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Temple Grandin Ph.D.

Dr. Grandin did not talk until she was three and a half years old. She was fortunate to get early speech therapy. Her teachers also taught her to wait and take turns playing board games.

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Dr. Grandin did not talk until she was three and a half years old. She was fortunate to get early speech therapy. Her teachers also taught her to wait and take turns playing board games. She was mainstreamed into a typical kindergarten at age five. Oliver Sacks wrote in the forward of Thinking in Pictures that her first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic was “unprecedented because there had never before been an inside narrative of autism.” Dr. Sacks profiled Dr. Grandin in his best-selling book Anthropologist on Mars.

Dr. Grandin became a prominent author and speaker on autism and animal behavior. Today she is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. She also has a successful career consulting on livestock handling equipment design and animal welfare. She has been featured on NPR (National Public Radio) and a BBC Special – “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow.”  She has also appeared on National T.V. shows such as Larry King Life, 20/20, Sixty Minutes, Fox, and Friends, and has a 2010 TED talk. Articles about Dr. Grandin have appeared in Time Magazine, New York Times, Discover Magazine, Forbes, and USA Today. HBO made an Emmy Award-winning movie about her life, and she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

When she was young, she was considered weird and teased and bullied in high school. The only place she had friends was activities with a shared interest, such as horses, electronics, or model rockets. Mr. Carlock, her science teacher, was an important mentor who encouraged her interest in science. When she had a new goal of becoming a scientist, she had a reason for studying. Today half the cattle in the United States are handled in facilities she has designed.

The Problem With Labels
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association revised the diagnostic criteria for autism. This significantly broadened the spectrum. It now ranges from brilliant scientists, artists, and musicians to individuals who cannot dress for themselves. Over the years, the diagnostic criteria have kept changing. It is not precise, like a lab test for strep throat. Labels such as autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, or learning disability are often applied to the same child. In older children with no speech delay, the diagnosis sometimes switches back and forth between autism and ADHD.

“One of the problems today is for a kid to get any special services in school, they have to have a label. The problem with autism is you’ve got a spectrum that ranges from Einstein to someone with no language and intellectual disability,” said Grandin. “Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. You’ve probably known geeky and socially awkward but very smart people. When do geeks and nerds become autistic? That’s a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism.”

As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to rise nationally, Grandin is sharing her message about the disorder and “differently-abled brains” with packed houses. At the heart of that message is this: Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars.

“Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job,” said Grandin, who addresses scientific advances in understanding autism in her newest book, “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.” These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things. Don’t hold these math geniuses back. You’ll have to give them special ed in reading because that tends to be the pattern, but let them go ahead in math.”

Early diagnosis can lead to early intervention and access to special education programs. While crucial for children with speech delay, it also means a permanent label that ultimately could impede progress and the healthy development of a child’s identity. There are other situations where an autism diagnosis is helpful for an older person with problems with relationships. It can give them great insight and enable them to improve relationships.

Have High, But Reasonable Expectations
A label can also impact parental expectations, a significant source of therapeutic momentum for children. A parent with a diagnosed autistic child might be reluctant to teach practical social skills outside the child’s comfort zone, such as ordering food at a lunch counter. You must stretch these kids just outside their comfort zone to help them develop. Give them choices of “stretching” activities such as you can do Boy Scouts or robotics.

“It hurts because they don’t have enough expectations for the kids. I see too many smart kids who did well in school, but they’re not getting a job because when they were young, they didn’t learn any work skills,” Grandin said. “They’ve got no life skills. The parents think, ‘Oh, poor Tommy. He has autism, so he doesn’t have to learn things like shopping.” Grandin was raised by her mother in the 1950s when social skills were “pounded into every single child,” she said. “Children in my generation, when they were teenagers, had jobs and learned how to work. I cleaned horse stalls. When I was eight years old, my mother made me be a party hostess – shake hands, take coats, etc. In the 1950s, social skills were taught much more rigidly, so kids who were mildly autistic were forced to learn them. It hurts the autistic much more than normal kids do not have these skills formally taught.”

“In my generation, paper routes taught important working skills. Today, parents should set up jobs a child can do in the neighborhood, such as walking dogs for the neighbors. Younger children can do volunteer jobs outside the home, such as being an usher at a house of worship or community center. This will teach both discipline and responsibility. It improved my self-esteem to be recognized for doing a job well.”

“The skills that people with autism bring to the table should be nurtured for their benefit and society’s,” Grandin said. “And, if a cure for autism were found, she would choose to stay just the way she is.

“I like the logical way that I think. I’m logical. It kind of blows my mind how irrational human beings are,” She said. “If you get rid of autism, you’d have nobody to fix your computer in the future.”

Educating Students with Different Kinds of Minds
If algebra had been a required course for college graduation in 1967, there would be no Temple Grandin. At least, no Temple Grandin as the world knows her today – professor, inventor, best-selling author, and rock star in the seemingly divergent fields of animal science and autism education. “I probably would have been a handyman fixing toilets at some apartment building somewhere,” said Grandin. “I can’t do algebra. It makes no sense. Why does algebra have to be the gateway to all other mathematics?”

The abstract concepts in algebra present a standard stumbling block for many with an autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, or other learning problems. Many of the kids would do well if geometry were substituted for algebra. For autistic and photo-realistic visual thinkers, such as Grandin, understanding comes from being able to see and work through a concept in images, creating what is, in effect, a virtual reality program that plays out in the brain. In this manner, Grandin, who didn’t speak until she was almost 4, conceptualized down to minute details her design for a humane livestock restraint system now used on nearly half of the cattle in the U.S.

Fortunately, the academic trend in the late 1960s was finite math, a course Grandin passed with the help of tutors and devoted study, satisfying her college math requirement. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s and doctoral degrees in animal science. For the past two decades, she’s been a professor at Colorado State University.

Her book, The Autistic Brain, presents research findings that show three types of specialized thinking. They are the photo-realistic visual thinkers who think the way I do, math/pattern thinkers, and word thinkers. Children who think differently will often thrive if they have more hands-on activities. Parents need to work with the schools to ensure that elementary school children have art, music, theater, sewing, woodworking, computer programs, and cooking. These classes teach essential career skills and provide opportunities for students to interact socially with their peers. Older students need access to career-related courses such as welding, auto mechanics, and computer science.

There is a considerable shortage of skilled mechanics. When I installed my systems in construction, I worked with many talented mechanics and metal fabricators. Some may have been on the milder end of the autism spectrum. These people were brilliant, and they built very complicated things. Skilled trades are not for everybody on the range. I estimate that a skilled trade would be a good choice for 25% of entirely verbal people with ASD. When I look back on a long career, some of the best days of my life were out at a construction site. It was so much fun to talk about building things.

Autism Facts.
– 1 in 59 U.S. children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
– ASD is 4.5 times more common in boys (1 in 42) than in girls (1 in 189).
– About 1 in 6 children in the U.S. had a developmental disability from 2006-to 2008.

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., the leading authority on livestock handling and professor of animal science at Colorado State Univ., received the 2019 Dole Leadership Prize at the Univ. of Kansas on Dec. 11, 2019.

Grandin, who is a longtime contributing editor to MEAT+POULTRY, was awarded the honor for her advocacy of autism and her work in animal welfare during her career. In her work to advocate for autism, she fights for neurodiversity instead of a “cure” for autism.

Previous winners of the Dole Leadership Prize include Nelson Mandela, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Congressman John Lewis, and former Secretary of State James Baker.


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