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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Book review: Different...Not Less

Future Horizons


There are many books which are written to inspire the reader with stories of real people who have overcome tremendous obstacles and challenges.  The list of books which I would refer to as the ‘been there/done that/you can, too’ genre is enormous.  For me, the greatest example would be the many books on the lives of the Saints.  In perusing these books, one can find people from all walks of life: nuns, priests, criminals, hardened sinners - even married men and women - who have succeeded in their efforts to know, love and serve God in this world in order to live with Him in Heaven for all eternity.  I find their stories to be a source of inspiration and consolation as I work to emulate them.

Dr. Temple Grandin’s new book, Different...Not Less is a new addition to the list of books meant to inspire and console those who find life challenging.  The complete title indicates which people will find this book helpful:  Different...Not Less: Inspiring Stories of Achievement and Successful Employment from Adults with Autism, Asperger’s, and ADHD.  I think parents, friends and associates of these people will also learn from these first-person accounts of men and women who have lived with some or all of the diagnoses included in the title.

The main part of this book consists of fourteen chapters, each one written by a man or a woman ranging in age from 30 to 60 years.  Dr. Grandin presents each person in an introductory paragraph; the remainder of the chapter is written by the subject.  Each writer discusses the same issues, such as childhood and development, education, interpersonal relations, and his or her current occupation and personal situation.  Some of them emphasized certain aspects of their lives more than others, which I appreciated, as it gave some variety and originality to each chapter.  The writers also addressed the question of who were their mentors and who inspired them.  I appreciated the frank manner in which each writer related some events in their lives which must have been extremely painful to recall.

I found two things which were present in almost all of the writers.  One was that most of them are highly educated; half of them had doctoral degrees.  This goes along with another observation I made: that all of these men and women found success by finding a certain ‘niche’ work in which to specialize, and they have succeeded by discovering and then holding on to that spot.  Dr. Grandin is a good example of this in her specialized work on cattle management.  In the epilogue, Dr. Grandin even goes as far as to encourage affected individuals to seek out a ‘niche’ career.

The second thing that struck me was that many of the writers used the same words or phrases to describe how they have succeeded in their lives.  The phrases ‘work around,’ ‘tough it out,’ ‘managing,’ and ‘survival’ were used to describe the ways that each individual conquered the various challenges that came in their careers or personal life.  I had noticed this in my own son Theodore, that while he could not tell us what he wanted, he could figure out a way to get it without our help. 

The greatest area of disagreement among the writers has to be on the question of diagnosis.  Some of the writers thought that being labeled as autistic, or Asperger’s, was beneficial to them, while others saw it as an obstacle.  Karla Fisher, the author of Chapter 4  and self-described “Techie,”  was surprised to find out that a psychologist she knew assumed that children would be pleased to know that they were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  For Karla,

“With my diagnosis came a realization that the unexplained hardships, medical issues, and struggles were not something I could just ‘get over.’”   (p.120)

Karla goes on to present arguments for and against labeling patients.  She even relates how having the diagnosis helped resolve several personal and professional issues which occurred since being labeled as a patient with Asperger’s.  Of all the chapters, I was most impressed with her thoughts on managing life with the diagnosis of Asperger’s.

Finally, I kept finding myself relating so well with many of the comments made by Dr. Grandin and the authors of each chapter.  Twice, Dr. Grandin mentions that she “sold my work instead of myself.”  I would say that I do the same.  Lord help me if I had to work as a salesman.  Even something as simple as Leonora Gregory (Chapter 12) talking about how she hated to get her hair wet made me recall the struggle my parents had to go through to wash my hair when I was a little child.  And then there is Stewart Forge relating in Chapter 14 how he deals with socializing at parties:

“Staying on the move kept me from having to sustain long and awkward social conversations or having to chit-chat with people I didn’t know well about things I don’t care about.”  (p. 354)

I recall thinking almost the exact words in the past.

Dr. Grandin makes a few remarks at the end of the book about Steve Jobs, the former head of Apple Computer, who died in 2011.  She wonders what would have happened if Steve Jobs were a child today.  Would he be put on medications like so many children - especially boys - in order to control them?  Would he have done what he did if he were on medications?  I don’t know, but I certainly am glad that a lot of these diagnoses such as Attention Deficit Disorder were not around when I was a child. 

I think that Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome have been around a lot longer than my lifetime.  The stories in this book support my contention.  At some point while I was previewing this book I recalled a short story I read in grade school, The Language of Men, by Norman Mailer.  It was originally published in Esquire magazine back in 1953, and it tells the story of a man who just doesn’t have the social skills necessary to get along with his fellow soldiers.  It struck me that the main character had some traits of Asperger’s.  I suspect that many people are dealing with some characteristics of autism or Asperger’s, and that this book may be a help to them as well as to the parents of affected children.  I think all of those who are connected to Autism or Asperger’s could benefit from carefully reading this book.

Stephen M. Donahue, M.D.

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Mary my mother, take my hand today, and all days.
Lead me away from all occasions of sin.
Guide me in fulfilling your last words in the Gospel,
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