Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005
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****Animals in Translation

Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

by Temple Grandin

and Catherine Johnson

Reviewed October 31, 2005.
Scribner, New York, 2005.  357 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (MCN 591.5 GRA).
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#2, Miscellaneous Nonfiction)

Temple Grandin has found that her autism lets her see things about animals that other people don’t.  She says, “Autism made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy.”  She explains ways in which her thinking is similar to the thinking of animals.  “Autistic people can think the way animals think.  Of course, we also think the way people think—we aren’t that different from normal humans.  Autism is a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts autistic people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into English.  I can tell people why their animals are doing the things they do.”

Temple Grandin is convinced that animals are like autistic savants.  Their conventional intelligence is low, but they can naturally do things no normal human being can even be taught to do.  This is because of a difference in the way their brains work.  She thinks that we don’t recognize animals’ genius because normal people don’t know what to look for.

She explains, “Autistic people’s frontal lobes almost never work as well as normal people’s do, so our brain function ends up being somewhere in between human and animal.”  Like animals, they end up having trouble generalizing, instead seeing the world in terms of specific details.  “Normal people stop seeing the details that make up the big picture and see only the big picture instead.  That’s what your frontal lobes do for you:  they give you the big picture.  Animals see all the tiny little details that go into the picture.”

What follows is an utterly fascinating book.  It’s fascinating to learn about the way animals think and what motivates them, as well as to hear about some amazing things animals have done (like a parrot who spelled the word “nut”).  The book also gives insight into our own brains and why we think the way we do.

Even though I don’t have much interaction with animals, I found this book absorbing reading, full of surprising insights.  If I ever do own a dog, I’m going to want to reread it in order to understand them better.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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