The Autistic Brain

Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek

For one little girl profiled in Grandin’s latest book, putting on pink sunglasses makes shopping trips tolerable. Like many with autism, she finds stores visually overwhelming: Shining lights appear to shoot streams of sparks, and words on signs jiggle. Tinted lenses can quell the sensory overload.

The lens trick is one of many that Grandin highlights in this review of autism science, an exhaustive survey that delves into her theories about the disorder. Grandin, an animal biologist famous for improving livestock handling, might be the most well-known autistic person in the United States. Together with science writer Richard Panek, she suggests that sensory problems may set off autistic behaviors. These problems vary: Some people with autism can’t stand the sound of hand dryers in public restrooms; others hate the feel of wet newsprint. Grandin builds a strong case for more research. “Whatever form these sensory problems take, they’re real, they’re common and they require attention,” she writes.

Researchers have instead focused on the genetics and neurobiology of autism, but these data aren’t tidy. Autistic kids share hardly any genetic glitches, for example, and their brains look pretty normal. Scientists have picked out some intriguing differences, though, and Grandin packs in plenty. She seasons the story with tidbits from her past and from autistic people she’s met. These bright spots put human faces on autism and help Grandin drive home an encouraging message: Instead of defining kids by their deficits, she suggests, we should all work with them to uncover their strengths.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 240 p., $28

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Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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