The animal-science pioneer and autistic activist looks inside her own brain to learn about the latest research on autism in her new book, The Autistic Brain, with Richard Panek—and discovers that she’s quite face-blind.
What’s your big idea?
That there are three kinds of thinking. The traditional way of describing different kinds of minds is to say that some people think visually and some people think verbally. But “visual thinker” doesn’t really describe that part of the population well. I think in pictures, but I found that other visual thinkers don’t think like me at all. They think spatially. The more I asked people how they think, the more convinced I became that picture/object thinking and pattern/spatial thinking were as distinct from each other as the old visual and verbal categories. But did my hypothesis have any basis in scientific fact? To my delight, I discovered it does. Research by a neuroscientist named Maria Kozhevnikov has convincingly shown that not only do different parts of the brain correspond to picture-object thinking and pattern-spatial thinking, but that a brain that’s really good at one of those ways of thinking is usually weak in the other. They truly are different kinds of thinkers. Which makes sense. If you look at scientists and artists, they’re both visual thinkers, but they don’t think the same way.
What does neuroimaging of your own brain tell you about the causes of autism?
It tells me that when parts of the brain depart from the norm, it shows up in the real world. I have an abnormality in the circuits for language output, and sure enough, as a child I had trouble getting language out. I have an oversized amygdala, which is a part of the brain that’s associated with processing fear and other emotions, and I’ve always been prone to high levels of anxiety (which I control through antidepressants that I started taking in the early 1980s). When a control subject and I were studied, we found that our brains responded similarly to images of objects and buildings, but not to images of faces. My brain showed a lot less activation. And you know what? I’m so bad at recognizing faces that I have to remind myself, “He’s got a goatee” or “She’s wearing black glasses.” The book has some of the actual images from my brain scans. I should also say that neuroimaging is going to be a great diagnostic tool for targeting therapies.
How can we get society to view autistic symptoms as overlooked strengths rather than weaknesses?
Autism is a big spectrum, from people with a very severe form who need lifelong care, to people who are gifted in areas like computer programming, art, music. The thing about the autistic mind is that it tends to be good at one thing but bad at something else. Half of Silicon Valley has a little bit of autism. We wouldn’t have Silicon Valley without a little bit of autism. The book argues that in dealing with kids, both the educational system and parents have to focus not just on helping them overcome deficits but on recognizing what they’re good at and encouraging them. In dealing with adults with autism, prospective employers need to see that someone with autism might not be the most collegial person in the office, but he’s really good at cataloguing or she’s really good at drawing. Once society starts to see real-world examples of what people with autism can do, they’ll stop thinking of them as “people with autism” but as individuals. They’ll start thinking of them not in terms of what they can’t do but in terms of what they can do—and do really, really well.