May Be an Abnormality:
Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA
I am becoming increasingly concerned that
intellectually gifted children are being denied
opportunities because they are being labeled either
Asperger's or high functioning autism. Within
the last year I have talked to several parents,
and I was disturbed by what they said. One mother
called me and was very upset that her six-year-old
son had Asperger's. She then went on to tell me
that his IQ was 150. I replied that before people
knew about Asperger's Syndrome, their child would
have received a very positive label of intellectually
In another case the parents of an Asperger teenager
called and told me that they were so concerned
about their son's poor social skills that they
would not allow him to take computer programming.
I told her that depriving him of a challenging
career in computers would make his life miserable.
He will get social interaction by shared interests
with other computer people. In a third case, a
super smart child was not allowed in the talented
and gifted program in his school because he had
an autism label. Educators need to become aware
that intellectually satisfying work makes life
It is essential that talented children labeled
either high functioning autism or Asperger's be
trained in fields such as computer programming,
where they can do intellectually satisfying work.
Click here to read my paper entitled 'Choosing
the Right Job for People with Autism or Asperger's
Syndrome.' For many people with Asperger's, and
for me, my life is my work. Life would not be
worth living if I did not have intellectually
satisfying work. I did not fully realize this
until a flood destroyed our university library.
I was attending the American Society of Animal
Science meetings when the flood occurred. I first
learned about it when I read about it on the front
page of USA Today, a national newspaper. I grieved
for the "dead" books, the same way most
people grieve for a dead relative. The destruction
of books upset me because "thoughts died."
Even though most of the books are still in other
libraries, there are many people at the university
who will never read them. To me, Shakespeare lives
if we keep performing his plays. He dies, when
we stop performing them. I am my work. If the
livestock industry continues to use equipment
I have designed, then my "thoughts live"
and my life has meaning. If my efforts to improve
the treatment of cattle and pigs make real improvements
in the world, then life is meaningful.
I have been reading, with great satisfaction,
the many articles in magazines about Linux free
software. People in the business world are not
able to comprehend why the computer people give
their work away. I am unable to think about this
without becoming emotional. It is no mystery to
me why they download their intellectual ideas
into the vast, evolving and continually improving
computer operating system. It is because their
thoughts will live forever as part of the "genetic
code" of the computer program. They are putting
themselves into the program and their "intellectual
DNA" will live forever in cyber-space. As
the program evolves and changes, the code they
wrote will probably remain hidden deep within
it. It is almost like a living thing that is continually
evolving and improving. For both me and for the
programmers that contribute to Linux, we do it
because it makes our lives more meaningful.
Continuum of Traits
There is a continuum of personality and intellectual
traits from normal to abnormal. At what point
does a brilliant computer programmer or engineer
get labeled with Asperger's. There is no black
and white dividing line. Simon Baron-Cohen, an
autism researcher at the University of Cambridge,
found that there were 2 ½ times as many
engineers in the family history of people with
autism. I certainly fit this pattern. My grandfather
was an engineer who was co-inventor of the automatic
pilot for an airplane. I have second and third
cousins who are engineers and mathematicians.
At a recent lecture, Dr. Baron-Cohen described
three brilliant cases of Asperger's Syndrome.
There was a brilliant physics student, a computer
scientist, and a mathematics professor. It is
also likely that Bill Gates has many Asperger's
traits. An article in Time Magazine compared me
to Mr. Gates. For example, we both rock. I have
seen video tapes of Bill Gates rocking on television.
Articles in business magazines describe his incredible
memory as a young child.
There is evidence that high functioning autism
and Asperger's Syndrome have a strong genetic
basis. G. R. DeLong and J. T. Dyer found that
two thirds of families with a high functioning
autistic had either a first or second degree relative
with Asperger's Syndrome. Sukhelev Naragan and
his co-workers wrote, in the Journal of Autism
and Developmental Disorders, that educational
achievement of the parents of an autistic child
with good language skills were often greater than
those of similar parents with normal children.
Dr. Robert Plomin at Pennsylvania State University
states that autism is highly heritable.
In my book, Thinking in Pictures, I devote an
entire chapter to the link between intellectual
giftedness and creativity to abnormality. Einstein
himself had many autistic traits. He did not learn
to speak until he was three, and he had a lack
of concern about his appearance. His uncut hair
did not match the men's hairstyles of his time.
Genius is an Abnormality?
It is likely that genius in any field is an abnormality.
Children and adults who excel in one area, such
as math, are often very poor in other areas. The
abilities are very uneven. Einstein was a poor
speller and did poorly in foreign language. The
brilliant physicist, Richard Feynman, did poorly
in some subjects.
A review of the literature indicates that being
truly outstanding in any field may be associated
with some type of abnormality. Kay Redfield Jamison,
from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has reviewed
many studies that show the link with manic depressive
illness and creativity. N.C. Andreason at the
University of Iowa found that 80 percent of creative
writers had mood disorders sometime during their
life. A study of mathematical giftedness, conducted
at Iowa State University by Camilla Persson, found
that mathematical giftedness was correlated with
being near-sighted and having an increased incidence
of allergies. I recently attended a lecture by
Robert Fisher at Barrow Neurological Institute
in Phoenix, Arizona. He stated that many great
people had epilepsy, people such as Julius Ceasar,
Napoleon, Socrates, Pythagoras, Handel, Tchaikovsky,
and Alfred Nobel. An article in the December 2001
issue of Wired magazine discussed the link between
autism and Asperger's, and engineer and computer
programming. The incidence of autism and Asperger's
has increased in the children of technology company
employees. A little bit of autism genes may provide
an intellectual advantage and too much of the
genetic may cause a severe case of autism.
Types of Thinking
There appear to be two basic types of thinking
in intellectually gifted people who have Asperger's
or high functioning autism. The highly social,
verbal thinkers who are in the educational system
need to understand that their thought processes
are different. The two types are totally visual
thinkers like me; and the music, math and memory
thinkers which are described in Thomas Sowell's
book, Late Talking Children. I have interviewed
several of these people, and their thoughts work
in patterns in which there are no pictures. Sowell
reports that in the family histories of late talking,
music math and memory children, 74 percent of
the families will have an engineer or a relative
in a highly technical field such as physics, accounting,
or mathematics. Most of these children also had
a relative that played a musical instrument.
Every thought I have is represented by a picture.
When I think about a dog, I see a series of pictures
of specific dogs, such as my student's dog or
the dog next door. There is no generalized verbal
'dog' concept in my mind. I form my dog concept
by looking for common features that all dogs have,
and no cats have. For example, all of the different
breeds of dogs have the same kind of nose. My
thought process goes from specific pictures to
general concepts, where as most people think from
general to specific. I have no vague, abstract,
language-based concepts in my head, only specific
When I do design work, I can run three-dimensional,
full motion "video" images of the cattle
handling equipment in my head. I can "test
run" the equipment on the "virtual reality"
computer that is in my imagination. Visual thinkers
who are expert computer programmers have told
me that they can see the entire program "tree,"
and then they write the code on each branch.
It is almost as if I have two consciences. Pictures
are my real thoughts, and language acts as a narrator.
I narrate from the "videos" and "slides"
I see in my imagination. For example, my language
narrator might say, "I can design that."
I then see a video of the equipment I am designing
in my imagination. When the correct answer pops
into my head, it is a video of the successful
piece of equipment working. At this point, my
language narrator says, "I figured out how
to do it." In my mind there is no subconscious.
Images are constantly passing through the computer
screen of my imagination. I can see thought processes
that others have covered up with language. I do
not require language for either consciousness
or for thinking.
When I learned drafting for doing my design work,
it took time to train my visual mind to make the
connection between the symbolic lines on a layout
drawing and an actual building. To learn this
I had to take the set of blueprints and walk around
in the building, looking at the square concrete
support columns, seeing how the little squares
on the drawing related to the actual columns.
After I had "programmed" my brain to
read drawings, the ability to draw blueprints
appeared almost by magic. It took time to get
information in, but after I was "programmed,"
the skill appeared rather suddenly. Researchers
who have studied chess players state that the
really good chess players have to spend time inputting
chess patterns into their brains. I can really
relate to this. When I design equipment I take
bits of pictures and pieces of equipment I have
seen in the past and re-assemble them into new
designs. It is like taking things out of the memory
of a CAD computer drafting system, except I can
re-assemble the pieces into three-dimensional,
moving videos. Constance Mibrath and Bryan Siegal
at the University of California found that talented,
autistic artists assemble the whole from the parts.
It is "bottom up thinking," instead
of "top down thinking."
Teachers and Mentors
Children and teenagers with autism or Asperger's
need teachers who can help them develop their
talents. I cannot emphasize enough the importance
of developing a talent into an employable skill.
The visual thinkers like me can become experts
in fields such as computer graphics, drafting,
computer programming, automotive repair, commercial
art, industrial equipment design, or working with
animals. The music, math, and memory type children
can excel in mathematics, accounting, engineering,
physics, music, translating engineering and legal
documents, and other technical skills. Unless
the student's mathematical skills are truly brilliant,
I would recommend taking courses in library science,
accounting, engineering, or computers. Learning
a technical skill will make the person highly
employable. There are few jobs for mediocre mathematicians
Since social skills are weak, the person can make
up for them by making themselves so good at something
that people will hire them. Teachers need to council
individuals to go into fields where they can easily
Majoring in history is not a good choice because
obtaining a job will be difficult. History could
be the person's hobby instead of the main area
of study in school.
Many high functioning autistic and Asperger teenagers
get bored with school and misbehave. They need
mentors who can teach them a field that will be
beneficial to their future. 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 or a "computer
geek" is okay. A good programmer is recognized
for his/her skills. I know several very successful
autistic computer programmers. A bored high school
student could enroll in programming or computer-aided
drafting courses in a local community college.
To make up for social deficits, autistic individuals
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
teacher may be found. He may be standing in the
checkout line in a 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 and
show him work that the person with autism has