The world needs all kinds of minds | Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin: Don't Get Hung Up on Your Autism
The best-selling author, university professor, and doctor of animal science advises kids with autism to get job skills early on.
By Janet Kim, MPH
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When Temple Grandin was born in 1947, autism was considered a form of brain damage. The condition was misunderstood by health professionals and parents, and the diagnosis limited the potential of children to flourish and live a normal life.
As a high-functioning person with autism, Dr. Grandin changed the face of autism with the 1986 publication of her memoir, "Emergence: Labeled Autistic," in which she recounts how she overcame the challenges of the condition. She has since inspired many in the autism community and beyond with her life story and numerous achievements. Grandin has earned a doctoral degree, serves as a college professor, consults for the livestock industry, writes best-selling books, speaks at conferences worldwide, and tirelessly advocates for autism. Clearly she is one of the world's most accomplished and well-recognized people, with or without autism.
Everyday Health recently spoke with Grandin to get her perspectives on the issues of importance in autism today.
Everyday Health: What do you consider to be the biggest issue affecting the autism community?
Temple Grandin:One thing I’m concerned about is that autism has now turned into such a huge spectrum. When you take out Asperger's [from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as the American Psychiatric Association did in May 2013], you are taking someone like Einstein, who had known speech delays until age 3, and Steve Jobs and other people in Silicon Valley in California, and merging them together in a huge spectrum that goes down to people who remain nonverbal, maybe with other very severe handicaps. I think that was a real mistake that was made in the DSM-5, and I hope that the international guidelines [International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems] do not make that same change. This really creates some problems for service providers because someone with mild autism who is fully verbal has very different kinds of problems than somebody who remains nonverbal and has other severe behavior problems along with it.
EH: In 2010, Time Magazine featured you as one of the 100 people who most affected our world. You have inspired people living with autism and parents who have children with autism. What motivated you to speak publicly about your experience with autism and travel around the world to educate and advocate?
Grandin:I want to emphasize that I still have my job as professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, and I think it's really important that I still have things to do that have nothing to do with autism. Because one of my big concerns is that I’m seeing too many really smart kids on the high end of the spectrum getting all hung up on their autism and not going into a career. We've got to help these kids to develop.
When I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s, the kids that we used to call the geeks and the nerds -- the kids who are definitely diagnosed in the spectrum today -- some of those old classmates have gotten jobs and kept them. Another guy owns his own business and is doing really well. When I go out to the tech industry in Silicon Valley, I see people with mild autism all over the place. Those people happened to have avoided the diagnosis. But I think it's not a good thing when 10 year olds walk up to me and all they want to do is tell me about their autism. When I was 10 years old, I wanted to talk about toy airplanes.
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Let's get more hung up on what the kid is capable of doing. People didn’t want to talk to me because I was super weird, but then I'd show them my drawings and they'd go, "Oh, you did that? You did those drawings?" Make portfolios, show what you can do. When people saw my drawings, then they hired me to design things.
EH: What are parents most interested in hearing from you? What insight or guidance do you usually offer?
Grandin:I can't emphasize enough about early intervention. If you've got a two- or three-year-old child who is not talking, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Every expert will agree on that. Doesn't matter what the diagnosis is, the treatment is basically the same: You need to work with him, teach him the words, play games with him. You need at least 20 hours a week of one-to-one teaching of various types.
If you can get him into a formal program, great. If there are no services in your area, get some grandmothers to work with these kids. Some grandmothers just instinctually know how to work with them because they have more experience with children than a lot of young parents would have had. And oftentimes it's grandmothers who first notice that something is wrong with the kid because they've seen a lot of grandkids.
When they get older, it's not going to be quite so simple. I have a book called The Way I See It, where I talk about a lot of teaching strategies.
Parents can be stressed, especially when they've got the very severe kids. I would strongly recommend that they join any local support group. Get involved with other parents. It's especially hard for a lot of people in rural areas, where there are no support groups.
EH: What can parents do to help their children to develop?
Grandin:I get worried on the real mild end of the spectrum, where there's not enough expectations. They aren't learning how to shake hands, they're not learning how to shop. There's a tendency to overprotect. My mother had a really good sense of how much to stretch me. She'd have me be party hostess at her parties and I'd have to learn how to shake hands. I'm seeing too many kids who aren't learning the most basic skills that were pounded into me when I was 7 or 8 years old.
So just simple things, like they got to go up to the counter at McDonald's and order their own hamburger. If you have a party, have them greet the guests and take their coats. There are some social circuits that are not hooked up, so you've got to train them, just like coaching somebody on how to behave in a foreign country, for example, where you have different customs.
The other thing they've got to learn is how to wait and take their turn. Sometimes you've got to do activities that the other children in the family may want to do. I talked to one family, and this kid just wanted to do miniature golf, but his brother wanted to do skateboarding. Well, on every other Saturday where they went out and they did something, the brother gets to pick one Saturday and then he gets to do miniature golf every other Saturday. I was taught taking turns with board games like Parcheesi, where you shake the dice, you move the pieces, and then you have to wait and take your turn.
EH: What are your thoughts on the education of children who have autism?
Grandin:With little kids who have no speech at two or three years of age, you've got to do early intervention. But then you have kids who may get diagnosed at 8 or 9 years old because they're getting teased, and one of the best things you can do for those kids is to get them involved in social groups with shared interests. When I was in high school and I was bullied and teased all the time, the only places that I was not bullied and teased and where I had friends was horseback riding, model rocket club, and electronics. Or get kids into band; I talked with parents where their son was doing absolutely fabulous in band. There's all of these different specialized things, and these are things that they can also turn into careers.
Another really important thing is teaching job skills. I am seeing too many people who are graduating from college and they've never had a job. By the time I graduated from college, I had done lots of jobs: I cleaned a lot of horse stalls, I painted a lot of signs, I did a sewing job that my mother set up for me when I was 13. In my new book , I've got lists of jobs for the different kinds of thinkers: Some people are photo-realistic visual thinkers, other people are more mathematical and would be good at computer science and engineering, others are word thinkers.
I know somebody who owns a very large metal fabrication company who would definitely be on the spectrum today, and he was saved by the welding class. There are a lot of kids who are dyslexic, have ADHD, or are mildly autistic who would be perfect at a skilled trade. I think one of the worst things schools have done is take the skilled trades out and moving them into the community colleges, but that's almost too late. If we got to get a kid hooked on welding, we need to do it when he's in eighth grade and not after he leaves high school.
EH: What final words of advice would you like to share?
Grandin:Work on building up the strength. If you've got a third grader who is good at math and he can do a high school math book, let him do a high school math book. But he's probably going to need some special ed in reading.
People with autism usually have uneven skills: good at one thing, bad at something else. When I was a young child, my ability in art was always encouraged, but I was absolutely terrible in math.
Video: Dr. Temple Grandin: "The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum" | Talks at Google
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