Temple Grandin—An Anthropologist On Mars

Oliver Sacks:

I phoned Temple from the Denver airport to reconfirm our meeting—it was conceivable, I thought, that she might be somewhat inflexible about arrangements, so time and place should be set as definitely as possible. It was an hour and a quarter’s drive to Fort Collins, Temple said, and she provided minute directions for finding her office at Colorado State University, where she is an assistant professor in the Animal Sciences Department. At one point, I missed a detail, and asked Temple to repeat it, and was startled when she repeated the entire directional litany—several minutes’ worth—in virtually the same words. It seemed as if the directions had to be given as they were held in Temple’s mind, entire—that they had fused into a fixed association or program, and could no longer be separated into their components. One instruction, however, had to be modified. She had told me at first that I should turn right onto College Street at a particular intersection marked by a Taco Bell restaurant. In her second set of directions, Temple added an aside here, said the Taco Bell had recently had a facelift and been housed in a fake cottage, and no longer looked in the least “bellish.” I was struck by the charming, whimsical adjective “bellish”—autistic people are often called humorless, unimaginative, and “bellish” was surely an original concoction, a spontaneous and delightful image.

I don’t know if it’s because I read this long piece from 1993 at 2am, but I found it incredibly insightful and a bit sad, as well as charming and, of course, fascinating. Basically, as I’m sure Sacks intended, the same as Grandin herself. The final 2/3rds of the piece is mostly about Grandin, but there’s also a fair amount of exposition on autism itself. Get this read (or added to Instapaper, at least) before The New Yorker’s paywall (potentially) goes back up.