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Temple Grandin uses her autism to challenge societal ways of thinking

Grand vision



On one hand, Temple Grandin's points of focus — industrial design, animal welfare issues, and the autism she lives with — seem disconnected. But when you consider her beginnings, and what might have sunk in early on, they fit together nicely.

"The only place I could get away from teasing," Grandin says, was "horseback riding and the electronics lab. Kids who were interested in the specialized activities, did not do teasing."

Grandin, now 65, has come a long way from those challenging school years. She's been a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for more than two decades. She's found strengths through her autism that have allowed her to look at livestock handling in a very different way, and turned her into a consultant for many large food-industry corporations. She travels internationally, speaking primarily on autism and animal handling. Time magazine named her one of the Top 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.

Many people know her from the HBO biopic Temple Grandin, for which Claire Danes took the lead role and won a Golden Globe in 2011. The film's tagline, "Autism gave her a vision. She gave it a voice," exemplifies what Grandin says she's most proud of: "What makes me happy is when the things I do ... make the world a better place."

The Independent spoke with Grandin during a quick trip she made home to Fort Collins between presentations at autism and Asperger's syndrome conferences in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. Here we'll present, in her own words, some of the areas she's most passionate about — from her childhood, to the advantage autism can give some individuals, to scientific research, including a 33,000-plus-case National Institute of Mental Health study released last week showing a genetic link among autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

On her success

"My mother was always pushing me to do new things. She didn't just shove me into things, but when I was very young I had to put on my party dress and serve hors d'oeuvres at my mother's dinner parties, and shake hands with guests. That taught really important skills. ...

"I got kicked out of a large girls' school for throwing a book at a girl who teased me. I went to boarding school. First two years they didn't make me study, but, boy, did I learn how to work.

"I cleaned eight horse stalls every day. And I couldn't be a recluse in my room. I had to attend meals on time. Had to sit through classes, even though I didn't study. Had to get up in the morning, these basic skills. And then my great science teacher came along two years later, and that's where he got me turned around and he got me studying."

On education

"Well, you see the problem is it's all been taken over by the verbal thinkers. I think one of the worst things is that schools have gone ahead and taken out all the hands-on classes. Sewing, cooking, wood shop, metal shop, drafting, drawing, automobile shop — all the things that can teach skilled trades. Because right now we have a huge shortage in this country of skilled trades, things like certified welders, diesel mechanics, auto mechanics, machinists, people to fix electric wires.

"Now, I'm talking very skilled trades. Metal refinery technicians. I'm not talking about putting up Sheetrock. I'm talking about trades that go way above that.

"I think there are different kinds of minds, you see. Look at one country in this world that doesn't have a messed-up economy, and that's Germany. And they still do the [vocational education] stuff."

Without autism ...

"... You probably wouldn't have any Silicon Valley. You probably wouldn't have a phone to talk on now. Half of Silicon Valley's got a little bit of [an] autism trait. You take out some social circuits, you get geek circuits.

"Just a little bit of these traits give some advantage. You see, that's the thing. And too much of the trait, and you've got problems. When you look at creative writing, there was actually a study that was done years ago, 25 years ago. N.C. Andreasen did a study — in fact I quoted it in the first edition of Thinking in Pictures, and that was back in '95 — that the creative writers have more depression and the only writers that didn't have more depression were biographers."

On the new research

"Genetics is extremely complicated. Because basically it seems to be there are some shared genetics on the calcium channels — this is involved with brain development — between ADHD, autism, major depression, bipolar, schizophrenia. ... Now I've always thought there was a crossover, because some of the drugs cross over. Like, there's some individuals with autism that do well with ADHD drugs ...

"Another thing I've seen for years, and I've said this for years, is when you look at the family histories, often on both sides of the family you'll find some epilepsy, you'll find some depression, some anxiety, learning problems. You'll find other disorders. ...

"It makes total sense. But it's not like, 'Oh, we're gonna go in and do a DNA test now.' It's nowhere near that. Don't even think you're gonna go there."

On autism's 'spectrum'

"At one end you've got Steve Jobs and Einstein. At the other end you've got somebody who's very severely handicapped, and they have epilepsy on top of it and is not gonna be, you know, doin' high level work. But I'm seeing too many of these smart kids and kids a lot milder than me, they get a label and they sort of become a label. ...

"Half of Silicon Valley is on the spectrum. Half of the NASA space scientists are on the spectrum. Why don't you go look up the scientists that did the latest Mars rover? You got the Mohawk guy, the Elvis guy and the old hippie. They all sit in a row in the control room. There's a picture of them on the Internet that I found. All three of them together. ...

"Eccentric's OK. I want to say it: Eccentric's OK."

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