Though people with Asperger’s disorder aren’t all socially awkward geniuses, as the stereotype goes, interest in so-called “savants” on the spectrum remains. The most famous of these is arguably the animal scientist and advocate Temple Grandin—and now we know what her brain looks like.
Researchers at the University of Utah and other institutions used many different brain imaging techniques, as well as neuropsychological testing, to get an idea of what sets her brain apart from those “typical” people. The professor was compared against three controls, and some interesting structural differences emerged. (We should note that every brain is different, even if you aren’t on the autism spectrum, and three controls is not the hugest sample group.)
According to the work presented at the Society of Neuroscience meeting and reported by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, Grandin’s brain is larger overall than is typical, and has “enhanced” connections between brain regions associated with visual thinking as well as an oversized amygdala, the deep brain structure thought to be responsible for emotion. There are also “compromised” connections relative to controls, for instance, in areas tied to language and facial recognition. That we’ve reached this point in imaging technology and our understanding of autism is pretty remarkable.
I believe the lessons here are fairly simple, and one of them we knew already: Temple Grandin is an amazing person. It’s not a stretch to assume that she has a relatively remarkable brain, and this research suggests that. But the other observation is that we now know enough to predict where the brain differences will likely be—that we know when someone doesn’t act or think “typically,” we’re probably going to see some changes in areas that we’re getting better at predicting.
The crucial caveat here is that no brain is “typical.” It’s sort of an old saw, but no person with autism is typical, either. And no person without autism is typical. We are all on a spectrum of humanity, and it’s clear that some of us are closer to the center of the bell curve, as it were. And some of us are, for better or worse, outliers.