Emergence is an autobiography by Temple Grandin, focusing on her childhood experiences of autism, how she came to terms with her diagnosis and learned to utilize her natural strengths to become a successful business woman. It also contains some useful advice for the parents and carers of autistic children. Ultimately, Grandin argues that people on the autism spectrum have a great deal to contribute to society, and if autism were to be “cured” the world would miss out on these valuable contributions. ‘If autism and dyslexia were ultimately prevented, maybe the price would be turning potentially talented individuals into ones with mediocre talents… A certain amount of anxiety and fixation is needed to motivate a person to get things done’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, pp. 144-146). Despite this positive outlook, Grandin highlights the fact that life on the spectrum can be extremely challenging, citing her own issues with panic attacks and social alienation.
Emergence is a slim, 188 page book which I raced through in one sitting. I found it to be more accessible and easier to read than other books I’ve come across by Grandin, due to her use of simple, direct language and an emphasis on human experiences rather than scientific theories. In the forward, Bernard Ringford confidently states that ‘reading this book will be like an adventure. There is no other book like it- even remotely like it’ (Ringford, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 1). He is not exaggerating. I thoroughly enjoyed Emergence. It is well written, informative and entertaining. Grandin’s honesty about the issues she has faced, combined with her positive attitude towards autism and ability to recognize her own strengths, ultimately made me feel a lot better about my own diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. So what if I wasn’t accepted in school? Grandin’s classmates called her ‘weirdo’, ‘tape recorder’ and ‘retard’. Now she has published many books and has a PHD.
Grandin’s opening ‘I remember the day I almost killed my mother and my younger sister, Jean’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 21) really grabbed my attention- it would have been difficult not to read on after such a gripping first line. Naturally, I was expecting to be confronted with the image of young Grandin wielding a carving knife, or something similar. Instead, Grandin describes throwing her hat out of the car in frustration at how uncomfortable it felt. Her mother then stopped paying attention to driving in order to try and grab the hat, causing the car to crash. This kind of impulsive, sensory driven behaviour appears frequently throughout the book. Grandin generally attributes it to a lack of ability to communicate or control her feelings ‘I jerked the hat off and screamed. Screaming was my only way of telling mother I didn’t want to wear the hat’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 21).
I was humbled and grateful for the frankness with which Grandin describes some of her more destructive childhood behaviours, such as smearing faeces, peeing on the carpet and hitting other children. ‘When thwarted I’d throw anything handy- a museum quality vase or leftover faeces’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 24). Her use of direct, emotionally detached language indicates that Grandin is not including these events for shock value or to make the reader feel sorry for her, she is simply educating us on her experience of childhood autism, and later suggests some helpful strategies for curbing this behaviour.
Another aspect of Emergence I loved were the extracts from Grandin’s diary, and the letters to and from her mother. What shone through in Grandin’s mothers writing was her positive view of autism ‘there is nothing morbid or difficult for us in caring for Temple. And I don’t feel sorry for us. It is frequently exciting and not uninspiring for it seems to bring out the best in people’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 54). Including these extracts also helped to create a more balanced view of Grandin’s childhood, reminding the reader that she is not “sugar coating” other’s opinions of her or basing the book purely on her own experiences. Another valuable addition was Appendix A, B and C, which includes a diagnostics test for autism and some strategies for dealing with difficult behaviour. Parents who are concerned their child might be on the spectrum could use the diagnostics test, combined with Grandin’s personal account of her childhood, to understand their child’s behaviour.
As a vegetarian I had understandably mixed feelings regarding Grandin’s description of her first day on a cattle ranch. Grandin asserts that she developed her sense of care and empathy through stunning cattle:
‘One day I operated the stunning pen at Beefland and killed about 20 cattle… For a few minutes I felt like St. Peter at the gates of cattle heaven. But gradually I realized that to be an expert in the stunning pen was really an act of caring. Paradoxically, I was learning to care at the slaughterhouse.’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labelled Autistic, p. 134).
I won’t pretend to understand this paradox of killing=kindness, as I have never agreed with the slaughter of animals. However, it is clearly important to Grandin, as her time on cattle ranches would later inspire the ‘squeeze machine’ (a device used to calm autistic children) and become the bedrock of her career. Grandin is now a famous autism activist and consultant to America’s livestock industry. I feel her success should be an example to anyone on the autism spectrum. Irrational interests/fixations aren’t just a hobby to autistic people and an irritation to everyone around us, pursue them properly and they can result in a highly successful career.
I found the imagery Grandin used to depict this transition into adult life particularly compelling. She describes herself as a visual thinker ‘I needed concrete symbols for abstract concepts’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 85) and this really comes across in her description of the Crows Nest, a tower window at Grandin’s boarding school which comes to symbolize the gateway from childhood to the adult world. Later, a pair of sliding glass doors serve a similar function ‘It’s just a glass door. But still it’s a barrier. I guess the significance lies in the two seconds it takes to pass through it. Like changing from one mental state to another.’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 122). The image of a sliding glass door is simple, but highly evocative. It reminded me of my own experience of autism. When I was nineteen I wrote a poem called “The Glass Box” in which glass walls represented the isolating effect I felt autism had on me at the time. A friend later introduced me to the music of Gary Numan, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and also used the metaphor of a glass box in his song lyrics.
The only part of Emergence I completely disagreed with is “Chapter 12: Autistics and The Real World”. While Grandin’s advice for parents and carers contains some relevant points, I was shocked by her assertion that professionals must always look an autistic child in the eye ‘look directly at the child because the autistic learns to read the whole body- not just the words. If necessary, grasp the chin of the child and make eye contact’ (Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, p. 153). This strategy could be extremely damaging, as autistic children often experience fight or flight responses when forced to give direct eye contact, causing them to lash out. Furthermore, research indicates that many children with high functioning autism are monotropic, meaning they can only focus on using one sense at a time. If you force a monotropic child to look you in the eye while you are speaking, they won’t be able to listen to what you have to say. Grandin offers some really insightful, valuable advice for working with autistic children. But her assertion that professionals should force eye contact is wrong.
Emergence has to be one of my favourite books by Temple Grandin. It is direct, easy to read, but also contains some complex and beautiful imagery. Grandin’s raw, honest and sometimes heart breaking description of growing up autistic in a neurotypical world really moved me. It also taught me a great deal about why the autistic children I work with behave the way they do. Misconceptions about eye contact aside, Grandin suggests some useful strategies for overcoming sensory issues and dealing with difficult behaviour. I would recommend this book to any professionals in the field, to parents and carers whose child has recently been diagnosed with autism and to anyone struggling to come to terms with their own diagnosis. It’s a fantastic read that will change the way you think about autism.