The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Dr. Temple Grandin (Full Transcript)


Title: The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum – Transcript

Event: Talks at Google

Speaker: Dr. Temple Grandin

Brief Description: Dr. Temple Grandin comes to Google to talk about her book: The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.


Introducing Speaker: Please welcome Dr. Temple Grandin.

Temple Grandin – Author, Thinking in Pictures

It’s really great to be here today. I’m going to talk about a lot of different things. I was one of those kids that was kind of different growing up, bullied and teased in school. And the thing that saved me was my science teacher. I had a great science teacher that got me interested in doing all kinds of interesting projects — which brings it down to you want to get kids doing interesting stuff, you’re going to have to show them interesting stuff.

There’s a scene in the HBO movie where I got really interested in optical illusion rooms. Well, and I actually saw that optical illusion room on a Bell Labs 16 millimeter movie – now I’m showing how long ago that was — on optical illusions. So you know, got to get them out there and show them stuff.

Now the thing is, what I want to do is to get you thinking about different kinds of minds that think differently. When I was in 20s, 30s, and early 40s, I thought that everybody thought the same way that I think. Then I asked this question, and this is where I learned how thinking can be different. Access your memory on a church steeple. How does that information come into your mind? I was shocked to find out that a lot of people get this vague, generalized thing. I don’t have any vague generalized thing. I only have specific ones.

Now you might ask, why am I talking about church steeples? Why don’t I ask house or car? Well, most people are so familiar with their own home or their own car, that they’re going to see that. But I wanted to ask you something you don’t own, but they’re out there and you have to see them and everybody knows what they are. And you have to see a whole lot of them. You just can’t even drive around without seeing them. And that really started giving me some real insight that different people think differently.

So then I divided the world into people that think in words and people that think in pictures. And then I started to — well, wait a minute. There’s this other kind of person that thinks in patterns. This is more the mathematical kind of mind.

Now when does something become an abnormality? Well, you get a little bit of the autism trait, you take out some social stuff in the brain, and you get geek traits for all kinds of fun tech stuff. I think a brain can either be made more cognitive or more thinking, or a brain can be made more social. Because after all, who invented the first stone spear? It wasn’t the yack-yacks around the campfire, that’s for sure.

It was some geek out there in the back of the cave chipping away at a rock and figured out how to get it fastened to a stick and make a stone spear. You see, you get a little bit of that autism trait, you get some advantages. You get too much of the trait, you get a very, very severe handicap. Because one of the big problems that you got with the autism spectrum is it’s so huge. At one end, you have got lot of people, probably people like Tesla, who invented the power plant. You got a lot of people in Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of them that are alive. I don’t talk about live ones. I’m only going to talk about dead ones when I show their pictures. You know who all the live ones are. You can look them up in “Business Week” magazine, and it’s really, really obvious.

But you get a little bit of – you know, you get the creative people. There tends to be relatives of people that may have bipolar disorder. There’s more techies in the autism careers. Now the thing is, an autism diagnosis is not precise. And over the years they kept changing the diagnosis. In the early ’90s, they put in Asperger’s, where now just geeks and nerds with no speech delay become autistic. Then in 2013 they took that out. So now you’ve got this great big mucky autism diagnosis that goes from heads of Silicon Valley companies down to people that remain nonverbal and cannot dress themselves. So you’ve got this huge spectrum.

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Okay, maybe that’s heresy that I put his picture up here. But I promised that I would only talk about dead ones and stuff I could dig off of publicly available things, like a very popular book that’s out now. Now the thing I want to get you to think about is what would happen to little Albert today. Little Albert Einstein. He had no language until he was three years old. Wasn’t very social, liked to line up blocks. He’d probably be labeled autistic spectrum today.

And little Stevie. Oh, weird loner. This is right out of publicly available information. A weird, weird loner that brought snakes to his elementary school and turned them loose. And then he was bullied and bullied and bullied and teased, and what saved him was getting out in the neighborhood computer club. This brings up a really important thing. Getting these teenagers that are kind of different, now today they’re getting addicted to video games. Sometimes getting addicted to video games and get an autism diagnosis and get paid Social Security to play video games. You have people saying I’m too much down on video games.

8Well, I was just down at JPL yesterday. And if you want to work at JPL all day and play video games at night, I don’t have a problem with that. What I’m getting concerned about is the kid that’s getting addicted to video games and they’re not getting a job at JPL. That concerns me very, very much. And so he was bullied. And then when he went to work for Atari, he was such a filthy slob they made him come in at night. No, being a filthy slob’s not okay. And there’s a scene in the movie where they slam down a deodorant and they said, “You stink. Use it.” That actually happened. This is where bosses are going to just have to give some instruction on how to behave at work. And being an absolutely filthy, dirty slob I don’t think is going to be very acceptable here either. It’s just too gross.

Now I like to look at personality differences sort of like a music mixing board. It’s not black and white. If I get a diagnosis for tuberculosis, that’s definite. I either got tuberculosis or I don’t. Or I’ve either had tuberculosis or I didn’t. So when I check the Australian customs form, which I did two months ago, I can check “I have never had tuberculosis.” That’s definite. When you see autism, that’s a much more gray area.

Geeks and nerds, when does that turn into mild autism? No black or white dividing line. It’s a continuous trait. And if you got rid of this trait completely, you won’t have any new employees. It’s just that simple.

Now I am a total visual thinker. I think in photo-realistic pictures. I don’t think in words. So when I think about designing something, I can test run it and see it in my head in 3D. Before 3D virtual reality computer programs were invented, I could sit in a conference room and they could try stuff. And I could say, well yeah, if you do that, that’s not going to work.

And you might wonder why is the chute curved? Well, as the cattle come on around the bend, they think they’re going back to where they came from. And that’s one of the reasons why that works. I always get asked all the time questions like, do cows know they’re going to get slaughtered? I had to answer that question very early in my career. And I found they behaved exactly the same way at a slaughter plant as they behaved going up a chute for the veterinarian. It’s not stress free. But the amount of stress they have in both of those places is approximately the same.

In fact, I just updated that literature for my class slides and it’s still the same. They tell us to do blood samples in both places. Yeah, it can vary from very little stress to higher stress, but it’s about the same in the two different places. Well, when you’re a weird geek, one of the things I’ve found is that the way that I had to sell myself was by showing off my work. You sell your work rather than yourself. So I put portfolios together. Okay, I’d say the quality of this projector’s about medium good. I’ve had ones where it’s shown up better than this.

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Now the thing is when I first started out, I’d go to the AG engineering meeting and they thought I was really weird. No one wanted to talk to me. And then I whipped out a big foldout drawing. Then I started to get respect. That’s selling your work. And the thing I learned about my portfolio, you want to make a portfolio where someone looks at it and 30 seconds later it’s “wow!” Don’t put too much junk in a portfolio. You just put enough stuff in there so look at it really quickly, wow this person really can do some stuff.

Now I used to joke around that I had huge internet access to my visual cortex. Well, turns out I’ve got a pretty big circuit there. And that’s probably in the top 10% or so of circuits going from the frontal cortex all the way deep to the back of the visual cortex where the graphics files are stored.

Now Walter Schneider at the University of Pittsburgh has a new scanning technology, which I’m sure some Asperger people had to develop the computer to enable this scanner to track white matter fibers. So your brain’s got the gray matter on the outside. And the inside of the brain is all white matter, big long axons that go all the way across the brain that form cable bundles. And this new technology can actually dissect out the cable bundles. It can tell the difference between a bridge that cross each other or an intersection. And that took a lot of computer power, and they can fit it inside a box that Walter can pick up. And so I’m an associative thinker, so start thinking about that song. You can get eight great tomatoes in that itty-bitty can. That’s an ancient old ad for tomato sauce. So that came up. You can get lots of computing in an itty-bitty box. That’s sort of how my mind works.

Okay, now this is the cable bundle for speak what you see. And it goes from the visual cortex up to the language area. That’s the normal one. And that’s mine. And those branches, you can see they’ve been truncated there on that rendering, they actually go all over the brain. So I basically have got a search engine — it’s a lot like Google for images – where you type in keywords and I get lots of pictures. And they are specific! The thing I find so fascinating about search engines is they work just like how my mind works.

Well, who made search engines? Some people that are much more linear in their thinking don’t like the way the search engine works. I like the way it works just fine. And one of the things I got to teach my students is, you got to use all the different keywords.

All right, let’s just take cattle, for example. There’s bulls, cows, cattle, bovines, calf, calves. You got to use all those different words. That’s really obvious to me. And I find if you use all the different words, you find a lot of papers you wouldn’t find otherwise. Now the price I paid for this circuit is I have less bandwidth for the speak what you see. So I had speech delay. Didn’t talk until age four. And I couldn’t get my words out. See, there’s always a price. This scanner was originally paid for by the Defense Department to look at veterans’ head injuries. And if this had been an injured circuit, it would look like dried spaghetti and went crunch and broke about half of them. I’ll tell you, the football players doesn’t look very pretty.

Okay, now this is another scan that was done at the University of Utah and presented at the Neuroscience Meeting. And the blue part is basically full of cerebrospinal fluid. It’s full of water. And you can see, I’ve got a big asymmetry there. I got visual thinking and my math department got trashed. See, where I think innate differences make the biggest difference is either in real deficit in something or an extreme ability in something. Yes, there’s brain plasticity. But that’s happening in the gray matter out on the edges. Those big white fiber bundles, I don’t think you grow those big axons back. I mean, they’re that long.

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