Temple Grandin is the „Rock Star” of the cattle industry and a Celebrity in the field of autism. In this interview she tells all, from the common mistakes people make to the biggest predictors of success.
Her new book „The Way I see it” has been cited by many as her best ever.
What age did you become verbal and what were you like as a child?
I had no speech at all until I was about 3 or 4 years old. At this age I wasn’t aware that I was different to anyone else. I remember being totally obsessed with election posters and I loved building things and flying kites.
How old were you when you realized you were different from everyone else?
I was an adolescent and it was a very painful period for me. Suddenly nobody was interested in the structured games we used to play and everything was purely social. Around 14 years old I was mercilessly teased and bullied. I didn’t understand the behaviors of my peers and I didn’t know how to fit in. So many things didn’t make sense to me like the way girls fawned over rock stars. Their behavior seemed ridiculous and I couldn’t relate to any of it.
Based on your experience, what are your recommendations for teenagers on the autism spectrum?
The one thing that benefitted me most was joining special interest groups. I found groups with shared interests like electronics and riding horses. This was my salvation! The kinds of people in these groups were like me. They weren’t the type of people that teased and bullied others. Teens should find their niche and join activities with common interests.
What are your thoughts on self stimulatory behavior?
People on the spectrum might need to engage in self stimulatory behavior but it should be controlled. As a youngster I liked to sift sand through my fingers. I would space out and liked to rock. I was allowed to do that for an hour after lunch but not for extended periods of time. This schedule taught me self control and kept me more productive than if I had been allowed to engage in these behaviors endlessly.
What’s a common mistake that many people make?
Many people can’t seem to differentiate between bad behavior and sensory issues. If a child walks into a supermarket and throws a fit every time it’s probably sensory. The supermarket is a large open space, it’s noisy, it echoes and it’s full of color. On the other hand, there is no excuse for bad behavior and bad manners. Having autism is not an excuse for being destructive, like being permitted to pull things off shelves. People should focus more on simple things like teaching manners and basic social rules. Being polite and knowing how to behave makes a big difference.
Are you close to your family?
I have very good relationships with my family. I have two younger sisters and a younger brother. We have very different personalities. As a child, my sister loved dressing like a princess and was very girly. I was just the opposite. Despite our differences we have always been very close.
Do you drive and what are your recommendations regarding people on the autism spectrum?
Yes I do drive. I think it’s difficult for many people on the autism spectrum to drive because there is so much going on at the same time and so much to pay attention to at once. For people on the spectrum who want to drive, I recommend a full year of driving on easy roads with no traffic before venturing out on freeways and busy intersections. Once you don’t have to think about steering, braking or pushing on the gas, it’s much easier to multitask on busy roads.
Do you have any accomplishments you’d like to mention? (Such as education, work achievements, personal accomplishments)
My biggest accomplishments are in the designing humane livestock facilities and in helping others with autism.
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: That’s all Temple had to say about her achievements! Her achievements are remarkable and I feel it’s necessary to share some of them here. Temple has a bachelors degree in psychology, a masters degree in Animal science and a PhD in Animal science. She is the „rock star” of the cattle industry and over half of the facilities in the USA use her designs and rely on her troubleshooting skills at their plant. Temple has been featured on major television programs, such as ABC’s Primetime Live, the Today Show, and Larry King Live, and written up in Time magazine, People magazine, Forbes, and the New York Times. She is considered a leader in animal welfare and autism advocacy. She is an excellent presenter and has written many books such as Emergence: Labeled Autistic, The Learning Style of People with Autism, Thinking in pictures, Developing Talents, Animals in Translation. Her newest book is called „The way I see it” and has been cited by many as her best book yet about the autism spectrum.
If you could change one thing about neurotypicals, what would it be?
I would like them to understand the sensory issues of people on the autism spectrum. These issues are very real and very debilitating. People on the autism spectrum can be greatly affected by sensory stimuli and it affects their ability to cope. Things like noises and textures can be very painful. Be understanding and help find ways for people with autism to cope with sensory challenges.
What are some of the sensory challenges you face?
My sensory challenges used to be far more severe but due to a variety of reasons, thankfully most of them have been reduced to minor nuisances. The school bell hurt my ears like a dentist drill and wearing clothes made of wool felt like torture. To this day, too much noise – even background noise makes me very tired. I am very sensitive to textures and there are many clothes I can’t wear. I’ve never been able to wear dresses because I don’t like the feeling of skin touching skin. I used to crave deep pressure and today I still find it very calming.
In your experience, what is one of the biggest predictors of success?
I have consistently noticed that successful people on the autism spectrum were given formal instruction when they were young. By this I mean that when a child is between the age of 10 and 16, parents should help their child build on a strength. If your child is good on the computer, teach him to program. If it’s art, teach graphic design skills. If they’re good with their hands, find a car engine, take it apart and let them put it back together. Job skills should start at a young age.
If you could advise parents about one thing, what would it be?
If your child is young make sure you get about 20 hours a week of intensive instruction. Concentrate on teaching language. It’s also important for children to learn manners, social graces and how to take turns. If your child is in their teens concentrate on behaviors that are important for keeping a job such as being on time and being responsible. Children can also learn these skills by taking on jobs like a newspaper route. This way whether it’s raining or sunshine, cold or hot, they learn to take responsibility and show up for work on time every day. If it’s appropriate, parents should try and teach their children some skills from their own jobs.
If you could advise teachers about one thing, what would it be?
People on the spectrum usually have uneven skills. They might be very poor at some things but they could be excellent at other things. You can work on the deficits but concentrate a LOT more on building strengths. Try and diversify the teaching and use as much visual instruction as possible. Expand on ideas and interests that children have. For example if a child loves drawing pictures of dinosaurs, slowly get them to increase their drawings with things that dinosaurs like to eat and where they live.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes. People place too much emphasis on Theory of Mind. I’ve never seen this affect anyone in a job or keeping a friend. With regards to empathy, people on the spectrum DO have empathy but they perceive events differently. Typical people don’t have empathy for sensory overload because they don’t experience it. If someone can’t go to a restaurant because of the noise, or can’t work because fluorescent light is disabling, this hinders your life. Adolescence was very difficult. I wish I knew that I didn’t need to know how to get along with teenagers, in order to deal with my life today. That all those people would have no bearing on my life in becoming a successful adult.