umph and go outside of one's comfort zone, a person who is naturally predominantly introverted (about 50% of the population) may not have those skills and may instead have many other skills that involve the use of critical thinking and other skills that might be useful for the same position. By discouraging introversion, the job market robs itself of talent in order to appease mere superficiality.
Western culture has not yet embraced this idea of diversity in terms of how our brains differ and the kinds of gifts that autistic people or people of different brain configurations may bring to human civilization. Dr. Grandin gives all of us who have loved ones who are autistic hope, and she also represents an important paradigm shift and challenge in terms of human values and how we value and appreciate others.