Interview with Temple Grandin: Autism, genetics and the steep price of being intelligent

Are our minds the product of genetics or development? Autism community icon Temple Grandin talks about new research

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 31, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Author and professor Temple Grandin (Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Author and professor Temple Grandin (Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Those who follow the science behind autism may know that there is an explosion of scientific research happening in the field right now. In January Mount Sinai Hospital published a study that identified 102 genes associated with autism. A paper published in Biological Psychiatry earlier this month suggests that a gene mutation may be linked to autistic behaviors. And a recent government study found that children who have an autistic uncle or aunt have a more than doubled risk of being diagnosed with the condition themselves.

At the crux of these studies — and so many others — are questions about why some people have this very unique type of brain. If you're on the autism spectrum, you're likely to be more intelligent than average, but also to struggle more in social situations. You have skills that can make you excel in many career paths, but are also more likely to face very unique types of employment-based discrimination along the way.

What causes people to develop like this? Is it in our genes, due to environmental factors or caused by some combination of both factors? This question, known colloquially as the "nature versus nurture" debate in biology, is innate to much psychology and sociobiology research. To wit: intelligence, disorders like ADHD, and personality disorders all have aspects that are develpmental or environmental and aspects that are genetic. 

To learn more about new research in the nature versus nurture debate for autism, I turned to Temple Grandin for answers — and this is the part where I need to add that I'm not neutral about Temple Grandin.

The advocate of humane treatment for livestock, who was the focus of the 2010 movie "Temple Grandin" starring Claire Danes, is a hero of the autism community, for which she has emerged as a major spokesperson. I am also on the autism spectrum and, as such, she is a person to whom I have reached out more than once about questions about issues facing my community. She is unquestionably brilliant, blunt to a fault, passionate about helping people and animals — and yet clearly one who does not suffer fools gladly.

She also, as I quickly learned, has a talent for explaining autism in a way that makes it easy for virtually anyone to understand. I suspect the readers of this interview will agree. As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for print.

Let's talk about the genetics of autism. We were talking about a January study done at Mt. Sinai Hospital which found that there are 102 genes associated with autism. Do you tend to agree with it?

Well I have no reason not to agree with the study. Basically, autism is a continuous trait. There's a lot of traits where many many genes contribute just a little bit.... Some of the genes were associated with other types of developmental delays. There's also a lot of research that shows that there's a crossover between ADHD and autism. Even in the brain scans, there is crossover. I've got some of those references in the new edition of "The Way I See It." Basically, you have a whole lot of little tiny code variations that contribute a little bit and they all have to do with brain development.

Now, I've told you about my own genome scanning. My genes have been totally scanned. What I found is other health problems I have — anxiety, bad skin, bad teeth — that showed right up. Simple genetics. But the autism stuff, yeah, I got some of the at-risk genes. It gets back into basic brain development.

I told you about the paper called "Genomic Trade-Offs: Are Autism and Schizophrenia the Steep Price of the Human Brain?" This is a quote from their abstract — this isn't the way I would have put it — but they said, "The genes that make us mad, make us human." That's a quote out of the abstract of the paper. It's not me saying that. I say that the same genes that make the brain big are also involved with autism and schizophrenia. It's a whole lot of little genes. It's a whole lot of little, I call them code variations. There's actually some argument in the literature to exactly what a gene is. I mean there's simple genetic stuff like brown or black coats on Angus cattle. That's very very simple genetics. That's Mendelian genetics. You need to forget about that.

I also went back and looked up some of the twin studies. Some of these were done ages ago. I found a nice review article on "Heritability of Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Meta-analysis of Twin Studies." It's a nice review article on twin studies. Some of this research is very old.

It sounds like you're saying that you believe nature plays a larger role than nurture in creating autism?

Yes. When it comes to nature, what's been found in twin studies, that when a child is brought up anywhere resembling a decent environment, there's a lot of traits where genetics has a big effect on it. You get into a lot of things across the board. I'm going to say a person, what they become, is half-nature and half-nurture. It's the same thing with an animal. Some traits are much more genetic than others. One trait that's really genetic is the tendency to startle. This is true with cattle and horses, like if you open an umbrella suddenly, some horses are going to rear up and hit the roof and others will just flinch. Now what context are you discussing nature and nurture?

I'm talking about the question of when people are born on the autism spectrum, to what degree is that because of their genes and to what degree is that because of environmental factors that influence their neurological development, like the way they're raised, the degree to which they're exposed to various potentially intellectually stimulating stimuli, things like that.

Well those things all have an effect. Let's say you took a young autistic kid like me and you did no early intervention. I don't think I would have become a college professor. So in terms of what you might become, maybe I'd be in an institution somewhere if nothing had been done with me.

I wonder the same thing about myself.

Well this is the problem, you see? This is something I tell parents all the time: I talk to a lot of low income families and say, You got a kid, he's two-and-a-half or three years old, he's not talking, he sits in the corner rocking, you've got a problem. I don't care whether you've got an official diagnosis or not, work with this kid now. I suggest that they go to their church group and get some volunteers, and you need to start taking turns playing games with the kid. Just start teaching him words, get down to work with this kids. If he just sits there and vegetates, he ain't going anywhere. So okay, that's an environmental influence there.

But then there's other kids that don't work as hard. Some of them can learn to type independently. I mean both nature and nurture are important in determining what a person could accomplish.

I'm going to just take it animals and people both, I'm going to say half-and-half, in terms of what you become. I talk to educators about the goal of education and say, let's look at where a student is 10 years after high school. Well, 10 years after high school I was doing that big dip vat project that was shown in the movie. That was 10 years after high school almost exactly. Okay if the kid's ending up in jail or some other bad thing, certainly don't want him there.

From a cultural perspective, what do you think the implications of this are? Obviously the science is pretty cut and dried. In terms of how society views people who are intelligent [but] also display non-neurotypical traits, do you think this paper could possibly change the way we perceive those who are on the spectrum?

First of all, I never told anyone I had autism. You know what my biggest barrier was in the '70s in the feedlot industry, the cattle industry, in Arizona in the '70s? Being a woman. Much bigger barrier than autism ever was. Being a woman was the biggest barrier. I got kicked out of places for being a woman.

So you're saying that's a much bigger barrier for you than being on the spectrum?

For much of my career, a much bigger barrier. Early 1970s, I want to emphasize early '70s, much bigger barrier, much bigger barrier. This is the early '70s when I started.

And the way, what I did is I had to prove to them. I had to be three times better than a guy. The thing that I got people to accept me is when I showed my work. I would lay the drawings out. I'd go in for an interview and I'd take a big drawing, lay it out on the table, put all the pictures out there that I had, pictures of jobs. I'd give them my brochure, I'd give trade magazine articles that I'd written. I just would show off the work, period. I showed the work. That was my total way of doing it and I wrote about my projects.

But if we're talking about people who do struggle because they're not neurotypical, and they tend to be intelligent but society views them —

I can't talk in abstractions. I'm a visual thinker, I only think in specific examples. Then I take specific examples and I put them into categories. Very verbalized, abstract things, I can only get specific examples of all right, here's a person where they had a successful career, here's a person that did not. What could have derailed their career?

I could talk about myself. This isn't so much in terms of derailing my career, but when I tell people I'm on the autism spectrum — and that I struggle with mental health issues like ADD, anxiety, depression — frequently they respond by saying "Well you're so very intelligent." It seems like there is a struggle in reconciling the fact that I'm bright with the fact that I have all of these mental health issues. I know other people who are also successful in their careers who have had similar reactions.

So my question is, it seems like there's a cultural tendency to assume that if you struggle with mental health issues or you're not neurotypical, that means you're not very bright. And if you are very bright, that means you're well adjusted.

Intelligence and creativity is associated with mental health issues. I'm right now reviewing some literature on visual thinking and I'm finding papers where right now I'm looking at a bunch of journal articles I looked up online about the ability to remember your past. People who get really bad PTSD, the past just comes back like pictures. Then you've got people that are highly verbal, it's easier for them to forget that bad things have happened to them in the past. Some of those visual thinkers, they're really creative. I've worked with them on equipment design. I worked with two guys that had 20 patents each. Yeah they had problems drinking, they had some problems. They ended up both on Prozac and that basically saved them from the gutter. One still has a very successful business. I have to be very vague about what they do, I cannot identify them, they're still alive, [one] still owns a very successful business. I know he has problems with drinking. It's mechanical, very clever mechanical engineering is what he did, what he does.

That's where I was going with my earlier question. There seem to be these cultural assumptions that are not borne out by the scientific data. There is something else I want to go into, which is you're talking about the different types. In your book, you discuss the different types of autistic brains, the different manifestations —

Of thinkers, different thinkers. I'm right now reviewing literature on this, recent literature. It's very clear that you've got some people, now they're not looking at mental health here, they're just looking at more career stuff. Object visualizer, that would be me. Thinks in pictures, often ends up in the arts, industrial designs. Then you have the visual-spatial, or mathematical mind, thinks in patterns. Then you have people that totally think in words. I'm right now reviewing literature right now, new literature, stuff published since 2016 after I did "The Autistic Brain", that totally supports this idea that you've got some people ... They have people that are mixtures though, the intermediate. 

The person who is a super good object visualizer is going to be crappy in math, not good at math and the more spatial way of looking at things, the more mathematical way of looking at things. There's getting to be good evidence. The object visualizer and visual-spatial, the skills sort of are antagonistic. You can't be super good at both. You can be intermediate at both. But the people that are super good at object visualizing, like they are horrible at the more abstract, schematic and mathematic way of visual spatial. I'm horrible on a thing called paper fold test. I flunked that. Just last night, I took a little mechanical aptitude test that was online. I had to speed through and I got seven out of 10 right. I'm pretty sure I know which ones I got wrong.

For me personally, I've always been very good at writing and I tend to absorb a lot of information. I can read a 500-page book in a few hours and remember all of the major facts within that book months and months later. So I guess what category of intelligence would I then be in?

Let me just ask you a question. I want you to think about cell phone towers. How do they come into your mind?

I imagine a large metal tower in the middle of the woods.

Is it a specific or general?

I just imagine the concept of the tower. I don't visualize it.

Yeah, the visual thinker starts naming them off. Now I'm thinking of it, there's one I go by that's next to a gas station. It's one of their best fake trees but it's still really fake looking. As I talk about it now I see it.

Yeah, I just imagine the concept of a tower.

I take specific examples of cell phone towers. Now there's another cell phone tower, it's actually the Hilton hotel and they now have them along the edge of the roof. I see. I've also seen them used as church steeples. I'll never forget when I asked, this is when I discovered that some people didn't think visually, I asked a speech therapist at an autism conference, think about a church steeple. She just got very vague pointy thing. I see it and I start naming them off. Visual thinkers just come up, just like it showed in the movie, like PowerPoint slides. 

So for me, I just think of the concept, I don't think of specifics.

Well then you're more verbal. You're probably a lot more verbal.

How would you say cultural attitudes towards non-neurotypical personality types have changed over the last 40 to 50 year?

Well it has changed. I look back on the people I worked with, welders and designers. The people who have the 20 patents, neither one of those, one barely graduated from high school and the other one I think dropped out of high school. They couldn't do math but they've got 20 patents and their stuff is out being used in the industry. They were saved by a welding class. One guy he just started making stuff and selling it at local trade shows. That grew into a big business. I worked with welders, I worked with a lot of people. If I tell you of people I worked with on my projects, I'm going to guess 20 percent of them would be considered neurodiverse today. But this is long before that term ever [became popularized]. 20 percent were either autistic, dyslexic, or ADHD. There was one guy, looking at him now, he was sound sensitive. I'll never forget the job where I was chipping the slag off of his welds and me tapping with the chipping hammer drove him just crazy. I didn't realize it. This was back in 1980.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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