Helping others thrive despite autism

To understand why Temple Grandin is an icon, it’s not enough to read her books or watch the Emmy Award-winning movie about how she overcame the challenges of autism.

You have to watch her connect with a crowd, the expressions on the faces of people who come by the thousands to hear her speak, as they did last Thursday at the Bank United Center at the University of Miami. Grandin, a Stanford Distinguished Professor at the Center for Humanities at the university, delivered a lecture, “Different Kinds of Minds.”

Dressed in her characteristic Western style shirt and belt, Grandin lives life on her own terms, as a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, an author, an advocate for people on the autism spectrum and a savvy businesswoman whose company has designed half of all the livestock handling facilities in the United States. In 2010, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in its “Heroes” category.

Now 65, Grandin rose to national prominence during the 1980s as the first person with autism to write about the experience. Through her book, Emergence, Labeled Autistic, readers got a firsthand description of what it was like to be autistic. Her new book, The Autistic Brain, is due out in May.

“One might say that the history of autism consists of ‘BT’ and ‘AT’ eras, before Temple and after Temple,” said Michael Alessandri, executive director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism Related Disabilities. Before Temple, he said, “people with autism were relegated to institutions.” Today, “We have people with autism integrated into society in ways we might never have imagined BT. To us in the autism community, she’s quite simply a rock star.”

When Grandin took the stage, the stadium erupted in a standing ovation. She quickly grabbed the crowd’s attention. “What is autism? It’s a developmental disorder, and on one end of the spectrum you’ve got Steve Jobs and Einstein. Einstein had no language until age 3. Steve Jobs was a weird loner who brought snakes to his elementary school, and was bullied and teased and had all kinds of problems. … It’s a very, very large spectrum. It’s a continuum.”

Grandin said she meets people with autism (her diagnosis) or Asperger’s, a milder form of autism, everywhere she goes. Some are diagnosed, while most are not. There is a genetic component to the disorder, she said, and some people tell her they have grandchildren with autism. Like her, she said, they survived the struggle, the teasing and bullying, by finding an outlet in school clubs, music, art and obsessions with scientific projects.

She has a message for the world’s educators, policy makers and corporations. Producing successful business results and public policy — and preventing everything from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan to the economic meltdown in the United States — will require different kinds of minds working together.

As a byproduct of her autism, Grandin literally thinks in pictures, which she describes in her book, Thinking in Pictures. For example, she can build and test design models for complicated devices in her head. Others on the autism spectrum may rely more on words, sound and patterns.

“When I was young I thought that everybody thought the way I did. I kind of had a journey of learning how my thinking was different,” Grandin said.

People with autism are “bottom up” thinkers, Grandin said, immersed in the details of a problem. They develop and categorize information before coming up with a concept. Top down or more traditional thinkers develop the concept first.

“When I found out why they had this accident (at Fukushima) I just couldn’t believe it. How could they make a mistake that was so obvious to a visual thinker? The reason why they made this mistake is that the person who designs this reactor is a mathematical thinker, and he didn’t see that maybe when you live next to the sea it’s not a very good idea to put your emergency generators that run your very important emergency cooling pump in a non-waterproof basement.”

After more than 20 years, Grandin still travels around the country and overseas, lecturing about autism. She also spends part of her day answering letters from parents on her website.

“She’s been so willing to be present and to be engaged and to do it for so long,” Alessandri said. “Many people might get tired of it and want to retreat … That’s a tremendously burdensome role when you think of how much people are expecting of you all the time.”

Before launching into her lecture last week, Grandin paused to thank her mother.

“I want to thank my mother for keeping me out of an institution,” she said. “She was way ahead of her time.’’

In the 1950s and ’60s, autism was not understood, and Grandin’s mother struggled to teach her daughter social skills and words and to secure educational opportunities for her.

Autism was first identified by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943. Meanwhile in Vienna, Hans Asperger was studying and writing about the symptoms of what later became known as Asperger’s Syndrome

Grandin was not able to speak until she was 3 1/2. She has said that as a child she preferred her inner world. Until adulthood she could not look people in the eye. Birthday parties were torture, and the pain of certain noises was excruciating: “I was one of the high school kids that had a terrible time. … I got teased. I got thrown out of school, because I threw a book at a girl who teased me.”

Jaclyn Merens, a founding member of CARD, traveled from Boca Raton for the lecture. Her son, Daniel, 28, is unable to speak. When Daniel was diagnosed with autism, the statistics were one in 2,500, she said. Today, one in 88 children are on the spectrum, and one in 54 boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I would give anything for one minute to be able to ask my son questions,” she said.

Merens said she first saw Grandin speak more than 20 years ago, and is encouraged by Grandin’s own progress.

“Over the course of time, I’ve watched her develop a sense of humor,” Merens said.

While Grandin continues to educate others about how autistic people think, she is quick to note, “Autism is a very important part of who I am, but I don’t really want it to be the primary part.”

As for a cure, she has hopes for advancements for those who are unable to communicate. However, she cautions, autism is a wide spectrum with both gifts and challenges.

“If you totally cured autism,” Grandin said, “you wouldn’t have anybody to fix your computer.”