Something was going on between the other kids, something swift, subtle, constantly changing – an exchange of meanings, a negotiation, a swiftness of understanding so remarkable that sometimes she wondered if they were all telepathic. She is now aware of these social signals. She can infer them, she says, but she herself cannot perceive them, cannot participate in this magical communication directly, or conceive the many-leveled kaleidoscopic states of mind behind it. Knowing this intellectually, she does her best to compensate, bringing immense intellectual effort and computational power to bear on matters that others understand with unthinking ease. (Sacks, 1995, p. 272)
So writes the neurologist and gifted observer of human behavior, Oliver Sacks, in discussing the remarkable case of Temple Grandin, possibly the world's highest functioning person with autism. At the time of this writing, Grandin is an accomplished professor of animal science at Colorado State University, designer of facilities for managing cattle, and author of numerous books about her experience with autism. She has been the subject of a feature-length film (Temple Grandin, released in 2010 and starring Claire Danes) and was selected as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.
Born in 1947 and diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, Grandin experienced a childhood quite different from most children. In addition to delayed language development, a tendency toward “sensory overload,” and an experience of the world that was highly visual, she also experienced significant social deficits. In her interviews with Sacks and in her own writing, she describes her perplexity at the social world around her. In social interactions, she felt awkward, her timing was off, she didn't understand what excited or upset other people, and she found social relationships completely baffling. Sacks writes, “What is it then, I pressed her further, that goes on between normal people, from which she feels herself excluded? It has to do, she inferred, with an implicit knowledge of social conventions and codes, of cultural presuppositions of every sort” (Sacks, 1995, p. 270).