25 February 2005

Temple Grandin's "Animals in Translation"

I haven't read the book yet, but rob at roborant has. It sounds interesting, and Temple Grandin has a unique insight. I've added the book to my Amazon.com wish list (thanks for the pointer, rob).

I do have some comments on stuff provoked by rob's review:

Rob: "Ms Grandin's claim is that autistic human brains have a lot in common with animal brains."

To me this seems obvious enough. All human brains have a lot in common with animal brains, because all human brains are animal brains. This is not just a simplification or a statement for rhetorical effect. We humans would do a lot better to remember that we are, indeed, animals and the differences between us and other animals are differences of degree, not kind. The better questions are:
  • In what specific ways are human and animal brains different?
  • In what specific ways are human and animal minds different?
  • Are humans more different from animals than they are from other humans?*
  • What can we learn from studying these specific differences?
  • Do the answers to the above inform our ethics?
*E.g.: Humans are more intelligent than dogs. This seems obvious, but: consider that a newborn human is less intelligent than a normal adult dog, but is likely to have greater potential for growth in intelligence. And a brain-damaged human is still a human even though his or her intelligence may be markedly less than many animals. Studying human-animal brain differences can lead us to a better understanding of how children develop as well as how to treat brain damange.

I'd also be very wary of using terms like "the autistic brain". This term presupposed that there is one type of autistic brain. I don't believe that to be true. Folks with autism are as varied as anyone else. There are commonalities to be sure...but many many different variations, and I suspect there are multiple genetic, physical, and developmental conditions which can cause the spectrum of conditions we label "autism". It's like the term "cancer" -- a useful enough term, but in reality cancer isn't one disease, doesn't stem from one cause, and doesn't have one treatment.

I believe Autism isn't one disease, doesn't stem from one cause, and doesn't have one treatment.

As a matter of fact, I believe in some cases, "Autism" isn't a disease and doesn't need to be treated.

Possible parallel: Sickle-cell anemia is consired to be a disease...but it evolved as a successful mechanism for providing resistance to malaria. It causes problems when (1) a person is homozygous for Sickle cell or (2) when the environment no longer contains malaria. It is a disease only in the right context. In other contexts, it is a defense mechanism. Some forms of autism may be similar, I believe. Other forms are much more profound and need early and intensive intervention to help the sufferer.