Adulthood Autism

Temple Grandin and Oliver Sacks.jpg

Last week, Medicine & Literature partnered with the Queen’s Student Interest Group in Neurology to host a discussion about the topics of adulthood autism, Oliver Sacks, and Temple Grandin.

An overview on these two remarkable individuals:
Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, world-renowned autism spokesperson and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. She is an architect known for her revolutionary design of animal slaughterhouses, her activism with regards to resources for adults with autism, and her invention of the “hug machine.”

Oliver Sacks was a British neurologist, naturalist, and author, known for his many books detailing the incredible encounters he had with his patients over his career. He is probably best known for the story in “Awakenings” (which has been adapted into an Academy Award winning movie). In it, he describes the unfathomable journey of his patients with encephalitis lethargica through the newly discovered L-dopa treatment. 

Our discussion was based on selected articles written by Temple Grandin, an overview of the various manifestations of Temple Grandin’s autism, a chapter on Temple Grandin from Oliver Sack’s Anthropologist on Mars, the last interview given by Oliver Sacks, and a beautifully written piece by Bill Hayes on “What It Was Like to Love Oliver Sacks.”

Some of the questions we raised included:

  • Narrative voice and story-telling are important features in the pieces we read. How do writing styles differ between Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin when they discussed the same stories?
  • Were descriptions of autism, from first and third person perspective, helpful to us in understanding autism?
  • Will you approach your care for patients with autism differently given what we’ve learned?
  • What strategies could a physician use to create a more welcoming environment for patients with autism?
  • How might the imposed self-reflection that many patients with neurological or mental health issues are exposed to manifest itself in a patient’s well-being?
  • Looking to the history of public perceptions surrounding autism (refrigerator mothers, and Freud’s psychoanalysis), how does Oliver Sacks bring a sense of humanity to autism? Does he perpetuate any stereotypes?

All in all, it was a fascinating discussion sparked by two very gifted writers.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Oliver Sack’s Anthropologist on Mars which I found particularly moving. In this excerpt, he describes a touching encounter with Temple Grandin:


Temple, who was driving, suddenly faltered and wept. “I’ve read that libraries are where immortality lies… I don’t want my thought to die with me . . . . I want to have done something . . . I’m not interested in power, or piles of money. I want to leave something behind. I want to make a positive contribution – know that my life has meaning. Right now, I’m talking about things at the very core of my existence.”

I was stunned. As I stepped out of the car to say goodbye, I said, “I’m going to hug you. I hope you don’t mind.” I hugged her – and (I think) she hugged me back.


– AA


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