Temple Grandin: Scientist, Designer, Professor, Person with Autism

May 30, 2014

Four years ago Time magazine included Temple Grandin in its list of 100 people who most affect our world, citing her influence as both a renowned animal scientist and an inspirational advocate for people with autism.

With an award-winning HBO film depicting her life, frequent media interviews, books and speeches, Grandin, 66, has become for many a face and voice of autism. Yet the Colorado State University professor defines herself as first an animal scientist, designer and professor, then a person with autism.

As a visual thinker who uses specific examples to create concepts, she says her mind works like a search engine. She is well aware of both the strengths and limitations her autism entails. She wouldn’t change the way it enables her to view the world but she does not let it define or consume her. And she hates being labeled. “I have bad sciatic nerve problems,” she says, “but I don’t walk up to people and say, ‘I’m sciatic.’”

Grandin did not speak until she was almost 4 years old. Her mother, Eustacia Cutler, dismissed suggestions about institutionalizing her and used a variety of approaches to ensure she developed speech, manners and a work ethic.

The efforts bore out.

Grandin has written and edited many articles and books about both animal science and autism. Her writings are hailed for the way in which they enable others to understand how her mind works and how she deals with life.

Consulting and speaking engagements consume much of her time. Her experience and success, coupled with her candor, appeal to conference, school and commencement audiences, who soak up her explanations about medications, sensory challenges, difficulty with sequencing and organizing, and who ask questions such as why children flap their hands and avoid eye contact and whether parents should respect a child’s penchant for isolation.

Grandin was in Minnesota last week for a workshop hosted by Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) and sponsored by Cargill (one of her clients).  During her speech and in a subsequent interview she offered insights about myriad concerns, including the importance of ensuring a nonverbal 3-year-old gets speech therapy; limiting video games to an hour per day; embracing eccentricity but eschewing sloppiness.

Autism encompasses a broad spectrum ranging from socially awkward geniuses to very handicapped children with no language who can’t dress themselves, she says. Her comments tend to focus on the former.

Fear is the predominant emotion; change (e.g. the end of the school year) is difficult; surprises are to be avoided.

Many people with autism have fixations. Properly channeled, their interests can be powerful motivators and a conduit for success. Grandin parlayed her interest in cattle chutes into a successful career. Yet she worries too many people who approach her for advice are fixated on their autism. She’d rather hear about their interests or activities. If they have none, she recommends clubs or extracurricular activities, such as robotics or art. Shared interests facilitate social interactions for her as much as they do for children.

You need to keep stretching kids just outside their comfort zones, she says. She finds parents are too over-protective. “I’m appalled at the amount of kids that come up to me at events and nobody has taught them how to shake hands. The parents are doing all the talking. The kids don’t know how to ask to have their books signed. My mom never did that for me. I would have had to go up and do it myself or I wouldn’t get it signed.”

And kids today lack the manners that were compulsory for her and her contemporaries, she says. “If I went over to the Woods’ house and I didn’t eat correctly Mrs. Wood corrected me. And I called her Mrs. Wood. We were not allowed to call adults by their first name.” Learning the proper way to speak and behave is helpful for people with autism, who have a tendency to be rule-bound and compliant.

In her travels she spots many older, successfully employed adults she is certain are undiagnosed — techies in Silicon Valley, “the weird welding guy” and “the grey-haired hippie in the plant maintenance shop” who did learn manners. “Those folks don’t have the problems with social skills younger people do. They’ve had enough social skills bashed into them so they know better.”

They are the older version of many of the young people who are diagnosed with autism today, for whom social interactions are the greatest challenge, she says. “When I find out that there’s a smart guy playing video games in the basement I want to scream. You can drag that guy out of the basement and tell him he’s not going to play video games any longer, that he’s going to start changing.”

She had no choice. At her mother’s insistence she held many jobs, ranging from sewing to cleaning horse barns. Kids need to have job experience when they graduate, she says. “They must learn both the fun parts of the job and the grunt work you’ve got to do.” Learning how to do work other people assign is critical because people on the spectrum can be inflexible about modifying a project to satisfy an employer or unwilling to perform tasks of no interest to them.

While Grandin enjoys sharing her insights she delights in the results. “When a mom says, ‘My kid went to college because of your book’ or ‘My kid’s got a great job in electrical engineering because of you’ that makes me happy. I want to see the kids like me succeed.”