Temple Grandin believes “neurodivergents” can remedy how our culture got to be so “talky.” I’m curious how many will take her seriously.
These days I skim newspapers, periodicals, and social media looking for needles in a haystack. Every once in a while I find one, like Temple Grandin’s recent Guest Essay in The New York Times: Society is Failing Visual Thinkers, and That Hurts Us All. She begins with an assumption she had early on in life: “When I was younger, I believed that everybody thought in photo-realistic pictures the same way I did, with images clicking through my mind.”
Incorrect assumption. “I had no idea that most people are more word-centric than I am,” writes Grandin. “For many, it’s words, not pictures, that shape thought. That’s probably how our culture got to be so talky: Teachers lecture, religious leaders preach, politicians make speeches and we watch ‘talking heads’ on TV. We call most of these people neurotypical—they develop along predictable lines and communicate, for the most part, verbally.”
Social scientists would say Grandin is neurodivergent—a term that she says encompasses not only autism but also dyslexia, A.D.H.D. and other learning problems. I’m pretty sure Iain McGilchrist would widen her definition to include those who bias the right hemisphere of the brain. People like me. Like Grandin, I think in pictures. McGilchrist estimates no more than five percent of our culture biases the right hemisphere.
Which is why Grandin’s piece is a needle in a haystack. She says that without a major shift in how we learn, one that values neurodivergent people and all visual thinkers, American innovation will be stifled. If you’re a Christian, that ought to be of interest to you.
The word innovate comes from the Latin innovare, meaning “to renew.” The gospel is about the renewal of all things. It seems to me Christians ought to be experts on innovation. We ought to recognize a pattern for renewal: from death comes life. Death is what Joseph Schumpeter called the gales of creative destruction. Jesus put it this way: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
I have found few are prepared to have any of their assumptions die. This includes Christians. A 2011 LinkedIn Survey places those who study theology in the middle of the pack in terms of being entrepreneurial—right there with Human Resources (ugh), education, and administration—fields not known for innovation. Few Christians understand innovation.
Which is why I’m curious how many will take Grandin’s proposals seriously. Take education. She recommends elementary and high schools emphasize hands-on classes such as art, music, sewing, woodworking, cooking, theater, auto mechanics and welding. Most of these hands-on classes had been removed. Reinserting them would require removing other courses since there is a finite number of courses a school can offer. Innovation would be the death knell for some courses taught by teachers who don’t want to lose their job.
Grandin also proposes that corporations and government agencies create “a neurodiverse work force. Complementary skills are the key to successful teams.” I agree. A neurodiverse work force includes visual thinkers, those bias the right hemisphere, what McGilchrist calls “prophetic.” In my experience, most businesses and government agencies operate as not-for-prophet organizations. So do churches.
Research indicates passionately religious people are most resistant to have assumptions challenged, to shifting paradigms. I call it “the God Glaze.” It’s like shellac, super-hard and shiny. Passionately religious people have super-hardened beliefs. Questioning them is tantamount to disloyalty to God, so few risk the gales of creative destruction. I get it, but in so doing Christians risk losing what Christians ought to be experts in: Innovation.
Grandin closes by noting how innovations are being risked in educational settings outside the United States, in Italy and the Netherlands, for instance. The fruits are evident in the US. When Grandin visited the Steve Jobs Theater in California, pre-Covid, she discovered that the glass walls were created by an Italian company. The massive carbon fiber roof that looks like a spaceship was imported from Dubai. These countries have cultures that include neurodivergents, visual thinkers who often imagine what ninety-five percent of our society misses. That’s why I think all leaders, Christians included, ought to take Grandin’s proposals seriously.
But we’ll have to wait and see how many do.