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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Different..... Not Less

In her new book –Different….Not Less, Temple Grandin reinforces the popular notion -that if you meet a person with autism….you have met ONE person with autism. Indeed, each of the 14 contributors in this collection creates a collage of the childhood and adult experiences that have made them the individuals they are today.

Grandin carefully chose a cross section of men and women with Aspergers syndrome from  different fields (i.e. medical, art, technology and sales), various western cultures (i.e Australia and Scotland) and life situations (i.e. rural/urban, religious/non-religious upbringings) that show the similar social, communication and sensory challenges that people with Aspergers face despite varied backgrounds. These stories also demonstrate the unique talents and coping strategies that have enabled these individuals to achieve varying levels of life satisfaction and success.
 I believe that within the context of these stories- “life satisfaction” and “success” may be considered almost synonymous. A common thread is that after a lifetime of being “different” and with  varying degrees of  family support- finding acceptance and meaningful activities (whether vocational or recreational) is critical to happiness and indeed, success. Unlike mainstream western values-success need not be equated with wealth, owning things, fame or having lots of friends.

Most of the authors did not learn about their Aspergers diagnosis until later in life. For some it was a relief to find an explanation for why they felt different and for others it made them angry to receive a label. Most of them consider their lives a work in progress as they take the diagnosis and use it to forge societal and self-acceptance.     
Each contributor’s story was riveting- partly because I am an occupational therapist and I deeply understand Grandin’s message that people with autism shine when they develop their talents. Perhaps I loved this book because I believe that my mother (daughter of immigrants and obsessively religious) had undiagnosed Asperger’s and my Generation Y son (who is a brilliantly creative college student and entrepreneur with Aspergers) benefited from our modern day IEP and disability supports. There is much food for thought here….I believe that readers with autism and family members/friends of individuals on the spectrum will appreciate the following themes that run through many of the stories:

·         Mentors are extremely important-if not one’s parents, then others (perhaps teachers, clergy, employers) who recognize and support the person’s abilities and goals

·         High expectations of children to work and develop manners will contribute to future acceptance, persistence and feelings of self- worth

·          People with autism think outside the box and therefore may do best working in settings where their creativity is a positive-such as running a business or artistic fields.  

·         Hard work pays off…
Readers whose lives are not personally touched by autism may also appreciate the inherent logic in raising children with these guiding principles and enjoy the many other insights offered by the contributors. I strongly encourage them to visit the intense visual arena that brought us the likes of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.       

 Many of the contributors describe how they were brought up to be kind, yet were victim to bullying. Some found solace in animal relationships.  Others became deeply involved in helping others (a psychologist, nurse anesthetist, psychiatric rehabilitation worker). I think that Grandin may have chosen people with these backgrounds to dispel the techie nerd stereotype associated with autism. Some of the contributors are accomplished authors and public speakers despite communication challenges and others have overcome a history of jail time and alcohol abuse. They represent a wide swath of humanity.
Grandin concludes the book with her own chapter about how to find work opportunities. She reiterates that people with autism need alternatives to interviews (a weakness for people with communication challenges), mentors, early experiences that develop the work ethic and by all means- should take advantage of social media to show off one’s portfolio. 
 Reading these stories and Grandin’s brief synopsis of what each of the authors overcame- serves to emphasize that –people on the autism spectrum (as well as borderline neurotypicals such as myself) are different, not less. If we viewed every person on the planet with this simple frame of reference-wouldn’t it be a better world for us all?
If you use the code "PEDIA", you will get the book Different . . . Not Less by Temple Grandin for $16.96 instead of the $19.95 retail price.

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