At four years of age, Temple Grandin wasn't talking at all. Her father thought she should be institutionalized, but her mother refused, coaxing speech from her daughter and later setting her up with odd jobs so she would learn work skills despite her extreme anxieties. At the time, there was no diagnosis.
More than six decades later, Grandin has become one of the nation's foremost authorities on animal welfare, and our pre-eminent advocate for people with autism. As someone operating on the very high end of the autistic spectrum, Grandin, 65, has become a sort of ambassador to what she calls the neurotypical world.
In her latest book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, Grandin takes a look at the emerging science of autism and brain function. She spoke with One Thing New's Kimberly Weisul about the recent spike in autism diagnoses, her experiences working in slaughterhouses, and why we need to bring shop classes back to our schools.
There's been a lot written lately about the increase in autism diagnoses. You say that, because of changes in the way the disease is now diagnosed, it would be surprising if we didn't have a spike in autism diagnoses. Do you think the underlying number of cases has increased, or are we just diagnosing more of them?
I think there has been some increase in the very severe cases. But on the mild end of the spectrum, I think most of it is increased diagnosis.
Prior to the early 1990s, you had to have a speech delay to be in order to be diagnosed as autistic. That's no longer the case.
The problem is that all those DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]diagnoses is that they're behavioral profiles. It's only based half in science. The other half is based on insurance companies fighting and doctors bickering around in conference rooms. Nobody sits around a conference room and bickers over what a tuberculosis diagnosis is.
What was it like growing up with autism?
I had a really good elementary school life. I was good at projects. In fact, in elementary school I was the second girl in my school that got to take wood shop.
I was very good at embroidery and sewing, and when I was 13, my mother got me a little sewing job because I needed to learn work skills.
And kids in the 1950s, we would run around and do stuff outside. And we built stuff.
The other thing that helped was that the teacher would talk to the other children and explain how I had a handicap but it wasn't visible, like a wheelchair. And that they shouldn't be teasing me.
High school was absolutely the worst. At that point I was not interested in any of the things the other girls were interested in -- boys and jewelry and stuff like that. I liked building things, and airplanes.
What advice do you give parents who suspect that their child may have autism or be on the spectrum?
There's two different ways to go here. If you have a two-year old that's not talking, you better work on doing early educational intervention, I don't care what diagnosis he has. Every expert will agree on that.
But then you have another kind of kid where the speech development is normal enough that everything's going pretty good until third or fourth grade, and suddenly he doesn't have any friends.
The best-case scenario is where the kid is mainstreamed, and there's a tendency to have a special ability, like mine was art. Another kid might be really good in math and some kids are really good writers. You work on developing the special ability and broadening it. I would have drawn the same horse heads over and over again, but Mother encouraged me to draw other stuff.
What mistakes do you commonly see parents make?
The big mistake I'm seeing now with fully verbal kids on the real high end of the spectrum is not learning work skills.
They're getting too overprotected. The thing about these kids, you can't just give them sudden surprises. That will not work. That causes panic. But I'm seeing parents saying, "Oh, poor little Timmy, we'll order his food for him." No. Poor little Timmy's got to learn to walk up to the counter and order his own food.
You've gotta stretch these kids. You can't take them and chuck them into the deep end of the pool. That doesn't work. But if you don't stretch them, they don't develop.
I've seen parents that are coddling their kids, and now you've got a kid who's 22 years old, and he's a recluse in his room and he's playing video games on social security. It's absolutely ridiculous.
You've also spoken about the importance of projects.
Yes. Another thing that hurts these kids who are quirky and different is schools have taken out all the hands-on classes. It's absolutely stupid, because now we have shortages of a lot of the skilled trades. And those are the jobs that some of these kids, who might get diagnosed as dyslexic or ADHD, just absolutely love.
But we have kids growing up today and they're not doing any cooking, sewing, woodworking, metal shop, automobile shop. Taking these classes out is really bad. Those classes teach practical problem solving.
I'm happy to say I was in Arkansas and Texas several months ago, and they're putting things like auto shop back in. These are often the only classes these kids like. If I hadn't had art when I was a little kid, I would have gone nowhere. Those were the classes that made school worthwhile.
What kind of projects today could take the place of the kind of things you had growing up?
Well, how about Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts? How about Future Farmers of America programs? How about working in a farmers' market? How about maker community clubs, where people are making things on 3-D printers?
In your book, you delineate three styles of thinking: object visual thinkers, mathematical visual thinkers, and word thinkers. Can you explain that?
An object visual thinker thinks totally in photorealistic pictures.
I'm an object visual thinker. When I think of a church steeple, I see particular ones that are all around town where I live. Other people think very differently. I was asking a speech therapist about a steeple, and she heard the bell in the steeple. Some word people will get a very vague sort of narrow triangle thing. And that's all they get.
Mathematical thinkers see patterns. Think of origami, organic chemistry, molecules, and geometry and mathematics. I asked one extreme mathematical thinker about a church steeple, and he got these motions and patterns of people praying.
How did you get started working in animal welfare?
I wrote articles about livestock, and people started asking me to design equipment.
I found that selling the equipment is easy. Getting people to operate it right was hard.
Is the equipment hard to operate?
No, it isn't. The problem is some people just want to get rough with the animals. This is changing. This is getting a whole lot better now today.
There are certain people that, I hate to say it, but they like to torture animals and they just need to be fired.
There's about 20 percent of people that, if I train them, they stay good. They really learn the idea of good stockmanship and they just stay really, really good Then there's another 60 or 70 percent that stay good if they're constantly supervised. And there's the bottom 10 percent that just should not be there.
Some of the best people for working with animals have dyslexia, or some sort of learning problem. They're less word-based in their thinking. I'm not saying that everybody who is a word-based thinker is terrible with animals. I'm not saying that. But I have seen, over and over again, somebody who's got some little learning problem, and they're doing a job with animals and just loving it and they're really good at it.
Now people are scared of the cell phone video camera. I hate to say it, but I think the cell phone video camera is going to be one of the best things that ever happened to animal welfare.
Were you at all put off when you started working on slaughterhouses?
Fortunately when I started out, the JBS Swift plant I went to was fairly decent. So I could see that things could be done right.
I started out in the 70s. In the 80s, that's when the industry got really sloppy. The early 90s were atrocious.
What should employers understand about people who are on the spectrum?
These people need to be in a work situation with real concrete instructions as to what they're supposed to do.
If they're doing something wrong, you have to pull them aside in private and explain what they're doing wrong. Let's say the person's working in a retail store. You don't say, "Jane, you're too aggressive with customers." That's too vague. What you've got to do is bring Jane in and say, "Watch how Suzy approaches the customer. I want you to do it like she does. You're getting too close and too loud." That explains it much more concretely.
You say in your book that when a parent tells you that their autistic child cries when they're frustrated, you say, "Good." Why is that?
Because then the kid's not having an anger fit. That's the alternative, and it's not acceptable. If a kid cries when he's frustrated, he can still have a job. But people who throw wrenches get fired.
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