MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it is the first Tuesday of the month, and that means it’s time for our classic book recommendation for April.
Book reviewer Emily Whitten is here now to talk about it. Thanks for being here today!
EMILY WHITTEN, BOOK REVIEWER: My pleasure, Mary.
REICHARD: I’ve been eager to get to this conversation because I know about the author you picked for April. She’s someone who cares about animal welfare probably as much as I do.
WHITTEN: That’s right! Although, more listeners may know Temple Grandin through her advocacy for people with autism—something she lives with herself. In fact, when she published her initial book in 1986, it gave us the first real look inside the lives of autistic people. If you aren’t that familiar with autism, here’s how Grandin defined it in a 2013 interview:
GRANDIN: Autism is a neurological disorder where there’s differences in the development of the brain. It ranges all the way from a child who’s gonna remain non-verbal for the rest of his life with a lot of handicaps, up to geniuses up in Silicon Valley that do computer things—Tesla, who invented the power plant. In a lot of school systems today, Einstein would be diagnosed with some kind of autism problem. No speech until age 3.
So, autism isn’t like tuberculosis. You can’t take a simple, biological test to see if you have it. Instead, doctors look for certain behavioral characteristics like delayed speech.
REICHARD: Yeah, and as Einstein shows, it certainly doesn’t have to mean a lack of intelligence!
WHITTEN: Exactly. Many of the characteristics relate to communication and social skills. Grandin’s autism falls on the high-functioning side of the spectrum. But she does see the world differently from neurotypical people. In fact, the title I recommend today sums up one big difference. In Thinking in Pictures, Grandin explains how her mind works kind of like a Google image search.
REICHARD: So she’s a visual thinker then.
WHITTEN: That’s right. Grandin often uses this exercise: If I say something like “church steeple,” Mary, what comes to your mind?
REICHARD: Hmm…I guess your run-of-the mill white church steeple?
WHITTEN: Me too. And that’s pretty common. But for Grandin, if you say church steeple, she sees detailed, color pictures of all the church steeples she’s come across. Some autistic people may be more verbal, while others may be pattern thinkers, good at music or math.
Grandin says what unites them is focus on details. And when it’s not too severe, that can be advantageous—like when you build a bridge or design computer software.
REICHARD: Good point. And it really shows that even if we think differently, we are all made in God’s image.
WHITTEN: Absolutely! Because Grandin thinks primarily in pictures, she gets how animals think—because of course, they don’t think verbally either. They think more in sounds, smells, and visual images. After college, she used that special insight to design humane, cost-efficient systems for processing cattle and pigs. She could walk down a ramp in her mind and see the things that would make the animals afraid—things like a flag flapping in the wind nearby. Her insights were so helpful that today, over a third of the stockyards in the United States use her designs.
REICHARD: That is so inspiring, as an animal lover myself.
WHITTEN: I wonder, Mary, if you saw the 2010 HBO biopic about her called Temple Grandin?
REICHARD: Yes, the movie with Claire Danes.
WHITTEN: Exactly. And let’s listen for just a moment to a short clip from a featurette about the movie. Grandin chimes in at the end.
CLIP: She ended up working in the cattle industry, creating systems for cattle to move calmly. Temple realized there was a more humane way to encourage cattle. One of the great things about making this movie is we worked from her plans and we reconstructed one of her great achievements. I’ll tell you it was surreal seeing the dip vat that I designed recreated here absolutely perfectly.
The movie does an excellent job showing Grandin’s life and accomplishments. Danes portrays Grandin’s struggles, inside and out, with so much heart. We see the teasing and bullying she experienced, even the sensory challenges and panic attacks that really made her life excruciating at times.
I want to emphasize that Grandin’s experience of autism is by no means typical. She was able to overcome her own obstacles to help millions of people and animals. And that’s not always the case.
REICHARD: How would you say the film compares to the book?
WHITTEN: Most folks will probably find the movie a better general introduction to Grandin’s life. Families with younger kids may want to wait on this one, mainly because of a scene with awkward sexual references and several scenes of cattle slaughterhouses. But older kids and adults can really enjoy it.
For those who want the nitty-gritty details of autism, though, the book provides a lot more research and resources. One caution: Grandin’s final chapter on God ignores Scripture, so just be aware of that.
REICHARD: That’s important to know. Any other thoughts for Christian readers?
WHITTEN: I talked with a friend recently whose son has a number of health issues. When his son faced treatment for cancer a few years ago, the church rallied to their aid. But when doctors diagnosed his son with autism, no one offered to babysit. No one brought meals. It seemed they either didn’t see the need, or they didn’t know how to help. He said it made him feel isolated.
Roughly 1 in 60 kids today on the autism spectrum. So I hope Thinking in Pictures will inform and inspire Christians to better serve these families. It can make us better grandparents, Sunday School teachers, coaches and the like. Here’s Temple Grandin’s mother on this point:
INTERVIEW: If you don’t understand, you just move away from something. You don’t want to be offending anybody. But that isolates parents and it isolates children. What I see looking back on Temple’s life is all the people who befriended her, helped her, guided her, supported her, and who taught me…we both had to learn along the road together.
REICHARD: Thanks for introducing us to this inspiring woman, Emily.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary.
REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures and the HBO movie Temple Grandin. If you visit worldandeverything.org and look up this particular segment, you’ll find a link to the movie as well as Grandin’s TED talk.