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First Published Monday, 1 December 2008

Temple Grandin

Autism’s star emphasizes value of work

Friday,  November 21, 2008 10:39 PM


A career spent in and around slaughterhouses has its obvious drawbacks. But there are advantages, too.

“It makes you think,” Temple Grandin said. “When you get to the end of your life, have you done something meaningful?”

Making a pile of money does not count, and in fact, Grandin said, it might be a good idea for the new president to call some Wall Street executives “and shame them.”

The concept of fair play comes easily to Grandin.

Not much else has.

She thinks in pictures instead of words, cannot understand personal relationships, and views her surroundings in ways more common to cattle than humans.

“I’m pure geek,” Grandin said.

She also is a rock star in the world of autism, hailed as the world’s best-known and most-accomplished adult with the increasingly prevalent disability.

The 61-year-old animal scientist and author spoke to hundreds of parents and educators yesterday at the national Network of Autism Training and Technical Assistance Programs conference in Columbus.

Sara Glaser has a 4-year-old son with autism. She listened to Grandin’s hope-filled speech and wept.

“This is my Christmas,” said Glaser, a Canton-area pharmacist. “Temple is saying, ‘Look at me. I am autistic, and I am making a difference. We’re not all Rain Man. Just give our children chances.”

And give them jobs, Grandin said. Most of her lectures these days focus on employment and helping autistic teens develop their skills.

Chris Filler, transition coordinator at the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence, said relatively few teens with autism move successfully from school programs to work. Even those with the milder form of autism known as Asperger syndrome do not often land satisfying jobs.

“Only between 6 percent and 12 percent of people with autism spectrum disorders are employed,” Filler said. “A lot of the reason is what Temple says: We’re not building on their strengths.”

Grandin was a lousy student in most ways, she said. Social connections were all but impossible.

But Grandin could draw structures in amazing detail, figure out how things work and think the way animals think. Those aptitudes sparked a career designing livestock-handling facilities.

Half the cattle in North America pass through a restraining system she designed, and she developed a scoring system for assessing humane treatment at meat plants.

“Not bad for someone they said was mentally retarded,” said Grandin, who has a doctorate and teaches at Colorado State University.

Major news outlets regularly seek her out for stories. HBO just wrapped production on a movie of her life. But fame seems to interest Grandin mostly as a platform, a way to explain how the autistic mind works.

People with a mild form of the disorder are everywhere, she said. The focus on children is important but also misleading.

“Where are all the 50- and 60-year-olds with Asperger’s? They’re employed,” Grandin said. “I think things are worse today because too many are buying into this ‘handicap’ mentality. I’m seeing way too many smart, quirky kids without jobs, too many gifted people sweeping floors.”

Grandin said the autistic person must learn social norms: why “please” and “thank you” are important, why you can’t pick your nose in public. Emotional connections might never come, but that’s OK. “You can’t de-geek the geek,” she said. “We can learn to act in the play.”

Autistic young people need mentors, Grandin said.

They also should sell their skills, not themselves, when trying for jobs. “People thought I was really weird,” she said. When she opened portfolios of her drawings, attitudes changed.

Other things remain the same. The nuances of emotional communication, romance, beauty – all are mysterious to Grandin.

Those deficits can be painful. But Grandin feels satisfied that her life is industrious and filled with meaning.

“Who do you think made the first spear?” she asked, smiling a little. “It wasn’t the social people sitting around the campfire.”


Source:   http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2008/11/21/autism.html?sid=101

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