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Episode 302

Mysteries of the Mind

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Posted by Mary Ann

Temple Grandin’s story actually became widely known because of a book – Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book “An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales.” Sacks is a neurologist who has achieved wide fame as an author. The title essay is about Grandin, and comes from a phrase Grandin uses to describe how she often feels in social interactions.

I think many of us can relate to that feeling. In fact, I think one of the things that makes Grandin’s writing so fascinating is that, though most of her readers may be “normal,” they can relate to the feelings she has; somehow her condition has helped her be very precise in describing mental states that many of us have, though not to the degree she does.

She is a professor of animal science and has done great work – her understanding of how animals think and feel has led to much more humane conditions in slaughterhouses. She doesn’t seen any contradiction in this – speaking of cattle, she has written, “Looking at those animals,” she explains, ”I realized that none of them would even exist if human beings hadn’t bred them into being. . . . We brought these animals here, so we’re responsible for them. We owe them a decent life and a decent death.”

Her 2005 book “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior” explores the similarities between animals and people with autism. If I can greatly oversimplify what she is trying to say, it’s that she, as an autistic person, thinks in pictures and visual images, not in words the way most people do. Animals do too. Animals see things in specific detail, which makes them more vulnerable to sensory overload, because they can’t necessarily synthesize detail, and this is a problem autistic people have as well. Her 2009 book “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” followed up on this one, concentrating more on animals’ emotional lives.

I want to move on to something Temple Grandin says on the very first page, about a book called the DSM, short for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This book uses behavioral profiling to diagnose mental disorders. She calls it “clumsy,” and she writes: “I warn parents, teachers and therapists to avoid getting locked into the labels. They are not precise. I beg you: do not allow a child or an adult to be defined by a DSM label.”

Two new books have come out, both written by psychiatrists or psychologists, that are very critical of the DSM, and are timed to a release of a revised version of this influential book.

The DSM has changed greatly over the years – for example, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder until 1973. When Temple Grandin was growing up in the 1940s, autism had only just been listed as a disorder, which may have been just as well for her – as a child she was diagnosed with brain damage, and thinks she got better treatment that way than if she had been diagnosed with a mental illness.

One new book is called “The Book of Woe,” by psychotherapist Gary Greenberg; the other is “Saving Normal” by psychiatrist Allen Frances. Dr. Frances writes that the DSM has a huge influence on people’s lives, dictating “who is considered well and who is sick; what treatment is offered; who pays for it; who gets disability benefits; who is eligible for mental health, school, vocational, and other services; who gets to be hired for a job, can adopt a child, or pilot a plane, or qualifies for life insurance; whether a murderer is a criminal or a mental patient; what should be the damages awarded in lawsuits; and much, much more.” Both men think the DSM is being used to reclassify essentially normal people as mentally ill. If you are interested in mental illnesses and how they are classified (or misclassified), check out one of these books.

I have also heard great things about “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” by Andrew Solomon. This book just came out last year. It has been highly praised for its sensitivity and insight, “a moving study of parental love in the face of adversity.”

Solomon spent 10 years interviewing more than 300 families with “exceptional” children.- “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” Or they might be gifted, child prodigies. Solomon, who was dyslexic growing up, has written a landmark book about what it means to be a parent, and what it means to be different – widely recommended for just about anyone. One reviewer noted the conundrum Solomon encountered again and again – “most of the families he describes are deeply grateful for the very experiences they would have sacrificed everything to avoid. We can’t help loving our children for who they are, not who they might have been.”

Finally – I don’t know how many people we’ve had on the show whose lives have been made into movie, but that has happened to Temple Grandin; the movie about her life, starring Claire Danes, won five Emmys when it came out in 2010.

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