Science Book a Day Interviews Richard Panek

PanekSpecial thanks to Richard Panek for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book, co-authored with Temple Grandin – The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum

Richard Panek is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a grant from the Antarctic Artists and Writers program of the National Science Foundation. – From Barnard University’s Profile

Richard’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/r_panek

#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

It was Temple’s idea to write about the autistic brain.  I mean, who better?!  During the research phase, she handled the neuroimaging and genetics side of the discussion, and I focused on the historical and cultural side, though that division of labor was highly elastic.

#2 – Who is this book written for? Parents? Kids diagnosed with Autism?

All of the above, and more.  Although the book is called “The Autistic Brain” and addresses many aspects of autism, Temple and I also set ourselves an explicit agenda to appeal to a non-autistic readership.  What we have to say about the brain is, we hope, of interest to anyone who’s interested in the eternal question of nature and nurture.

#3 – How has the face of autism changed since it’s first diagnosis?

How hasn’t it!  As the book chronicles (especially in Chapter One), from the period 1943 to 1980 it was regarded primarily from a psychoanalytic perspective–looking for a cause in the form of parental neglect; from 1980 (when it entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as an actual medical diagnosis) to today from a behavioral perspective–looking not for a cause but a consistent pattern of how it manifests itself.  Our argument is that the time has come, partly because of advances in technology, partly because of changes in cultural attitudes, to shift to a biological perspective–looking not for a cause but for causes, and doing so by focusing on neuroimaging and genetic testing.  Relatedly, we advocate examining autism on a case by case basis rather than emphasizing broad commonalities; in turn, a more individualistic approach would allow for a greater recognition and appreciation of individual strengths.

#4 – The use of the term ‘aspies’ has increased over time. Can you tell us anything about this term? And how it’s usage has changed over time?

Not really.  Sorry.  The diagnosis entered the DSM in the 1990s, and now it’s out of the DSM.  That trajectory in itself reflects just how tricky this diagnostic business is.

#5 – Are you working on a new book/project that you can tell us about?

I don’t know about Temple, but I’m working on a proposal for a book that I’d prefer not to discuss publicly yet.  I’ve also been writing the screenplay for a large-format 3D museum movie called “ROBOTS 3-D: It Isn’t Easy Being Human(oid)!,” which is just about to start filming.  Watch for it in a museum near you next fall!

[Image Credit: http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Panek-photo-2-199×300.jpg ]

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