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Temple Grandin on Focusing on Autistic Strengths, Not Deficits

October 3, 2013

After receiving an autism diagnosis, kids typically begin a number of therapies targeted to compensating for their deficits. We know that autism responds well to early interventions, and there are a lot of them—occupational therapy, speech-language therapy, applied behavior analysis. But what often gets overlooked is expanding on an autistic child’s strengths.

Temple Grandin gives a great example in a piece she wrote with science writer Richard Panek for Time. Autistic people have what’s known as “weak central coherence,” meaning that they pay a lot of attention to details and less attention to the big picture. As a result they are very good at embedded-figure tests. Grandin writes:

Several years ago, I took a test in which I had to look at large letters that were composed of smaller, different letters-for instance, a giant letter H that was built out of tiny F‘s. I then had to identify either the big letter or the little letter. I was much faster at identifying the little letters, a result that’s far more common among autistics than among neurotypicals.

The test is a clear illustration of one of Grandin’s natural strengths. (For the record she prefers the term “local bias” to weak central coherence.) In the essay she speculates that her ability to pick up on minutiae has given her an advantage in her work in animals. This is no small claim considering Grandin’s visionary status in the field of animal science.

It would clearly be a very good thing if we could help more autistic people capitalize on their strengths. In Grandin’s words, “For so many people on the spectrum, identifying their strengths can change their lives. Instead of only accommodating their deficits, they can cultivate their dreams.”

Things are changing, if gradually. There is a steadily growing neurodiversity movement aimed at appreciating peoples’ brain differences. Some companies are thinking outside the box, like Specialisterne, the international tech company with a 75% autistic work force. And of course we have people like Temple Grandin, who are able to bridge the gap and help us do it, too.

The essay is an excerpt adapted from Grandin and Panek’s new book The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, which is getting great reviews.

Tagged with: Self-Advocacy