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Temple and the Schoolhouse 

Temple Grandin shares her insights into autism, exceptional kids and understanding animals

click to enlarge Temple Grandin: "One of the problems we have with 'autism' is it's so variable." - ROSALIE WINARD PHOTO
  • Rosalie Winard photo
  • Temple Grandin: "One of the problems we have with 'autism' is it's so variable."

At times, words frustrate author and activist Temple Grandin. They're so general, so imprecise, so vague. Take the word "autism" for example.

"One of the problems we have with 'autism' is it's so variable," she tells InHealth. "You're going from Einstein and half the people in Silicon Valley to a child that remains nonverbal with very, very severe handicaps."

After all, Grandin herself lands somewhere on that scale. She exhibited all the signs of severe autism as a young child and had not started talking at 2 years of age. Doctors recommended that she be placed in an institution. Her mother refused, and through intensive individualized teaching and speech therapy, Grandin learned to talk, and along the way, figured out how to harness her profound gifts — a unique ability to understand autism and animal behavior — that landed her on Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.

Grandin says she is a visual thinker. She understands the world as a series of images or even short movies rather than through language. At first, she didn't realize that wasn't how everyone else perceived the world, something she writes about in her memoir Thinking in Pictures, which was adapted into Temple Grandin, an Emmy Award-winning HBO movie. She explores autism in several other books, including Different ... Not Less, The Way I See It, and her latest, The Loving Push.

This February, Grandin arrives in Spokane to deliver three lectures. On Friday, Feb. 19, she'll be the featured speaker at a daylong forum for educators entitled "The World Needs All Kinds of Minds" at Whitworth University's Cowles Auditorium. The event will explore ways that teachers can be most effective as they work with "twice-exceptional" or "2e" students, those who are cognitively advanced, but whose talents may be overlooked due to a disability such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. Later that day, Grandin will present "Helping Different Kinds of Minds to be Successful" at 7 pm at North Central High School. On Saturday, Feb. 20, she'll be back at Whitworth's Weyerhaeuser Hall at 10:30 am for an entirely different topic, "Understanding Animal Behavior," that draws on her insights into how animals think, act, and feel.

In discussing all of these topics, Grandin is cautious about painting anything with too broad a brush.

"People will say, 'How do we solve autistic behavior in a classroom?" Grandin says. "I have to have a lot more information than that." She says it is fundamentally ineffective to try to apply one set of educational practices to entire populations of kids: "Education is very bad about getting into fads and overgeneralizing on what they should do in every classroom."

click to enlarge living4-2-8a1a971892e2f350.jpg

Instead, she says, "There needs to be a lot more emphasis in education on building on a child's strengths. There's too much emphasis on deficits." For example, those with mild autism often excel in technical and scientific fields. She notes that things we use every day — iPhones and personal computers — weren't invented by "the social yakety-yaks who want to socialize all day," but by the engineers and designers who just happen to think differently.

For exceptional students to thrive in the education system, Grandin says, focusing on their strengths may help solve behavior issues. If a fourth-grade student is brilliant at math, don't limit him to doing fourth-grade math when he may be ready for high school math. "If they're doing the baby math, they get bored," she says.

"I've seen a lot of kids in the gifted and talented schools that have a lot of autism traits," Grandin says. There, they get the challenge they need, and begin to thrive. On the other hand, she chafes at the notion that "exceptional" kids must be treated with extra delicacy, like "poor little Tommy has autism, we need to order his hamburger." Grandin feels strongly that Tommy needs to be taught how to order his own hamburger. He's got to be taught to shake hands, say "please" and "thank you," and learn all the other social niceties that don't often come naturally for autistic kids, things she she says her mother worked hard to instill in her.

Grandin also credits her upbringing to helping her find her passion. "Students get interested in careers they get exposed to. I was exposed to cattle when I was 15," she says. "That's how I got interested in them."

Later, she was instrumental in improving how livestock were treated in slaughterhouses, developing ways to avoid unnecessary stress and pain. Problems — and solutions — that seemed obvious to her had for years eluded others in the industry. "Some people have a knack with animals. They just have a knack," she says. "They intuitively know how to get along with animals."

To understand animal behavior, says Grandin, a professor of Livestock Behavior and Welfare at Colorado State University, you've got to understand how the animals process their experiences. "Their memories are sensory-based and not word-based," she says. "Pictures, sounds, smells. When the dog checks out the local tree, he's checking his 'pee-mail.' He's checking, friend or foe... If you're a dog, it's like, 'My best friend was just there at the tree yesterday.'

"I know some that are mildly autistic, but are super good with animals," Grandin says. "It's sensory-based thinking. They can visualize what the animal is doing."

Credit their unique minds. ♦

To attend lectures, register online at whitworth.edu/communityevent; admission $20. To attend "The World Needs All Kinds of Minds" forum, register at whitworth.edu/giftedinstituteregistration; admission $125.

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