Educating a Neurodiverse Population

One of the major perks of going to school is getting to see amazing speakers, like Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is famous for her humane and efficient designs for livestock handling systems, her advocacy for autism, and for having autism herself. She is a provocative and charismatic speaker, coming from a place of deep experience and concern (Really, just watch her TED talk).

Temple's major issue is the cultivation of all the different types of minds. While she describes herself as autistic, more precisely, she has a "photorealistic visual mind" and "sensory sensitivity" What this means is that she is unable to generalize, when she thinks of say, a church steeple, she doesn't think of a generic steeple, but rather Westminster Abby, Notre Dame, the church near where she grew up, etc. Similarly, she is exceptionally sensitive to sudden changes in light and noise. She credits her visual mind with her talents in design. She literally walks the course the cows travel, and notices patches of light and shadow, or moving chains, that most people would ignore.

Temple is advocate of four different types of mind: visual, pattern, verbal, and auditory. Visual minds are detail oriented as described above, pattern minds are good at discerning patterns and mathematical sequences, verbal minds have great facility with language, auditory minds are good with sound, time, small cues.

Where the rubber meets the road as it were, is in our school system, which really privileges verbal ability above all else. Reading and writing are the core faculties of the classroom, and most math is simply the rote performance of a calculating algorithm. There's little room for other types of minds to grow, and with cuts to shop and arts classes, even fewer ways for different types of intelligence to express themselves. By failing to acknowledge the strengths of a large portion of the population, the school system greats frustration with education.

A second side of Grandin is her belief that autism exists on a clear spectrum, from non-verbal epileptic to socially awkward computer scientist. Now, some recent papers by Katherine P Beals I've read for one of my classes describe describe autism as disorder where the sufferer has difficult seeing other people as intention beings, that is to say people with their own internal desires and states of mind. That, combined with verbal disabilities, can make raising an autistic child incredibly hard. Modern thought has fortunately abandoned the "refrigerator mother" origin of autism, which inaccurately and unfairly blamed poor parenting, but current treatments are very non-specific. They mostly involve spending large amounts of time with the child, trying to get them to develop some kind of interpersonal model. But as Beals describes, this is literally the hardest thing for an autistic child to do. What she, and Temple Grandin suggest, is instead playing to a child's strengths, and letting them build skills in visual representation, or mathematics, or working with animals, and from there progress to the more difficult talents of verbal ability and intentional modelling.

Now, I'm the policy guy here, not the neuro guy. As far as I know, the science of autism is "it's complicated, very very complicated." But is there any scientific basis to Grandin's theory of multiple kinds of mind, or is this merely a useful heuristic on top of more fundamental neural phenomenon?


  1. Evan2.3.11

    I'm somewhat jealous that you got to here her speak in person.

    I can't say anything in regards to neurological phenomena, but I think we discussed something along these lines in CogSci once. I'll get back to you.

  2. "It's complicated, very very complicated."

    Sometimes there are anatomical correlates that might line up with a visual/auditory distinction. Certainly across animal species you can see differences like this. For instance, people tell me that most neurons in cats respond to visual stimuli, whereas most neurons in bats respond to auditory stimuli, and rodents focus more on olfactory and tactile stimuli. In primates, vision is usually the dominant sense, followed by audition, somatosensation, and olfaction. There is a structure called the planum temporale which is usually enlarged on the left and handles language processing. I have heard that people with perfect pitch are more likely to also have an enlarged planum temporale in the right hemisphere, which, if true, would correspond to an anatomical difference that gives improved auditory processing.

  3. Kevin H26.3.11

    One of the reasons autism research is so difficult is that, unlike other neurological problems like schizophrenia and epilepsy, there is no well developed animal model. Whereas you can chemically lesion rat brains to model epilepsy or knock-out certain rat genes (like reelin) to model schizophrenia, there is no well established analog of autism in animals. This is mostly due to the fact that autism causes problems to distinctly human capacities such as language and social intelligence. Some researchers use rat vocalizations (for example) as a dependent measure for research, but that probably doesn't capture the complexity of human interaction. It does seem that many autistic people excel in other kinds of cognition (savant abilities range from mathematical talent and skill at memorization to surfing prowess). The tendency to be very detail oriented, but bad at generalizing reminds me of D.C. Shereshevskii, a Russian reporter with an almost flawless memory (he memorized Dante's Divine Comedy among other feats). Apparently, Sherashevkii's only requirement for memorization was that he was allowed several second to visualize each item while learning. This ability came with a trade-off. He was very poor at understanding metaphors and piecing together plots. It seems that he couldn't recognize the forest for the trees. Something similar could be going on in autism. I hope this helps.