Through her 2008 memoir, Thinking in Pictures, Grandin attempts to explain her unusual circumstance—the way autism shaped and continues to shape her daily life. She begins her story with an explanation of her methodology of thinking, describing her comprehension of ideas through mental pictures. Grandin explains that many of her struggles with social interaction and communication stemmed from the her dependence on visual representations for new concepts. She frequently discusses how most of her thought processes, ranging from deduction to memory, involve manipulation of highly detailed 3-D images in her mind. “Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.” (Grandin, 2006, pg. 19) Lack of concrete images to represent abstract ideas like facial expression, body language, and emotion, posed some of the biggest hurdles for Grandin to overcome in her childhood.
Grandin also notes that, like many individuals with austism, her problems internalizing sensory information were a constant struggle. Nearly every autistic individual, Grandin states, is affected by abnormalities in one or more of their somatosensory systems, including vision, sound, smell, and touch. Grandin herself relays stories of her childhood in which she battled an overwhelming anxiety due to sensory overload; things like hypersensitivity to touch, difficulty with shifting attention between sounds, and an aversion to specific colors or visual stimuli were among the sources of Grandin’s anxiety.
While these symptoms and experiences have paralleled experiences described by other individuals with autism, Grandin herself passionately advocates that individuals with autism are extremely unique in terms of their characteristics and abilities. The disorder itself was designated a spectrum disorder, encompassing a wide range of individuals with varying levels of social and cognitive ability. Recent studies show that the prevalence of autism has been estimated by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) at 1 in 88 individuals, boys being three to four times more likely than girls. While studies lack conclusive evidence or comprehensive understanding of the causes of autism and its sudden rise in prevalence, implicated factors include genetics, exposure to toxic agents, and timing of exposure to toxic agents. (Grandin, 2006; Rosenberg et al., 2008) Experimental studies incorporating brain scans of autistic individuals have shown that autism can often be linked to abnormalities in brain structure and/or function.