Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The squeeze machine

One of the most fascinating things portrayed in the movie Temple Grandin was Temple's noticing the calming effect on cattle of their being constricted in a chute in order to be vaccinated, and her being led by that observation to construct a "squeeze machine" for herself, to see whether it would have the same effect on her, who as an autistic person often felt anything but calm.
    She writes about it in Animals in Translation, which I introduced here the other day:
When I saw the cattle in their squeeze chute and got inspired to build a squeeze machine for myself, at first I was thinking only about the calming effects of deep pressure. So I built it with just two hard plywood boards, without any padding or cushions. All autistic children and adults like deep pressure. Some of them will put on really tight belts and hats to feel the pressure, and lots of autistic children like to lie underneath sofa cushions and even have a person sit on top of the cushions. I used to like to go under the sofa cushions when I was little. The pressure relaxed me.
    Then gradually I started to improve my squeeze machine by adding soft padding...The pads gave me feelings of kindness and gentleness toward other people—social feelings....
    I think the squeeze machine probably also helped me have more empathy, or at least more empathy for animals. When I first started using the soft version of the machine, in my late teens, I didn't know how to pet our cats so they really liked it. I always wanted to squeeze them too tight....
    Autistic children never know how to pet animals the right way, so you have to teach them....
    Even a lot of normal people don't realize that you have to stroke animals, not pet them. They don't like to be petted. You have to stroke them the way the mother's tongue licks them.
    There have been two experiments on squeeze machines for animals....
    This research is important for people with autism. A lot of autistic children can't stand to be touched. I was like that when I was a little kid. I wanted to feel the nice social feeling of being held, but it was just too overwhelming....
    Being touched by another person was so intense it was intolerable. I would start to panic and I had to pull away.[pp. 114-117]
The squeeze machine is fascinating, especially when you've just learned of it. But what affected me the most about the chapter from which those excerpts are taken was its many examples of our being at one with other animals. Like this paragraph:
A dog's attachment to his owner is like a baby animal's attachment to his mother, or a human child's attachment to his mom or dad. Pet dogs act the exact same way children do in the strange situation test. In the strange situation test the researcher watches how a very young child reacts to a strange new environment when his mother is there with him, and when she's not. Most children will confidently explore a strange environment as long as their mother is with them, but when she leaves the room they'll stop exploring and wait anxiously for her to come back. Dogs do exactly the same thing. This has been tested formally in fifty-one dogs and owners. Most dogs stop exploring and act anxious when their owner leaves the room. Then they relax and start exploring again when their owner returns. When humans say dogs are like children, they're right. [p. 111]
    Other examples deal with clinical research into brain anatomy and chemistry. They'd be difficult to excerpt briefly. Read the book!

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