Temple Grandin, author, inventor, animal whisperer, and autistic icon delivered a message balanced with hope and honesty last night at the University of San Diego. More than 600 people were completely enraptured by the woman in her 60’s known best for her ability to understand animals (she was the subject of the 2006 HBO documentary, “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”).
Grandin grew up autistic and attributes her success to a devoted mother and dedicated teachers. As a world-renowned livestock behavior expert, she is living proof of what it is possible for autistic people to achieve and serves to inspire parents to invest in their children’s futures.
As a child, living with autism made life very difficult. She didn’t speak until three and a half, was mocked and bullied as an adolescent, and struggled to learn to navigate social interactions that were completely foreign to her. As an adult, however, she found her autism to be a great advantage. She credits her autism with her deep empathetic connection to animals and understanding of their nonverbal, sensory comprehension of the world. Her understanding of how animals receive and process sensory information enabled her to design humane cattle transportation systems that are currently used by more than half the cattle processing centers in America.
Temple Grandin is an excellent role model for people with autism, and she is a tireless advocate. In her talk last night, she delivered a twofold message. First, she detailed the differences between autistic and “normal” brains, using herself as an example.
“Parents must understand those differences to understand, for example, why a flickering light, a loud noise — or the click of a photographer’s camera — can be unbearable,” Grandin explained.
The other half of her message was an honest, unsentimental instruction for parents on how to train push their children to learn the social skills necessary for them to become independent adults. She warned that children who aren’t pushed to do things they don’t want to or are afraid of will not grow. Parents and teachers must present a united front because, she says, “autistic children are masters of manipulation.”
She urged parents to take advantage of information, services, and materials that are freely available to help educate their children. With all the free information online about schools, therapy, medication, and resources, she is frustrated by parents who don’t put in the work to access this information.
“I am appalled by the lack of resourcefulness. A parent came up to me and said, how do I find a college for my kid? Well, I got back home, I typed Ohio and colleges,” she stated unsentimentally to a laughing audience. “They had done no work.”
Temple Grandin’s honest delivery of a somewhat critical speech was met with cheers. The audience was a mix of fans of her work with autism and animals, and all gratefully accepted her message.
“The thing I’ve appreciated about Temple Grandin for many years is her unabashed honesty,” said Mary Lau, who works at a school that has autism spectrum children. “And from that, I can glean a lot about the autistic community and the education community in general.”