She is the most well-known person in the world with autism, and she spoke candidly with Coastal Style in an exclusive interview prior to her visit to Salisbury this June
Temple Grandin, PhD, has led an extraordinary life — one filled with uncertainty and challenges, perseverance and awe-inspiring accomplishments. She is the most well-known person in the world with autism, having authored many bestselling books that have revealed crucial details of the autistic mind never before known. Dr. Grandin was also the subject HBO’s biopic Temple Grandin, in which Claire Danes’ performance as Temple won both Emmy and Golden Globe awards for Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television.
Dr. Grandin is also a professor at Colorado State University, renowned expert of animal behavior and a scientific pioneer who singlehandedly changed the way livestock are handled in the United States. She also consults for firms such as McDonald’s, Swift and Burger King. In 2010, Time 100 named her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in its Heroes category.
Dr. Grandin frequently speaks around the world as an autism advocate and animal rights activist and will do so June 9 in Salisbury as the featured guest at Dove Pointe’s 50th Anniversary Gala at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center. In an exclusive interview, she spoke with Coastal Style about her life with autism, today’s challenges for those with the disorder, her new book and more.
What are your earliest memories from childhood?
Well, when I was a real little kid, I loved art, and that was always encouraged. And I loved to build things. When I was a kid, I would make airplanes and helicopters and loved to fly kites, anything. If it flew, I loved it. And my art ability was always encouraged.
You didn’t speak until the age of 3½. Do you recall that time?
I was a mess. No speech, just screaming. No social interaction. When I finally started to speak at 3½, it was with lots of flash cards and repeated practice with words.
Your mother was very instrumental in your upbringing. She believed wholeheartedly in you and refused to allow you to be institutionalized. Correct?
She absolutely wasn’t going to allow that. Fortunately, she got good advice from a neurologist who recommended a little speech-therapy school that two teachers taught out of their basement. And I got really good early intervention. Lots of emphasis on turn taking, lots of emphasis on learning how to eat properly and learning how to speak. And then she could see that I was improving. But she got really good early advice.
You struggled through school until your high school science teacher, Mr. Carlock, recognized and nurtured your talents. How influential was he in your life?
Well, he was a huge influence, because I was not a good student. I went away to a special boarding school after getting thrown out of ninth-grade for fighting. [She was repeatedly mocked and bullied throughout school. One day, she threw a book at a student in retaliation and was expelled]. At my new school, they put me to work running a horse barn, and I learned how to work. Mr. Carlock came in the latter part, and we did interesting science projects like optical illusions, and that got me interested in science. Now, studying became a pathway to a goal of becoming a scientist. It wasn’t just do high school for doing it; it was doing it to get into college. And Mr. Carlock was extremely influential;
I mean, he turned me around. Absolutely influential. Mentors are really important, and Mr. Carlock was very important. And when I was away at college, I still visited with him. So, he spanned both high school and college, which was really good. I would go over to their house on weekends, and we would do science projects.
How would you describe today’s treatment or intervention of autism?
I was in early intervention that was as good as any program then by age 2½. We’re doing a good job on early intervention. Where we’re falling down is as the kid gets a little bit older, they get addicted to video games. One of the biggest problems I’m seeing with smart, fully verbal kids is they’re not learning working skills. They’re not getting summer jobs. There’s a tendency to overprotect them too much.
At what age do you feel intervention of these types should begin?
My ability, in part, was really encouraged from third grade on. It starts with chores in little kids. Middle school kids need to be walking dogs for pay. They need to be doing volunteer work on a schedule outside the home. In little kids, 20 hours a week of one-on-one time with an effective teacher is crucial. I want them learning turn-taking, learning their words, learning basic skills. When the kids get older, I want them to take their strengths to music, art, writing, whatever it is and develop it. And if it’s somebody who’s more severe, take something they’re good at and develop that, too. They need to learn basic skills. Good teachers just know how to do that. They have the knack. Now, something with a lot of punishment -— no, I don’t go for that. But if I had tantrums, I’d have a night without television.
So, consequences were important?
Oh, there were consequences. Definitely. Yes, there were definitely consequences.
And structure, yes. You had to be at dinner at 6 p.m. You had to be ready for pickup for school at 7:30 a.m. And that was enforced. I was expected to be on time. And manners were taught to all kids in a very structured way in the ’50s.
You’ve been able to articulate how the autistic mind functions differently through three categories. What are they?
By questioning many people both on and off the autism spectrum, I have learned that there are three different types of specialized thinking. You have an object visualizer. This is a person who thinks in pictures, specific pictures. That’s how my mind works. And a lot of artists are object visualizers. And then engineers, more mathematicians, are pattern thinkers. I refer to them as music and math thinkers. They think in patterns rather than in pictures. Then you have people who are verbal logic thinkers. They know everything there is to know about their favorite type of car or favorite baseball player. All minds of the autism spectrum are detail-oriented, but how they specialize varies. And I go over the research on this in my book, The Autistic Brain.
What challenges did you confront as you attempted to enter the workforce?
Well, when I started out in the ’70s, being a woman in a man’s world, it was really hard. There were no women working in the feed yards in Arizona. And I started out one project at a time, designing things. One of the things I got frustrated with, fairly early on, was getting people not to be rough with cattle. What started turning things around is when you have big customers insisting on it, like McDonald’s, then there’s some motivation to change some of the ways. And things are so much better now than they used to be. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but cattle handling, for example, is way better now than it was 20 years ago. That’s for sure. But you start one project at a time, with your early adopters who do things right, and then I would write about them. I wrote; I was a writing machine. I wrote for national magazines. I wrote for state magazines. You have to write about it.
And you work on things one project at a time. Then you get some big brakes. Like if you saw the movie about me, I got asked to design those dip vats, and I was about the 60 percent level of knowledge, and I said, “Give me three weeks,” because I knew it would take time to get the drawings, the concrete reinforcing that I didn’t know how to do.
I scampered around, and I found out.
You could essentially create solutions by drawing the pictures in your mind, right?
Yes, I drew it up. I developed a lot of equipment through drawing the pictures in my mind. One piece of equipment I developed was the Center Track Restrainer System for large meat-packing plants. It’s in all the large beef plants, the real big ones. My actual drawings are in the movie. There’s a scene in the movie where there’s a big drawing out on a table with a bunch of guys around it, that is a copy of one of my actual hand drawings, and then they animated cattle over the top of it.
Yes, when doors open, you need to walk through them.
What are your impressions of the movie HBO made of your life?
I thought they did a great job with it. I loved how they showed all the projects. It showed visual thinking accurately and anxiety, too. I liked it a whole lot.
What were your impressions of Claire Danes?
She did a fabulous job. She became me. She worked very, very hard on that.
Did you notice, after the movie, that your life changed in any way?
Oh man, did I get busy on the speaking opportunities. That movie was a big, big hit for HBO and for me.
Are you working on any projects currently?
I’ve got a new book coming out, called Calling All Minds: How to Think Like an Inventor. I recreated some of my childhood projects, likes kites and parachutes. My goal is getting kids to make things creatively. It’s one of my favorite books. It’s got a lot of patents in it, a lot of stories about inventors. And then it has 25 projects for kids.
When can we expect that?
Have you been to Maryland before?
Oh yes. Definitely. Yep, I’ve been to Maryland before. Very definitely.
Have you had the occasion to come to the Eastern Shore of Maryland?
Yes. I actually came out to give a talk on chickens. I’ve visited with the people from Purdue. I think that’s on the Eastern Shore, if I remember correctly.
That’s absolutely correct. That’s in Salisbury. Do you recall when that was?
It was about a year ago.
When you return to Salisbury in June, you’ll be speaking to help commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Dove Pointe, which is a wonderful community facility that assists people with various disabilities. What will be the theme that evening?
Well, I always talk about developing strengths. No matter the person, take the thing he or she is good at and encourage it to the best of their ability. It’s like what Stephen Hawking had to say: “Concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well.”
Have you considered the impact and influence you’ve had on the world of autism and animal rights? How does that make you feel?
I feel it’s a responsibility. I treat it very, very seriously, because it’s a responsibility.