Kate Andrews photo
Here's the main difference between Temple Grandin's brain and most other people's: "My mind works like Google for images," says the esteemed animal scientist.
Grandin is probably the most famous person diagnosed with autism in the United States today — she is the author of many books about the disorder, as well as her work with cattle. An HBO movie that aired this year ( see video below ), starring Claire Danes as Grandin, depicted her teenage years and early adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s.
As those who watched Temple Grandin know, she wears Western shirts and jeans most of the time, her short, wavy hair brushed back from her face. Now her hair is more gray than brown, but at age 62, Grandin is immediately recognizable.
She spoke at an April autism conference in Richmond, an event so packed that organizers had to bring in more chairs for attendees. Grandin pulled no punches, discussing how she is "horrified" by children as young as 5 being put on "heavy-duty drugs," as well as "Asperger's [being] used as an excuse for bad behavior."
Struggle for Stability
As a child in the 1950s, Grandin says she had good manners drilled into her head, learning to show up on time, say please and thank you, and do things that please others. "We're not being strict enough on some of these things," she says.
As a result of relaxed standards, fewer people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome — the mildest point on the autism spectrum — are finding work as adults, Grandin says. And many are capable of doing fine work, she adds.
"The thing about the autistic mind," she says, "it tends to be really good at one thing and really bad at another." She advises that teachers and parents always "encourage the strength," which often emerges around third or fourth grade.
Grandin is a visual, or photo-realistic, learner; she used as an example church steeples. Most of us see a generalized steeple in our minds, but Grandin envisions specific steeples she has seen in person or in a book.
In the HBO film, which used some of her own drawings, Grandin's engineering talent is apparent as she builds a curved corral for cattle, keeping them calm as they are headed for slaughter; she envisions precise measurements of the corral in her mind. Yet, Grandin says, she was poor at algebra in school because there was nothing to see in her head, unlike geometry or trigonometry.
Among her suggestions to the audience, which was filled with teachers and parents of autistic children, Grandin recommended teaching concepts with concrete examples, such as counting pennies or some other physical thing.
She also suggests categorizing behavior problems; a tantrum can have different causes, Grandin notes. A nonverbal child may be frustrated because he can't communicate a need, or there may be an undiagnosed physical ailment like acid-reflux disease, constipation or a yeast infection. Sometimes a child is simply throwing a tantrum to get out of doing something she doesn't like.
Above all, Grandin says, "You've got to fill up the Internet in your kid's head. You've got to show them interesting things." She also recommends limiting TV or video games to an hour a day and including "lots of vigorous exercise." Paper routes, walking dogs and shoveling snow are excellent part-time jobs for teenagers with Asperger syndrome, Grandin adds.
Although she has been on antidepressants since her 30s, Grandin is cautious about drug prescriptions. She recommends trying one new treatment at a time to see if it works; often, a child will go on a new drug and start a new behavioral treatment at the same time, making it difficult for doctors to know which one is causing improvement. And parents need to be mindful of drug interactions and slight differences between brands.
No-carbs and no-gluten diets "work for some," and Grandin recommends trying out both traditional and nontraditional treatments, just to see what works for the individual.
Autism, she says, is "very variable."