Thinking Differently: Tyler Cowen interviews Temple Grandin

Tyler Cowen has conducted excellent interviews with Peter Singer and Ralph Nader. Here’s a very short e-book that’s basically a raw transcript of his conversation with Temple Grandin, the slaughterhouse designer and autism researcher who is herself autistic.

Besides the overview on autism what really struck out was how Cowen kept trying to make more general observations about the neurodiverse, and Grandin’s general reluctance to venture into the abstract.

Here are some excerpts:

On what autistic people tend to be good and bad at:

Cowen: In academia, where both of us reside, there are a lot of autistics. And there are other places in our economy where autistics are more likely to flourish than others: library science, the appraisal of paintings, work that requires pattern recognition or fine attention to detail.

Grandin: There are two things that autistics tend to be really bad at. And the [first] thing is, high-level jobs do not require multitasking, having to do two different things at once. The other thing that we’re very bad at is following long strings of verbal instructions. Those seem to be two things that are really quite universal.

Cowen: This notion that the people who do well are the mild cases and the people who don’t do well are the severe cases, I tend not to agree with that.

On autistics and paternalism:

Cowen: Let’s say you want to smoke marijuana – and that affects only you – that’s against the law. I think an autistic person is more likely to be suspicious of paternalism… But is it possible that autistic people are, in some sense, too suspicious of paternalism – that there are examples, maybe, where paternalism would do the world some good, but autistic people, because of their history and, maybe, basic inclination will resist that paternalism because that resistance has become almost ingrained?

Grandin: I have to sell my work and not myself. I can remember early in my career, going to an agricultural engineering meeting and everybody thought I was really, really super weird. And then I whip out a copy of my drawings that I had done, of a cattle-handling facility and they go, “Wow, you drew that?” And as soon as they found that I had drawn that, they started to give me some respect. You know, people respect ability.

Cowen: Maybe ten years ago, I would have thought that over time we’ll tinker with the genes of the human race and this is likely to be a good thing.  But my attitude is changing and I fear if we tinker with genes or use selective abortion, that the result will be we’ll get a lot of kids who are easy to raise or, maybe they’re tall and blonde and captain of the football team, but we’ll lose a lot of diversity.

Cowen: As we go back to the Stone Age and ask, why did autism genes ever survive? That’s an unanswered question… I think one possibility is, during times of urbanization, these autistic people had fewer social contacts and maybe they were less prone to pandemics.

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