Look Beyond the Labels of Autism, Says Speaker

Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin spoke about "Decoding the World Through the Unique Perspective of Autism" at Illinois Wesleyan's President's Convocation.

September 10, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Professor Temple Grandin knows her brain is wired differently than other people.

A professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Grandin has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. A best-selling author and advocate for the humane treatment of livestock, she is said to be one of the most accomplished adults with autism in the world. But it might be best to avoid using the term in front of her.

“Don’t get hung up on these labels – autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD. I get worried about really smart kids getting held back by these labels,” said Grandin, who was the keynote speaker for the President’s Convocation at Illinois Wesleyan University on Wednesday, Sept. 10 in Westbrook Auditorium of Presser Hall. The Convocation marks the official beginning of the 2008-2009 academic year.

Hear her address

Grandin’s talk was the culmination of the 2008 Summer Reading Program at Illinois Wesleyan. All first-year students at the University read the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Vintage, 2004). Written by Mark Haddon, the novel’s protagonist is a young boy with Asperger’s Syndrome.

According to Grandin, many artists and scientists would be considered autistic. “Einstein didn’t speak until he was 3 years old. That is a sign of autism,” she said. “You wouldn’t have technology if there weren’t people on the autistic spectrum. Many of these guys are the nerds that keep Silicon Valley and tech centers running. You would not have art and science if it were not for autistic genetics,” she said. 

Grandin gave the audience insight into the minds of those with autism. She discussed different learning techniques and challenges autistic children face, drawing from her own experiences. A visual thinker, Grandin did not develop speech until she was 3-and-a-half years old. “When adults got to talking fast, I thought they had their own special language because I could not process it,” she said.

Comparing her mind a computer, Grandin said she has to be able to generate a picture to accompany any thought. “I like to think of my brain like Google images,” she said. “When I hear something, my brain will scan through countless images to find one that fits. If I don’t have an image, then I just don’t understand.” Grandin noted when trying to learn the Lord’s Prayer, she envisioned a picture she knew of a rainbow, shining down on a power plant. “There you go, the power of God,” she said with a smile. Grandin discussed the idea in her bestselling memoirs Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism (Vintage, 2006).

According to Grandin, an autistic brain becomes focused on one area, generally in the areas of math, science or art. “Autistic people will have a huge talent in one area matched by a deficit in another,” she said, pointing out that an autistic child might excel at physics, but fail algebra because the topics utilize different processing skills in the brain. She believes one of the keys to helping autistic children is encouraging the talents children possess, and gearing those toward useable skills. “You need to take the good and build on it. It drives me crazy when I see young guys who should be working on computers in Silicon Valley and they are bagging groceries,” she said.

Many autistic children are labeled or isolated because they cannot process social skills appropriately, Grandin noted. “They do not have the ability to relate socially,” she said. These children can be further hampered by physical pain that comes with bright lights or loud noises, characteristics common in autistic children. “How can you relate socially if you cannot tolerate places where people are social?” asked Grandin, who is also the author of Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism (Future Horizons, 2005), winner of the prestigious Foreword Book of the Year Award in 2006.

Grandin’s own life offers an example of encouraging a talent. Possessing a high aptitude for art since childhood, she now designs livestock handling facilities. Half of the facilities in North America are of her design. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1970 at Franklin Pierce College and a master’s degree in animal science in 1975 from Arizona State University. In 1989, she earned a doctorate in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Grandin has been writing and speaking about autism since her first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (Warner Books) debuted in 1986. She is also a prolific author in her field of animal science as well, publishing more than 300 articles in scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare and facility design.

A vocal advocate for providing opportunities for children with autism, Grandin has been featured on major television programs, such as ABC’s Primetime Live, the Today Show, Larry King Live, 48 Hours and 20/20, as well as in national publications, such as Time magazine, People magazine, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and the New York Times. She has also traveled on speaking tours around the world.

“It is often said that people with autism are interested in things, or objects, more than people,” said Grandin, “But people who are interested in things can do great things if we help them develop their strengths.”

For additional information about Grandin, visit her official Web site at www.templegrandin.com.


Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960