A Conversation with Temple Grandin in 2022 (Highlights)
Updated: November 22, 2022 · 10 Minute Read
- "There's an expression that you don't grow out of autism you grow into it..."
- "I got involved in the cattle industry because I got exposed to it as a teenager. I think a lot of kids today aren’t getting exposed to enough stuff."
- "One of the things that can help a kid tolerate a sound is if the kid can control it."
- "I can tell you going to the cattle industry in the 70s, being a woman was a much bigger barrier than autism."
- "[My mom] had a very good sense of just how much to push me."
Ask Temple Anything: How families, friends, co-workers, and allies can better support the neurodivergent community
On April 3, 2022, Beaming Health sat down with hundreds of families and community members to ask one of the most prominent autistic figures, Dr. Temple Grandin, important issues surrounding autism and how to better support the neurodivergent community. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. You can find the full video in the Beaming community.
Marissa: My name is Marissa. I am one of the co-founders of Beaming Health. We are a company that's trying to create a better world for neurodivergent families.
I am so excited tonight to be introducing the iconic, world-renowned autism champion, scientist, inventor, author, professor, animal rights advocate, Dr. Temple Grandin. She has served as such an inspiration and role model to literally hundreds of thousands of people on the spectrum.
A few interesting facts about Temple that I love:
- Temple didn't speak until she was 3 and 1/2 years old. She received incredible speech therapy and had amazing teachers who helped her develop along the way.
- Half the cattle in the US are handled with facilities she designed. That's a lot of cattle!
- She also loves country western music (and Phantom of the Opera)!
There's an expression that you don't grow out of autism you grow into it and Temple, you're a perfect example of this and how you’ve really just grown into your autism, your strengths, and are such an inspiration to so many people.
How we're going to run through tonight —I'm going to start off with questions a bunch of folks sent in via email. Then we'll do some live Q&A.
Dr. Grandin: It sounds good.
Marissa: Sounds good.
Temple as you know it's autism month. Words matter. How we talk about autism matters. One concept I've heard you talk about is that it’s kind of a barrier to the autism community at times, is this idea of label-locked thinking. Just this idea of what people think or have in their minds when they hear autism. How you describe autism to people who’ve maybe never encountered someone on the spectrum before. How do you share what autism is?
Dr. Grandin: If you’ve worked in anything involving engineering, you’ve encountered somebody with autism. It’s that simple. You’re going from Elon Musk and Einstein to somebody who can't dress themselves. They've changed the criteria to where now you have this huge spectrum going from no speech delay, socially awkward to very severe, maybe epilepsy, can't talk, and maybe no movement, and all of this is given the same name. And I think this has made the label locking worse because back in the '70s to be labeled with autism, the child had to have obvious speech delay prior to age 3. Obvious speech delay. Then in the early 90s, they added Aspergers, which is basically socially awkward with no speech delay, and then in 2013 they merged it all together. So now you've got such a huge variation.
And I've been doing a lot of research into how people think. In fact, I have a new book coming out, Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions and you can actually pre-order on Amazon right now. And what I’m finding is you have visual thinkers like me, that are super good at things like art and mechanical stuff. Then you’ve got your mathematical thinkers. And then you have your verbal thinkers. And the verbal thinkers tend to be the worst at getting locked into the labels because they think in words. Where I think in pictures and I’m seeing Elon Musk. He’s got the same name as somebody that has epilepsy and cannot talk. Those are very very different.
And we need to be looking at what the individual can do. One of the big problems I'm seeing, especially on the fully verbal end of the spectrum, is parents getting so label locked that teenagers are not learning basic skills, like shopping. Learning how to save money, having a bank account, just basic stuff like that.
Marissa: Can you talk a little bit about some of the most impactful adults in your life growing up and maybe what it was that they did for you that was so meaningful?
Dr. Grandin: All right, let's just start with my mother. I was very lucky to have been taken to a neurologist, not a psychiatrist, a neurologist, Bronson Cruthers, Boston’s Children’s Hospital. There’s an endowed chair at that hospital for Bronson Cruthers. And he tested me for epilepsy and deafness and then he referred me to a little speech therapy school that two teachers taught out of their home. And I got very good early intervention. I can't emphasize how important that was.
And my mother had a very good sense of just how much to stretch me. Not just suddenly force me into something I couldn’t handle but stretch. And she always encouraged my ability in drawing. Now I would tend to just draw the same horse head. She’d say “Let's draw the saddle.” “Let’s draw the stable.”
I had a fabulous third-grade teacher and my mother and the third-grade teacher in my elementary school worked together to make consistent rules.
Another super influential person was Mr. Carlock, my science teacher. He was really really important. And I was not studying at school. I didn’t see any reason to study. I was just kind of a goof-off. And what got me interested in studying is Mr. Carlock gave me interesting projects and showed me how studying was the pathway to a goal.
And then there was Jim the contractor. I'd been out in the field and he’d seen my drawings and he’d seen some of my work and he sought me out.
So this brings up another really important thing. And that important thing is to show your work. See the way I used to sell jobs, and when I was in high school sign painting, is to simply show pictures of my signs. I learned to sell my work and I made a portfolio of work. And they’d look at my work, my drawings, pictures of jobs. And when I was painting signs, that taught [me] really important work skills. And I showed my sign portfolio to an old sign painter at the Arizona State Fair and I painted signs for carnival attractions. Silly carnival attractions. But I was learning really important work skills doing that.
Marissa: When should parents start exposing their kids to these different interests?
Dr. Grandin: I got involved in the cattle industry because I got exposed to it as a teenager. I think a lot of kids today aren’t getting exposed to enough stuff. Why would I draw a picture of a horse head if I hadn’t seen a horse? And kids are not getting out and getting exposed to enough stuff.
I was at an autism school the other day, and I heard about a teenager who took a lawnmower apart while the teacher was gone and then he put it all back together again. He's 18. He needs to be working in a shop.
Instead of rewarding him with video games, let's buy him a tool chest. An empty tool chest and you're going to earn tools. Because what's been found with some of these video game addicts, there's been three cases where the video games were successfully replaced with car mechanics. And I’m talking serious car mechanics, taking engines apart. Not just lube jobs. And all three of the adults found that motors were a lot more interesting than video games were.
But you have to do it slowly. This kid needs to be rewarded with slowly building up his tool chest. And he’s going to become a mechanic. And I think a lot of his behavior problems are going to stop because he knows that if he throws a wrench, that absolutely will not be tolerated. You’re going to have to behave like a grown-up in the shop. It’s just that simple.
[Reading chat] 3-year-old is having a meltdown.
Sometimes kids just have tantrums. You know when the kid gets older some of the things that cause meltdowns is sensory overload. Like if it happens in the middle of a busy Walmart, that’s probably sensory overload. They’re frustrated because they can't communicate. Got to give them away to communicate.
Sign language. Picture board. You know, a fancy communication device. A text messaging on a tablet, but something to communicate with.
And then sometimes a nonverbal individual is learning how to talk, but an older nonverbal individual can't tell you if he has a hidden painful medical problem. Like a tummy ache. Earache. Tooth infection. A urinary tract infection. Sometimes there's a lot of bad behaviors caused by a hidden medical problem. A simple medical problem that just needs to be treated. And there’s a tendency sometimes for doctors to say, “oh that’s just autism,” when really the problem is acid reflux…
Sensory issues are a big issue now. One of the things that can help a kid tolerate a sound is if the kid can control it. I’ve had a talk with a parent where a kid went from hating the vacuum cleaner to loving it when he got to play with it. He could turn it on and off. Same thing with hair dryers or car horns. Let the kid control it.
Another thing is with the headphones. If you wear the headphones all the time, it's going to make the sensitivity worse. But what you want to do is let the child have control. Have [headphones] with you all the time, but then try not to wear them all the time. But they're there with you for those really horrible noisy places.
Marissa: From Karen, “My autistic teenager wants to live on a ranch and be a scientist when she grows up. Sound familiar? What practical advice can you offer for how to get from the stress and social isolation that she's feeling in high school right now to this life of her dreams?”
Dr. Grandin: Well, high school was the worst part of my life. And the only place I had friends was friends who shared interests. And we had a model rocket club and an electronics club. And then my other big thing was everything with horses. Riding horses. I ran our school's horse barn.
Electronics club and model rocket club, those were places where there were no bullies. Get involved with things with friends who share interests. It could be a robotics club. You get really good at what you do.
I can tell you going to the cattle industry in the 70s, being a woman was a much bigger barrier than autism. Autism was like a nonissue, being a woman was a gigantic issue. And they really did put bull testicles on my vehicle like they show in the movie. That actually happened.
Marissa: Love it! We’ll turn it over here for some live Q&A. Thank you so much everyone for your patience! We'll start off here with Summer.
Summer: Thank you so much, Temple, Ms. Grandin, for being here. I would love to hear what you consider to be some of the inherent gifts of autism and what can the neurotypical community learn from people who have autism?
Dr. Grandin: My book, The Autistic Brain, presents some of the science behind object visualizers like me that think in pictures. The HBO movie showed very nicely how I think in pictures. And the things I'm good at —art, mechanical stuff, animals, and photography.
Then the mathematical kids [are] good at computer programming, mathematics, chemistry, physics.
Now, the kind of stuff I can't do is algebra. I'm very concerned that my kind of mind who’d be very good at skilled trades, is getting screened out because of algebra requirements. And I’ve talked to older people that have businesses. Big shops. Well, they were allowed to take business math for running their business instead of algebra.
And then you have your word thinkers. This is the autistic kid that knows all the historical facts about something he’s interested in. Or all kinds of stuff about sports teams and they are definitely not interested in mathematics or mechanics or any of that kind of stuff.
They’d be really good at specialized retail, like working in the phone store or working where they can sell cars. There have been big successes with people on the spectrum selling cars. Very big successes. They'll know every feature of every car out on the lot and people appreciate that. And they also don't try to sell the whole lot. A good salesman picks out the right car for the right person. Or the right phone or right printer. Whatever the thing is they are selling. Specialized retail is what that would be.
Marissa: Clarissa, ready for your question?
Clarissa: Yes, I'm a young adult on the spectrum and my special interest is psychology. I have a bachelor's degree in it. And I've been considering going back and working towards becoming a therapist. How did you handle grad school? What were the struggles?
Dr. Grandin: I can tell you one of my biggest struggles, math. And I'm very concerned right now that some of the talented people we need for a lot of things, building stuff and things like that, can’t do algebra.
And I've often thought, what would I do if someone waved the magic wand and I am 18. Can’t do algebra. Flunking out of school but I have the knowledge I have now. And the knowledge I have now, I’d get a laborer job in a big corporation. Very very easy to work up. You have to pay your dues. But you can work your way up really quickly without the degree.
Now you can’t do that in things that require a degree like psychology but the thing I’ve found in engineering. I’ve done tons of engineering, but I had to be very, very careful never to use that title. Always wrote livestock handling consultant and then the drafting person, who took a one-semester community college class, always signed his letters as a draftsman.
I can’t use the title of a licensed professional but let me tell you, I've done a ton of engineering. Steel and concrete work. Tons of it. Drawing the drawings for it and I've had to correct drawings that the engineering firm did for concrete work and they didn't draw in the reinforcement rods correctly. I did that and I penciled that drawing in and I said take that drawing back to that fancy engineering company and they need to draw the rebar in there correctly because it's ridiculous.
And you go look at big engineering projects. You've got, what I call the clever engineering department. These are the ones who barely graduated high school but their patenting stuff. These are the ones that we're losing. We need them.
Clarissa: Well, my question is that because so many autistic job programs are focused on things like technology and all of those things, how should a young adult on the spectrum go about exploring a career that does not fit one of these?
Dr. Grandin: Well there's a lot of careers. Actually, some people on the spectrum are very good at sales. I gave a talk this summer to a big bank. Great big bank company and they have two autistic salesmen for high-end financial products. This has nothing to do with technology. But the verbal thinkers know all the ins and outs of fancy financial products. I don’t even understand. And they told me they were very good at sales. A sales job because sales social is a very structured kind of social. You can easily learn that. And selling very specialized things, that's not technology. And that's something that a person on the spectrum can often be very good at, selling something specialized.
Or just working in a store. I know a guy who’s got a Ph.D. I've known him for years. He's my age. He works at a large retail store. He’s been there for 30 years. Maybe under-employed but kept the job. Has health insurance. Selling a retail product. He's valued for his knowledge of the products.
And one of the things I've talked about right now is getting exposed to enough things to find out what you might want to do. I talked to big corporations about different kinds of minds. Visual thinkers like art, design, mechanics, mathematicians for computers, chemistry, and physics, and then you need the word thinkers. They help organize everything. And the different kinds of minds can be complementary skills.
Desiree: Hi Ms. Grandin, what do you think about your mom? I've wondered (and I know that speaking with other parents that we wonder is) are our kids going to resent us for pushing so hard?
Dr. Grandin: I think they're going to thank you in the future. They’ll be mad at the time, but thank you.
Now there’s a scene in the movie where the boss throws the deodorant down and says, “you stink, use it.” Secretary took me shopping.Those scenes happened. They happened. I thank that boss now.
I think in the future they will thank you. When they get out in some job they really like, doing things they really like, they're going to thank you for doing it.
Desiree: I have two children on the spectrum and they're fairly young.
Dr. Grandin: How old?
Desiree: 5 and 4.
Dr. Grandin: Ok, their little kids. And I have to ask that. I have to talk about little kids stuff, that’s like under 5. Elementary school. High school. And adults. There’s like four categories.
Desiree: We’re in the process of getting the IEP for my older son who's going into kindergarten and we've been fighting with the school district and all that kind of stuff. And these days, whenever it gets really hard, I always go back to the movie at the very end, when your character stands up and says that without her, without your mom, you wouldn't be where you are.
Dr. Grandin: Probably wouldn’t have been. See that’s the thing. She had a very good sense of just how much to push me. Like making sure when I was in college I did a different internship. I was an aide for an autistic kid one summer. I worked in a research lab another summer. Mother helped facilitate those things. It was all back door.
Marissa: Temple, thank you so much. Everyone, great questions tonight. Thank you so much!