Inside the autistic brain of Temple Grandin 

click to enlarge RW_Temple_with_five_cows.jpg

Temple Grandin, PhD, is an inventor, professor and bestselling author. She was the subject of an Emmy-award winning movie that aired on HBO.

She's also autistic.

Grandin will be speaking at a conference in Greenwood on March 7th, along with her mom, Eustacia Cutler and behavioral specialist Dr. Jed Baker. (It's a ticketed event, but attendees can earn continuing ed credits — see the event website.) As the Indiana state legislature wrangles over potential replacements for Common Core education standards, we decided to check in with someone who, despite a complete inability to grasp abstract concepts such as algebra, still managed to invent humane slaughter equipment used on over half the cattle in the United States.

NUVO: You see things in pictures — nonverbally — correct?

Temple Grandin: I see everything in pictures. I also want to emphasize that there are people who are not autistic who see in pictures. Thinking in pictures is kind of a continuum; on the extreme end, when I design equipment, I can test-run it in my head. But my mind kind of works like Google for images: put a keyword in, then I start getting a whole lot of images.

I had no speech until about age four and I had all the autistic behaviors. I was very lucky — I was able to get a lot of early intervention with a lot of one-on-one teaching.

NUVO: Your mother's going to be speaking at the conference. What did she do for you when you were diagnosed?

Grandin: She always knew how much to push me. When I was eight years old, I knew how to shake hands, I had table manners — these things were just taught back in the '50s. ... I see too many kids that get a label: Little Tommy's got autism, so he doesn't have to order his own food at a restaurant, or learn how to shop, or even learn how to shake hands. When I was eight years old, my mother had me be a little party hostess. That taught me social skills.

NUVO: We're having a debate right now in our country and in our state regarding Common Core and replacing it with another set of standards that apply to all students. I'll bet you wouldn't want to paint every student with the same broad brush. Let's take, for example, skills in algebra – this is a specific area of study that gave you a lot of difficulty.

Grandin: I would have never gotten through algebra. I think there's a lot of kids that can't do algebra but they can do geometry. Algebra was something that just didn't make any sense to me at all.

[With] Common Core, people think you've just got to do drills ... In my work with animals I've developed a system for assessing whether a meat packing plant's doing humane slaughter. You don't tell them how to build stuff but you've got to achieve certain outcomes. Okay, you've got a fourth grader, at the end of the year he's got to learn long division; don't tell me how I've got to teach it, I'll just make sure the kid knows long division when he gets to the end of fourth grade. That's an outcome.

NUVO: Why do think more kids are being diagnosed on the autism/Asperger's spectrum? Is it because we've widened the definition or is it because there's an increase in kids with these symptoms?

Grandin: I think on the mild cases, it's just widening the definition. I can think of kids I went to college with that would definitely be on the autism spectrum today — you called them "geeks" and "nerds" before. Half of Silicon Valley is probably on the spectrum, and those kids have great jobs.

NUVO:What would you tell a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with autism?

Grandin: It depends on the age. If you have a three year old who's not talking — and I don't care what his diagnosis is — the worst thing you can do is nothing. You've got to get many, many hours of one-on-one instruction. Let's say you've got a fourth grader that's diagnosed on the spectrum because he doesn't have any friends, because he's socially awkward. This kid may have uneven skills, good at math, maybe art, develop the things he's good at. Also, with social skills, get the kid involved with friends that have shared interests. It could be robotics club, it could be band, chess ... the only places where I was not bullied and teased [were] riding horses and electronics lab.

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