UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS & DEVELOPING TALENTS
Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA
I did not know that eye movements had meaning
until I read Mind Blindness by Simon Baron-Cohen. I had
no idea that people communicated feelings with their eyes. I also
did not know that people get all kinds of little emotional signals
which transmit feelings. My understanding of this became clearer
after I read Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio. From
the book I learned that, in most people, information in memory is
seamlessly linked with emotion. I have emotions which can be very
strong when I am experiencing them, but information stored in memory
can be scanned at will without emotion. It is like surfing the Internet
of web pages in my mind.
Social relationships have been learned solely
by intellect and use of my visualization skills. All my thoughts
are in pictures, like videotapes in my imagination. When I encounter
a new social situation I can scan my data banks for a similar situation
that I can use as a model to guide me in the new situation. My data
banks in social skills are also filled with news articles about
diplomatic relationships between different countries and an archive
of previous experiences. I use these scenarios to guide me in different
situations. I then run videotapes in my imagination of all the possible
ways to predict how the other person might act. It is all done using
my visual mind. I have great difficulty with new social situations
if I cannot recall a similar situation to use as a guide.
It is easy for me to pass a simple 'theory of
mind' test because I visualize what the other person would be seeing.
For example, if John sees Sally put a candy in a jar and then Sally
eats the candy when John leaves the room and replaces it with a
pen, I know that John expects to find a candy because he did not
see the candy replaced by the pen. I have difficulty with more complex
'theory of mind' problems which involve two or three people doing
several different things. I do not have sufficient short-term memory
to remember the sequence of events. My problem is due to a poor
short-term working memory.
Difficulties with short-term working memory should
not be confused with a lack of understanding of 'theory of mind.'
I can solve more complex 'theory of mind' tests if I am allowed
to write down the sequence of events. Over time, I have built up
a tremendous library of memories of my past experiences, TV, movies,
and newspapers to spare me the social embarrassments caused by my
autism; and I use these to guide the decision process in a totally
logical way. I have learned from experience that certain behaviors
make people mad. Earlier in my life, my logical decisions were often
wrong because they were based on insufficient data. Today they are
much better, because my memory contains more information.
Using my visualization ability, I observe myself
from a distance. I call this my little scientist in the corner,
as if I'm a little bird watching my own behavior from up high. This
idea has also been reported by other people with autism. Dr. Asperger
noted that autistic children observe themselves constantly. They
see themselves as an object of interest.
According to Antonio Damasio, people who suddenly
lose emotions because of strokes often make disastrous financial
and social decisions. These patients have completely normal thoughts,
and they respond normally when asked about hypothetical social situations.
But their performance plummets when they have to make rapid decisions
without emotional cues. It must be like suddenly becoming autistic.
I can handle situations where stroke patients may fail because I
never relied on emotional cues in the first place. At age 51, I
have a vast data bank; but it has taken me years to build up my
library of experiences and learn how to behave in an appropriate
manner. I did not know until very recently that most people rely
heavily on emotional cues.
After many years I have learned - by rote - how
to act in different situations. I can speed-search my CD-ROM memory
of videotapes and make a decision quickly. It is like surfing the
Internet in my mind. Doing this visually may be easier than doing
it with verbal thinking. I try to avoid situations where I can get
into trouble. As a child, I found picking up social cues impossible.
When my parents were thinking about getting divorced, my sister
felt tension; but I felt nothing because the signs were subtle.
My parents never had big fights in front of us. The signs of emotional
friction were stressful to my sister, but I didn't even see them.
Since my parents were not showing obvious, overt anger toward each
other; I just did not comprehend the tension.
Social interaction is further complicated by the
physiological problems of attention shifting. Since people with
autism require much more time than others to shift their attention
between auditory and visual stimuli, they find it more difficult
to follow rapidly changing, complex social interactions. These problems
may be part of the reason why Jack, a man with autism, said, "If
I relate to people too much, I become nervous and uncomfortable."
Learning social skills can be greatly helped with videotapes. I
gradually learned to improve my public speaking by watching tapes
and by becoming aware of easily quantifiable cues, such as rustling
papers that indicate boredom. It is a slow process of continuous
improvement. There are no sudden breakthroughs.
Figuring out how to interact socially was much
more difficult than solving an engineering problem. I found it relatively
easy to program my visual memory with the knowledge of cattle-dipping
vats or corral designs. Recently, I attended a lecture where a social
scientist said that humans do not think like computers. That night
at a dinner party I told this scientist and her friends that my
thought patterns resemble computing and that I am able to explain
my thought processes step by step. I was kind of shocked when she
told me that she is unable to describe how her thoughts and emotions
are joined. She said that when she thinks about something, the factual
information and the emotions are combined into a seamless whole.
I finally understood why so many people allow emotions to distort
the facts. My mind can always separate the two. Even when I am very
upset, I keep reviewing the facts over and over until I can come
to a logical conclusion.
Over the years, I have learned to be more tactful
and diplomatic. In my freelance livestock equipment design business,
I have learned never to go over the head of the person who hired
me unless I have his or her permission. From past experiences I
have learned to avoid situations in which I could be exploited and
to stroke egos that may feel threatened. To master diplomacy, I
read about business dealings and international negotiations in the
Wall Street Journal and other publications. I then used them as
I know that things are missing in my life, but
I have an exciting career that occupies my every waking hour. Keeping
myself busy keeps my mind off what I may be missing. Sometimes parents
and professionals worry too much about the social life of an adult
with autism. I make social contacts via my work. If a person develops
her talents, she will have contacts with people who share her interests.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of developing
a talent area such as drafting, commercial art, custom cabinetwork,
fixing cars or computer programming. These things will provide an
intellectually satisfying career. My life would not be worth living
if I did not have intellectually satisfying work. My career is my
life. Sometimes professionals working with people with autism become
so concerned about the person's social life that developing intellectually
satisfying employment skills is neglected.
When high functioning autistic or Asperger's children
reach 8th or 9th grade, they need mentor teachers to teach them
skills such as computer programming. I had a wonderful high school
science teacher who taught me to use the scientific research library.
Computers are a great field because being weird is okay. A good
programmer is recognized for his/her skills. I know several very
successful autistic computer programmers.
To make up for social deficits autistic people
need to make themselves so good that they are recognized for brilliant
work. People respect talent. They need mentors who are computer
programmers, artists, draftsmen, etc. to teach them career skills.
I often get asked "How does one find mentors?" You never
know where a mentor may be found. He or she may be standing in the
checkout line at the supermarket. I found one of my first meat industry
mentors when I met the wife of his insurance agent at a party. She
struck up a conversation with me because she saw my hand embroidered
western shirt. I had spent hours embroidering a steer head on the
shirt. Post a notice on the bulletin board at the local college
in the computer science department. If you see a person with a computer
company name badge, approach him or her and show the person work
that the person with autism has done.
Since people with autism and Asperger's are inept
socially, they have to sell their work instead of their personality.
I showed my portfolio of pictures and blueprints to prospective
customers. I never went to the personnel office. I went straight
to the engineers and asked to do design jobs.
Freelance work is really great. It avoids many
social problems. I can go in and design the project and then get
out before I get in social problems. There have been several sad
stories where an autistic draftsman or technician has been promoted
to a management position. It was a disaster which ended up with
the person being fired or quitting. Employers need to recognize
the person's limitations. An excellent draftsman, commercial artist,
technician or computer programmer may lose their career when promoted
to management. They should be rewarded with more pay or a new computer
instead of a management job.
Sins of the System
I developed this rule system to guide social interactions
and my behavior.
Really bad things
Examples: murder, arson, stealing, lying in court
under oath, injuring or hitting other people. All cultures have
prohibitions against really bad things because an orderly civilized
society cannot function if people are robbing and killing each other.
Examples: not cutting in on a line at the movie
theater or airport, table manners, saying 'thank you' and keeping
oneself clean. These things are important because they make the
other people around you more comfortable. I don't like it when somebody
else has sloppy table manners so I try to have decent table manners.
It annoys me if somebody cuts in front of me in a line so I do not
do this to other people.
Illegal but not bad
Examples: slight speeding on the freeway and illegal
parking. However, parking in a handicapped zone would be worse because
it would violate the courtesy rules.
Sins of the system
Examples: smoking pot and being thrown in jail
for ten years and sexual misbehavior. SOS's are things where the
penalty is so severe that it defies all logic. Sometimes the penalty
for sexual misbehavior is worse than killing somebody. Rules governing
sexual behavior are so emotionally based that I do not dare discuss
the subject for fear of committing an SOS. An SOS in one society
may be acceptable behavior in another; whereas rules 1, 2, 3 tend
be more uniform between different cultures.
I have learned never to do a sin of the system.
This is one of the reasons I chose celibacy. It avoids a lot of
problems. People with autism have to learn that certain behavior
will not be tolerated period. You will be fired no matter how good
your work is if you commit an SOS at work. People with autism and
Asperger's need to learn that if they want to keep a job they must
not commit an SOS at work. The social knowledge required is just
too complex. Attempting to date at work is too hazardous to one's
job. If they want to date they should do it outside of work. The
most successful marriages that people with autism have involved
partners with shared work interests.
I put a great deal of emphasis on employment because
I see so many very intelligent people with autism and Asperger's
syndrome without satisfying jobs. A satisfying profession made life
have meaning for me. I am what I do and think instead of what I
Last year the library at my university was flooded
and almost a million books drowned. I cried and cried about this.
I grieved for the drowned books. It upsets me so much because the
thoughts were dying. Nobody would ever read these books again. However,
it turned out that the books could be saved by freeze drying; but
at the time I did not know that this was possible. To me, knowledge
is something very precious, and the destruction of knowledge is
really terrible. Using my intellect to do work that is useful and
make the world a better place is very important to me. Knowledge
is more important to me than emotion.
© Copyright Temple Grandin.
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