Autism & animal welfare activist Temple Grandin

A leader of the autism advocacy movement, Grandin shares some of her own experiences with the disorder, as detailed in her book, The Autistic Brain.

Temple Grandin is one of the world’s most accomplished and well-known adults with autism and has inspired people around the world. She's an animal science professor at Colorado State, whose insights into animal behavior and innovations in livestock handling have revolutionized food-animal welfare. Diagnosed with autism as a child, Grandin is the author of several best-selling books and, in 2010, was the subject of an Emmy-winning HBO biopic and named one of TIME's 100 most influential people. In her book, The Autistic Brain, she draws, in part, on her own experience to increase public understanding of the challenges faced by people on the autism spectrum.


Tavis: Challenging the conventional wisdom that puts limitations on those within the autistic spectrum has been part of Temple Grandin’s life and work for more than two decades now, along with her advocacy for the humane treatment of animals.

Temple Grandin has championed an inclusive approach to those diagnosed with autism urging parents and teachers to rethink placing preconceived barriers on achievement. Currently a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, Grandin has just written a new text about the latest cutting edge brain science as well as practical advice for those coping with autism.

The book is called “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.” Professor Grandin, I am honored to have you on this program. Thank you for coming on today.

Temple Grandin: It’s great to be here.

Tavis: Let me start by asking – I want to get right into it and ask what is the latest good news about autism?

Grandin: Well, autism’s a very big spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, Einstein would probably be labeled autistic, no language delayed (inaudible), Steve Jobs, half of Silicon Valley, you know, Van Gogh. And at the other end of the spectrum, you got much more severe handicaps where they never learn to speak.

Now when kids are really little, they all look the same. No speech, no social relatedness, cannot emphasize enough the importance of early educational intervention. At least 20 hours a week working with a teacher, teaching turn-taking, teaching words.

But it’s a very, very big spectrum and there’s no black and white dividing line between mild autism and maybe just being socially awkward.

Tavis: Is there good news, though, in the research about how we’re doing treating autism?

Grandin: Well, research is very clear on the importance of really early intervention with these kids. That’s very, very clear.

One of the places where research is needed is all the sensory problems. And you get sensory problems not just with autism, but with dyslexia, learning problems, ADHD, attention deficit, you know, things like sound sensitivity, problems with fluorescent lighting.

This is one area that needs to have a lot of research. And in “The Autistic Brain,” I got a whole big chapter just on dealing with sensory problems.

Tavis: You talk in this book and have made the point many times that parents and others ought to see autism as a gift and not as a curse, not as a challenge. Tell me what you mean by that.

Grandin: Well, at the milder end of the spectrum, there can be some real advantages. Now at the more severe end of the spectrum, you can have a child that remains nonverbal, cannot participate in any normal events like going to a restaurant because it’s too noisy.

See, it’s a very big huge spectrum. And if all the autistic traits were eliminated, we probably would have never even had a TV station here because it’s the people that are kind of socially awkward that invented TV in the first place.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. Tell me how much of what you’ve learned has to do with your own personal journey being autistic.

Grandin: Well, when I was younger, I didn’t even realize the way I think visually is different. None of the books were available when I was younger. There’s so many things available today, you know, support groups and things like that.

All I can say is, if there’s somebody out there watching that’s got a little kid that’s nonverbal, the worst thing you can do is to just do nothing. I recommend joining a local support group immediately and, if you can’t afford early intervention, then get some grandmothers, get some students.

But the worst thing you can do is nothing. You know, play a little turn-taking games. You want to try and get these kids talking if you can.

Tavis: You were nonverbal until what age?

Grandin: I was nonverbal until I was four years old. Back in the 50s, I was the kind of kid they used to just put away in an institution. But then you get the milder autism where there’s no speech delay, but they’re socially awkward. Those kids were around when I was a child. They were just called geeks and nerds.

What helped them was social rules being pounded in. In the 50s and 60s, kids were taught how to shake hands. They were taught how to have manners. There needs to be a lot more of that kind of stuff because the autistic mind doesn’t pick up social things and subtle cues. They got to just be taught. If somebody’s rolling their eyes, they’re obviously not happy with what you’re doing.

Tavis: I assume – and I use the word assume very carefully. I assume that you must be happy with all of the media attention that has been devoted of late to autism, but there might be some aspect of that that you find troubling. Is there?

Grandin: Well, when you get on the milder end of the spectrum, we’re seeing a lot of kids that are much milder than me, where they have no speech delay and they’re totally getting hung up on their autism. So people on the autistic spectrum tend to get fixated on what they think.

Well, when I was young, it was things like kites and airplanes. When I was older, it was things like cattle chutes. And I’d rather see a kid get fixated on something they can turn into a career.

I’d rather have a kid come up to me and tell me that he loves dinosaurs or he loves airplanes or he likes training dogs or I like Shakespeare. I mean, just something. And these kids get fixated and what you want to do is take these fixations and build on them. If he likes trains, let’s read about trains. Let’s do math with trains.

You know, broaden that out because I’m seeing too many smart kind of socially awkward kids, a lot milder than I was, not getting employment because they’re not learning job skills. When I was 13, my mother got me a little sewing job. When I was 15, I was cleaning horse stalls. When I was in college, I did some internships where I had to rent my house with another person.

Tavis: How are we doing as a society developing these kinds of solutions for parents?

Grandin: Well, things have gotten a whole lot better for the individuals on the more severe end of the spectrum. There’s all kinds of services available for that. But I’m seeing too many kind of socially awkward kids that get through schools and then they can’t hold a job because they haven’t learned the discipline of get up in the morning.

You know, the people that were socially awkward from my generation, they all had paper routes and that taught them the discipline of work. And when it comes to social skills, get them involved with shared interests.

The only places where I was not bullied and teased in high school was with doing shared interests like electronics and horseback riding. Get kids involved where they’re doing an activity where the ability is appreciated.

Tavis: Does bullying – this question might sound simple and stupid. Let me ask it anyway. It won’t be the first time I asked a question that was simple or stupid. But does bullying and teasing kids who are autistic in any way set them back?

Grandin: Oh, yes. I can remember being bullied and teased. It was absolutely horrible. I got kicked out of ninth grade for throwing a book at a girl who teased me. It was absolutely terrible. There’s some of these high school kids, they need to be mainstreamed in elementary school.

But then when they’re teased to death in high school, probably the best thing to do would be let them finish up online. But they need to start learning those work skills. This is where I’m really seeing problems.

Us visual thinkers like me, be good at things like industrial design, graphics, art, those kind of jobs. Or this other kind of mind, the mathematicians, well, there are your computer programmers.

I mean, half of Silicon Valley’s got a little bit of autism. And then you have the guys that are word thinkers. They might be good at certain journalism jobs and they’re very good with words. We gotta start teaching word skills so they can get out and get employed.

Tavis: So how did animals become your love?

Grandin: Well, that all started out in high school and I became absolutely infatuated with horses, showing my horse, and the animals were a refuge away from teasing, away from all the horrible social stuff. And I had friends that also rode horses. That’s where my friends were.

Tavis: Do we know anything – I shouldn’t say anything. What do we know about who autism strikes? Are there certain profiles of families or kids or…

Grandin: It’s genetic mainly, but is a complicated genetics. And the more you sort of roll the dice, you know, where let’s say you have a family history, you got some learning problems, you got some epilepsy, maybe some ADHD, maybe some autism. Then the more you kind of roll the dice on both sides of the family, you’re more likely to get, you know, severely autistic kids.

In fact, there are autism clusters, you know, around some of the big tech centers. You take two socially awkward computer programmers and put them together, that can kind of concentrate the autistic genes. The genetics is very complicated. You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of little code variations in genes involved with brain development. It’s not a simple genetics.

Tavis: But there’s no – I take it there’s no way for the folk – since you mentioned Silicon Valley a few times, I assume there’s no way for the folk in Silicon Valley to know this before they find a partner?

Grandin: No, there isn’t. No, there’s no tests or anything they can do for that. It’s just that, you know, you take somebody – one person has definitely got autism, you got another person that maybe has some of those traits and maybe there’s some anxiety, depression, some epilepsy or something in the family history.

Put them together, you’re more likely to have a severely autistic kid than if you don’t have any neurological problems in the family history.

Tavis: Our scientific gains, you know, amaze me. By leaps and bounds, we are learning some of everything about some of everything. Are you hopeful in your lifetime that the science on autism is going to be much farther along than it is right now?

Grandin: Well, yes. And I think that the definition of autism is too broad. You got to remember, autism definition is a behavioral profiling. In “The Autistic Brain,” Richard Panek and I review a whole history of the autism diagnosis and it’s changed over the years.

You know, these diagnostic profiles like depression, ADHD, autism, dyslexia, it’s half science and the other half is a committee of doctors bickering over what it should be, and it has changed. It’s not precise like a diagnosis of tuberculosis would be very precise.

And I think they’re gonna find that, you know, autism is gonna kind of break up in some component parts. You know, the fully verbal ones, the social circuits in the brain are not working right. Some of the nonverbal ones, they’re more socially normal, but they’re living in a world of total sensory jumbling.

One of the big areas I’d like to see a lot more research done on is the sensory problems, and it’s real variable. One kid’s got sound sensitivity; another one can’t tolerate fluorescent lights. I can’t stand scratchy clothes.

Tavis: I like your clothes, by the way.

Grandin: Well, thank you.

Tavis: I assume you have a bunch of these shirts with these designs. This one’s different than the one on the book, obviously, so you have a bunch of these shirts made?

Grandin: Well, a lot of my shirts are gifts. The one on the cover of the book, my sister gave to me. That’s a very special – that’s a Ralph Lauren shirt. This one I got on a trip to Thailand. I’m working on the McDonald’s animal welfare auditing and there’s a wonderful store there that makes custom shirts.

Tavis: But the red bandana is always present, though.

Grandin: Well, or some other color bandana.

Tavis: Some other color bandana, okay. I got it [laugh]. Let me close by asking you to set your modesty aside for just a second because it is amazing to me, and I revel in this, that as one who is autistic, you were at the forefront of the research being done about autism. That’s a big deal.

Grandin: Well, one of the things I want to do is be a decent role model. I’ve got a lot of emails and stuff from children. They look up to me. Kids get different labels and things like that and I want those kids to succeed.

You know, I’m seeing too many kids where they get fixated on their own autism. I’d rather have them get fixated that they like programming computers or they like art or they want to sing in the church choir or they want to train dogs, you know, something that they can turn into a career.

Autism’s an important part of who I am, but I’m a college professor and an animal scientist first. And I wouldn’t want to change ’cause I like the logical way I think.

But my life – autism’s an important part of it, but it bothers me when I see kids where autism and their autism is the only thing they think about. I’d rather have them think about, you know, some art work they were gonna do or some science they wanted to do.

Tavis: I could have started our conversation here. Let me close our conversation with this. I love this name, Temple Grandin. How did you get that name, Temple Grandin?

Grandin: It’s an old family surname.

Tavis: I like that Temple.

Grandin: Well, thank you.

Tavis: That’s cool [laugh]. Temple Grandin is her name. The book is called “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.” I’m honored to have had you on this program. Thank you.

Grandin: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 8, 2013 at 9:45 pm