“We’ve got to think about all these different kinds of minds, and we’ve got to absolutely work with these kind of minds, because we absolutely are going to need these kinds of people in the future.”
Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism as a child. She thinks in pictures, a novel way to solve problems in a way that isn’t accessible to people with neurotypical brains. In her opinion people on the autism spectrum and other neuro-divergent people are absolutely essential to the world, but we’re currently missing out on a valuable resource. And she believes the key to unlocking all this wonderful potential is mentoring.
Grandin’s books about life as autistic person have enriched our understanding of the condition no end, something that’s becoming more important as rates of autism diagnosis rise. This article celebrates the visual thinkers, the pattern thinkers, the verbal thinkers, and all the other smart, geeky people who don’t quite fit into the workplace, and who all too frequently fall between the gaps.
Autism as a continuum – And why verbal language isn’t the only language
Autism can be so severe that the person doesn’t communicate at all. At the other end of the scale it creates dazzlingly talented scientists and engineers. It’s all about different ways of thinking, and verbal language isn’t the only language.
There’s more. While every autistic child isn’t a visual thinker, autistic minds all tend to be specialist minds, very good at one thing and pretty bad at others. The autistic mind attends to the fine details while the typical brain mostly ignores them in favour of short cuts. Autism and other non-neurotypical conditions can mean people think in pictures like Grandin, but there’s an infinite variety of inspiring differences to tap into.
Exploring different minds
Thinking in pictures the autistic way literally means seeing movies in your head, like Google images. This way of visual thinking proved a tremendous asset in Grandin’s work, running tests in her mind like a computer’s virtual reality system to figure out what would work in a real world context and what wouldn’t.
Another distinct kind of autistic mind is the pattern thinker. This means thinking more in the abstract, an incredibly valuable trait for engineers and computer programmers. Many autistic people have music and maths minds, some of whom also have dyslexia-like problems with reading. If someone autistic has a verbal mind, they’ll have a fascinating fact ready for every situation.
Plenty of autistic people can have problems with the sensory issues. Some dislike fluorescent lights, others can’t bear certain sounds. But none of this precludes doing an extraordinary job of thinking differently, and delivering equally extraordinary solutions.
We need all the different minds we can get
Humanity faces the most challenging issues in our history and as Temple Grandin says, we’re going to need all the different kinds of minds we can find to resolve it – which means working to develop them. One of the barriers to this is the fact that so many smart, geeky, nerdy kids “just aren’t very social, and nobody’s working on developing their interest in something like science.”
Grandin’s solution involves valuing neuro-divergent minds a lot more, and that begins with a better level of understanding. Recent research shows autistic people may have extra wiring in the brain to give them their unusual brilliance but there’s also a trade-off around social skills, promoting thinking at the expense of being social in the accepted way. Once we understand this, we can become so much more creative around helping these people achieve the amazing things they’re capable of. And that’s where mentoring comes in.
Mentoring the neuro-divergent mind
The teacher who inspired Temple Grandin and changed her life was not a qualified teacher. He was a space scientist at NASA. In her words mentors are “just essential. I cannot emphasize enough what my science teacher did for me. And we’ve got to mentor them, hire them.”
If a person has a fixation, a talented mentor can harness that fixation to motivate them. The visual thinkers amongst us make excellent designers, love working with computers, and are skilled at things like photography and industrial design. Pattern thinkers make superb mathematicians, software engineers and computer programmers. Word-led minds make great journalists and exceptional actors.
You might want to listen and see Temple Grandin in this TED talk. As she says, ‘The world needs all kinds of minds.’
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Valuing the non-typical mind drives better business, genuine creativity, and innovative solutions that the neuro-typicals amongst us might never discover. As Temple Grandin intimates, ultimately these people could prove the saving of us in the future.