An Anthropologist in Autismland (#201)

The autistic author and animal science professor Temple Grandin has described herself as an anthropologist from Mars, to explain how her being “differently abled has indeed enabled her to be the world’s expert on livestock facility design , as well as a skilled interpreter of animal behavior. Grandin describes herself as thinking in pictures and details. She has described her mind as a huge database of videos; when she hears the word “dog,” her mind retrieves all the videos with “dog” and plays them back, to arrive at the concept of “dog.”

And so does Grandin describe herself as an “anthropologist from Mars,” an (autistic) outsider among us (neurotypical) earthlings observing our strange customs and language. She has also described herself as an “anthropologist on Mars” in the neurologist Oliver Sacks’s book. That is, it is we “neurotypicals” who are the Martians and she, the autistic person, is the anthropologist studying the culture of weird intergalactic foreigners.

That is, it was cosmically odd to Charlie to hear Jim and I say this morning “we’re going to get something different for dinner” when he had just said “Gramma chicken.” Because in the Saturday script (video) that Charlie has filed away in his mind, he goes to his verbal behavior session and then we go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and get “white rice chicken” from a certain Chinese restaurant. Our telling him that we thought it would be nice to do something else troubled Charlie all day. He cried-whined-moaned on the big blue pillow in his therapy room for fifteen minutes; kicked so hard as I drove him to his therapy session that the black car rocked and rolled; and threw the blue glove out the window when we drove past the Chinese restaurant.

That’s why I often feel like I’m an anthropologist in Autismland, an outsider doing fieldwork on the curious customs, language, and institutions of a world of difference.

I asked Charlie to help pull the sheets on his bed and stuff a pillow in a pillow case, carry the laundry basket to the basement and load the clothes and towels in. I leaned over him as he held the vacuum cleaner nozzle and, a bit stiffly, moved it over the living room floor. He and Jim went on an hour-long bike ride. Miss Cindy called a crying Charlie to the table at his verbal behavior session and as he gave her a smiling hug when I picked him up, reported that he had sorted five objects. Jim found the football he used to toss as a five-year-old in his parents’ garage and played catch with Charlie, to the delight of Grandpa, who watched with a bigger smile than his youngest grandson’s. After the usual hot shower, Charlie ran downstairs and, sprawled on the couch, watched the Broncos-Patriots game with serious interest along with his dad.
My anthropological research so far has taught me that Autismland is a place where one misplaced glove equals a riot, where the phrase “it’s not time to go to Grandpa and Grandma’s house” means universal discord. Where the human voice singing can communicate more meaning than the harsher sounds of the merely spoken word.

Everyday I set out on a diplomatic mission to foster a cordial alliance with whoever, whatever rises to meet me in Autismland. My fieldnotes are a trusty tool, as is a sense of humor, contact information for the good people who can best help out, a tape recorder, something made of fleece and a green apple. As I slip on my shoes, my mind reviews the alphabet soup of Autismland Studies lingo that I’ve been reading about at night under the light of my laptop: ABA, DTT, VB, RDI, RPM, IDEA, MMR, FBA, NCLB, ADA, LRE, ASD, AVB, RFFC, DMSA, PECS, ABLLS,DSM-IV, SD, GFCF, APA, ASL, DDD, NET, DRO, IVIG, ESY, SSRI, ADL, IEP, BCBA, FAPE. At the last minute, I throw a football into my bag and (not that I really have room) a guitar.

I know I will never be able to (excuse the expression) “go native.” But to have peace not war in Autismland, I need to be as open-minded about this strange and lovely new place as possible. I will always be an outsider, a foreigner, and I can only imagine what it is to inhabit Charlie’s mind. Writings and interviews by autistic individuals (such as Temple Grandin, Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, Sue Rubin) give me precious raw data about life in Autismland, as does the Charliespeak I rush to hear, record, remember. It is a world deeply different, beautiful in colors I am still learning to see.

4 Responses to “An Anthropologist in Autismland (#201)”
  1. Lisa says:


    As ever, your utter respect for Charlie’s lived experience in ‘autismland’ moves me. You say you will never be a ‘native’, but neither are you a hostile colonist, wanting to convert the ‘savages’ for their own good.

    Many of us live with one foot in each world, trying to translate between our native tongue and a language non-natives can understand. In my life, many have not been willing to meet me any part of the way, but you are creating a rosetta stone–a living and loving bridge between his world and yours.

    You have earned your naturalization papers.

    much love,

  2. Eileen says:

    I feel that I am more of a foreigner in Autismland than you are because you have been visiting this land for more years than me, but I would love to continue to be your alley in this land as we research, learn, meet new friends, continue to be open-minded and follow our intuition. The more we understand about this land the more we connect with our very “special” boys.

    I am sure that Charlie was in much need of his “bue gloves” today. What strange weather we are having. I think it is suppose to warm up again and then Charlie will have to learn that he doesn’t need those gloves of his AGAIN.

  3. Mothersvox says:

    Dear Kristina, Believe it or not, this was the horoscope that popped up on my home page after reading your post:

    “If you’ve ever thought about learning a foreign language, it’s time to make this wish come true. Don’t put it off any longer; get on the Internet and find out what classes are available and do it now. And, even if it’s not about another language, consider studying something that pushes you outside of your normal way of thinking. You don’t have to take a trip to travel within the mind.”

    I feel as though I’m on already on the Internet learning a foreign language, as you are, in Autismland.

    Thanks for another stunning post!

  4. Eileen says:

    I meant allies (sp) is that right?

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