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Oct 04, 2013

Focusing on kids and their talents, not on their autism

Dr. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin visited Delaware Valley College Oct. 2 through Oct. 3.

Einstein had no speech until age 3 and Steve Jobs brought snakes to school as a child.

“What would happen to little Albert today?”

That was one of the questions Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the world’s leading livestock handling facility designers and a prominent advocate for people with autism asked the packed auditorium at Delaware Valley College.

“The Autistic Brain,” an event that sold out within days, brought together people from the surrounding community to take a look at autism and what the label means for kids today on Oct. 2.

On Oct. 3, Dr. Grandin spent time with the College’s students, presenting on animal behavior and welfare, meeting with student leaders and even visiting a class. The two-day visit gave counseling psychology, animal science, and secondary education students a chance to interact with one of the people they’ve read about.

“I thought it was really cool to have her in class,” said Elora Guise ’16, a small animal science major, who watched a video about Dr. Grandin’s work when she was studying livestock in class last year. “She was really funny, and witty.”

“I thought it was fascinating,” said Bailey Hager ’17, a small animal science major. “Last night I couldn’t sleep I was so excited to meet her.”

DelVal alumna, Dr. Linda Detwiler ’80, who is a colleague of Dr. Grandin’s, made the visit possible. The two met through consulting work on animal health and welfare for McDonald’s.

Dr. Grandin has autism, but was diagnosed late in life. She wasn’t speaking yet at age two, and had other signs of the developmental disorder. Doctors wanted to put her in an institution, but her mother refused.  Instead, her mother put her in intensive speech therapy and made her get work experience and practice social skills.

Today, she’s well known globally for her work in animal behavior and welfare, and is educating the public about autism through her best-selling books and her lectures. She’s also currently a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

Top-tier media outlets such as The New York Times have featured her story; she was named to TIME magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People” and HBO made a movie starring Claire Danes about her life.

Autism has a wide spectrum, and is not a specific behavioral profile.  People who are on the spectrum think and experience the world differently than people who aren’t.

“Autism is an important part of who I am and I wouldn’t want to change the way I think,” said. Dr. Grandin.

She sees in photo-realistic, specific pictures. When she thinks of a steeple, she doesn’t have a general image that comes to mind; she sees specific steeples in great detail.

This way of thinking was huge asset to her as a livestock-handling facility designer and her work began to get attention from the industry quickly.

“When you’re weird, you’ve got to show your work,” said Dr. Grandin, who joked that once she got around the “touchy, feely” human resources people, and to the “geeks,” to show the drawings of her designs, people were eager to work with her.

Dr. Grandin worries that too many talented, quirky kids today are “becoming their labels.”

“I don’t like it when a 9-year-old kid walks up to me and all they want to talk about is autism,” said Dr. Grandin. “I would rather they talk about astronomy or, one of their interests. Something they’re good at… There are too many talented and quirky kids going nowhere.”

When Grandin was bullied as a teen, what saved her were her interests, which helped her make friends.

“Kids who are kind of different need to get into band, art, riding, somewhere where they have a shared special interest (with peers),” said Dr. Grandin.

As a visual thinker, she excelled at art, but struggled with algebra. Her visual thinking is just one type of mind.  Other kinds of thinkers have a tough time with other subjects. There are pattern thinkers who often struggle with reading, verbal thinkers who struggle with drawing, and auditory thinkers who have fragmented visual perception.

While they may struggle in some areas, each type of thinker brings something to offer that the world needs.

Dr. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin visits a class at Delaware Valley College.

“We need all kinds of minds,” said Dr. Grandin.

Visual thinkers, for example, can help spot dangerous design flaws more quickly than a person who doesn’t think visually.

She said parents need to focus on strengths and that kids who are on the spectrum who are pushed to develop social skills and encouraged to pursue their strengths can become highly successful.

“I met an IT guy and oh man, is he on the spectrum,” said Dr. Grandin. “He’s successful because of his focus on social skills. Kids need to learn to shake hands. Mother had me serving guests and shaking hands at dinner parties when I was 7.”

Those skills made it possible for her talents to come before the label.