A Ph.D. with autism speaks


Hundreds of people are crowded into the Great Hall of the Governor’s Mansion to hear from a woman wrongly diagnosed at age 2 as being brain-damaged, later diagnosed with autism, and in 2010, named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

An animal science professor at Colorado State University, Temple Grandin, Ph.D., has designed livestock handling facilities around the world and worked as a consultant for McDonald’s and Burger King. She has written six books about either autism or animal husbandry. HBO made a movie about her life.

Autism – more accurately, autism spectrum disorder – appears during the first three years of life and is characterized by abnormal social and communication development. The causes are not known, and it can’t be detected medically.

During her presentation, Dr. Grandin bore her soul – actually, her brain – displaying scans showing the difference between her neural pathways and most people’s. She does not think in abstractions; rather, she thinks in pictures to create concepts. Growing up, for her to understand “up,” she needed to be shown “up” in action: up the stairs; a plane goes up. For her to learn social skills, she had to be shown exactly what to do in certain situations and why.

She has achieved great things not by overcoming her autism but by understanding it and using it to her advantage. The rest of the beef industry never wondered why cows that were herded through a straight chute ended up scared, stressed and bruised immediately before they went to market. She designed a more humane, curved chute through which half of the cattle in American slaughterhouses now pass. A visual thinker, she saw what the cows saw, and cows are comforted by curves.

The percentage of Americans diagnosed with autism has been increasing rapidly in recent years. According to Autism Speaks, one in 88 children are now affected, which raises some questions. Do more children have autism than in the past? Are environmental or other factors causing the increase? Is the condition simply being diagnosed more often, or misdiagnosed, or overdiagnosed?

During an interview after her presentation, Grandin said the increase could be caused by a combination of all of that. She does see a downside. Some kids diagnosed with autism may not have it. The condition contains the word “spectrum” for a reason: It encompasses a wide range of abilities – from the completely nonverbal, as Grandin was early in life, to the highly skilled, as she became later.

“I’m seeing an awful lot of kids that I would just call geeks and nerds and a little bit shy get a label,” she said. “I get worried that some of those kids (will have) a label holding them back because a lot of teachers that are very good at working with the real severe kids, they don’t know how to shift gears to work with the geeks and the nerds. And one thing I really don’t want to see is a kid that ought to be going to Silicon Valley be put in the gifted and science program back there with the nonverbals in a classroom.”

Regardless of the label, Grandin said children with developmental problems need early intervention. She succeeded because she got help at a young age and was exposed to supportive teachers who fostered her skills in art and science. Children with autism can learn, but they learn differently. Hands-on activities, cooking to understand measurements, slicing a pizza to understand fractions – these work best for such visual thinkers.

Grandin didn’t realize what made her different until she was well into adulthood and was involved in a group session where someone asked attendees to draw a church steeple. Everyone else drew representations of steeple concepts, which is not how her mind works. You say “steeple,” she thinks of a specific one. Always.

“I go, ‘Wow. Other people don’t think the way I do,’” she said in the interview. “And when I was in my 20s, I thought everybody thought the way I do. I didn’t know my thinking was different. But everyone thinks that until you question how other people think.”

Can all of us achieve more by understanding our own thought processes and using what we have rather than mourning what we lack?

One of the world’s most influential people would think so.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com