A Visit with Temple Grandin

February 20, 2011

“Different but not less.” The HBO movie of Dr. Temple Grandin’s life includes a scene in which her mother shares that view of her daughter with the high school science teacher who became her champion.

The award-winning film depicts Grandin as a visual thinker who suffered through social encounters but became renowned as an animal behavior expert and advocate for others with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When I watched the movie clip at Thursday’s “Autism and Employment Forum,” I couldn’t hold back the tears. Powerful words by an early advocate of a child on the autism spectrum paved the way for many whose lives are touched by the condition.

Now 63, Grandin was here last week to give the keynote address at a forum featuring speakers from Best Buy, 3M and Cargill. Roughly 1,500 people attended two sessions at 3M. Why such a large turnout?

For one thing, many people are touched by the disorder. According to the forum moderator, the Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 91 people have ASD. The number was 1 in 10,000 when my son was diagnosed in 1993. The CDC website explains the autism spectrum as follows. “People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability. People with Asperger syndrome usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.”

For another, Grandin, who considers herself and other high-functioning individuals as geeks with uneven skills, has become quite a celebrity. A prolific writer and speaker, she is willing to share her story. Noting individuals with Asperger’s (“Aspies”) are rampant in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, she predicted, “These are the people who are going to solve the energy crisis.”

A fraction of the adults with ASD are currently employed, says Sherrie Kenny, executive director of AuSM (Autism Society of Minnesota), the forum organizer. With the number of adults with ASD increasing, she observed, “If we don’t reach out to employers today, how ready will they be in the future?”

With high unemployment, why hire people with ASD who might need special accommodations or present unique challenges? Susan Larson of Best Buy understands there may be trepidation about hiring people like her son. “When people don’t know much about a given topic they tend to fear it if it has negative implications,” she told me last week. “With ASD there are negative implications such as rigidity, meltdowns, or people who speak in monotone.” The fear can be overcome by education. People on the spectrum can be valuable employees, she insisted.

I met with Temple Grandin on Wednesday, seeking insights from a woman who professes no interest in chitchat. Sporting her trademark western-style blouse and bolero, she was engaging, articulate and direct. She worries about people with ASD becoming fixated on the label. “To me, autism is secondary to who I am. I am what I do more than what I feel,” she said. “It’s hard for a lot of social people to understand that. We need to get past the ASD label and focus on the person’s abilities.”

People with ASD can be some of the best workers a company will ever have if they are supervised properly, she said. They’ll show up on time, work hard and do things others may not want to do as long as you give them clear direction and don’t abuse them by paying them less than other employees. They have good skills that some other employees don’t. Asked about quirky behaviors, she replied, “If I’m running a store and I have an employee who is an expert on everything in the store, I would be willing to overlook it.”

When I mentioned my 19-year-old son Jack had also attended the boarding school featured in the HBO movie, she peppered me with questions for the duration of our visit. What is your son good at? What does he like to do? Identifying interests and strengths is key to preparing students for jobs, she said, and parents and teachers should begin this process in middle school. “This is where a good teacher can turn a kid around.”

Students need to find something they are good at that can be turned into a skill other people want, she said. “Who do you think made the first stone spear? It wasn’t the social people, that’s for sure.” She sells her work, not her personality, she said. In 1985, she sent a proposal to Cargill outlining how she could help with its cattle handling system. They’ve worked together ever since.

Grandin lauds the accuracy of the HBO film, which illustrated how her mother pushed her to do things she was afraid of. She encourages other parents to do the same. Start by developing discipline, she insisted. Scouting, for example, requires kids to perform work-related tasks to earn badges. In days past, newspaper routes taught responsibility and accountability and forced kids to do things they didn’t like. Dog walking can be the new paper route, she suggested.

Grandin had a sign-painting business, cared for horses, and helped her mother with sewing. These weren’t necessarily jobs she was interested in, but they prepared her to work. Still thinking of Jack, she probed further. Is he a good reader? Does he like to write? What are his hobbies? Her questions were illuminating and instructive, if unsettling. Does a parent of a child with ASD ever feel she’s done enough?

Life is more difficult for kids on the spectrum today than in the 1950s, when our days were more structured and predictable and children were taught manners, Grandin said. Routines and instruction are especially important for “Aspie” kids who don’t pick up on nuanced social skills, she said. Social nuances are also tricky for adults in the workplace. “I learned to keep my nose in the cattle chute because that’s the thing I was designing and to stay out of the other business,” she said.

She learned the painful way about hygiene at work when her boss slammed deodorant down on the desk and insisted she use it. Initially angry, she’s grateful now. “It’s okay to be eccentric but you can’t be a rude, dirty slob,” she said.