Q&A: Temple Grandin on Autism & Language

Temple Grandin

hide captionTemple Grandin says a challenge of having autism is not only learning to understand other people, but getting other people to understand you.

Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA/Corbis

Temple Grandin, famous for convincing McDonald's to work with more humane slaughterhouses, is not a social butterfly. An evening out, filled with "endless chitchat and silly jokes," what a bore, she says. For Grandin, who is autistic, language isn't about making social connections, it's a tool to get information. She shares that view with many autistic people.

Researchers and therapists say autistic children, independent of their intelligence, often have trouble understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. They're not very good at recognizing social cues — or even the spoken words — that most people take for granted when they communicate.

Grandin says these differences in how autistic people think and process information have have made learning to communicate effectively a life-long struggle for her. But she says there's another dimension to the challenge.

Autistic people can be isolated, she says, not only because they have difficulty making a connection with so-called "normal" people, but because normal people find it difficult to put themselves in an autistic person's shoes and see the world from their perspective.

Grandin spoke with NPR about the challenges she's faced learning to speak, and what she's learned about language and autism.

Q: What's the first thing you remember about words or language?

I had problems getting my words out. If people spoke directly to me, I understood what they said. But when the grownups got to yakking really fast by themselves, it just sounded like "oi oi." I thought grownups had a separate language. I've now figured out I was not hearing the hard consonant sounds.

Some people with autism who don't talk, all they hear are vowel sounds. Like if I said "cup," they might just hear "uh." My speech teacher would hold up a cup and say "cuh-up" and annunciate those hard consonants.

You didn't start to speak until you were 3 ½. Do you remember why you started to speak?

Language just gradually came in, one or two stressed words a time. Before then, I would just scream. I couldn't talk. I couldn't get my words out. So the only way I could tell someone what I wanted was to scream. If I didn't want to wear a hat, the only way I knew to communicate was screaming and throwing it on the floor.

It's very important for the parents of young autistic children to encourage them to talk, or for those that don't talk, to give them a way of communicating, like a picture board, where they can point to a glass of milk, or a jacket if they're cold, or the bathroom. If they want something, then they need to learn to request that thing. There's nothing more frustrating than not being able to communicate.

Before you spoke, were there other ways you tried to communicate with your parents? For instance, kids often try to make eye contact to engage their parents.

I could never figure out why eye contact was so important. I only figured it out seven or eight years ago, in my 50s, after reading Simon Baron-Cohen's book on mind blindness (Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind MIT Press, 1997). I didn't even know that all these little tiny eye signals even existed.

But the one subtle social cue I did pick up was tone of voice. And the interesting thing about the form of autism where kids mainly echo back what they hear is they often think the tone is the language rather than the words. They have to be taught that the words have meaning.

Are there times when you want to talk just to be social?

I would never talk just to be social. Now, to sit down with a bunch of engineers and talk about the latest concrete forming systems, that's really interesting. Talking with animal behaviorists or with someone who likes to sail, that's interesting. Information is interesting to me. But talking for the sake of talking, I find that quite boring.

How else is language different for you?

Most people don't think in pictures to the extent I do. I have a little test, I ask people to access their memory of church steeples. Most people get a vague generalized steeple. I see specific ones. The steeple next door, or the weird round one with shingles on it. Cinder block. Square. For the general concept of steeples, I have to look at a lot of specific ones. They don't have transmitters on them, so they are not cell-phone towers. They are on houses of worship. So a steeple is high structure on a house of worship. That's how I categorize it.

There's a notion in the research community that autistic people don't have something called "theory of other mind" — the ability to recognize that others have thoughts and feelings different from their own. What's your take on this?

Everyone gets into theory of mind stuff. And it's all about emotional theory of mind. But there are other kinds. Normal people have incredibly bad visual and sensory theory of mind.

I travel a lot and I have to get directions, and people leave out the details because they're not visualizing. What's a person going to see who has never been there before, when they are driving their car?

And how is a person going to socialize if their ears are so sensitive that just being at a restaurant is like being inside the speaker at a rock 'n' roll concert and it's hurting their ears?

Autistic people are also said to have problems with empathy. But according to you, they're not the only ones…

Normal people have an incredible lack of empathy. They have good emotional empathy, but they don't have much empathy for the autistic kid who is screaming at the baseball game because he can't stand the sensory overload. Or the autistic kid having a meltdown in the school cafeteria because there's too much stimulation. I'm frustrated with the inability of normal people to have sensory empathy. They can't seem to acknowledge these different realities because they're so far away from their own experiences.

Has it been hard to learn to speak to normal people?

I always keep learning. People ask for a single breakthrough. There isn't one. I keep learning every day how I think and feel is different. Every day I learn a little more.

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