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Autism can be an advantage, says leading expert

Dr Temple Grandin claims the condition has helped in her professional life

Dr Temple Grandin
Dr Temple Grandin

Dr Temple Grandin, an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, was diagnosed with autism as a child.

"I did not talk until I was age four... I was bullied and teased in high school. That was the worst part of my life," she told Scotland Tonight.

Now, a leading authority on autism, Dr Grandin addressed a conference in Glasgow, where she urged a crowd of teachers, social workers, employers and parents to focus on what people with autism can do, rather than what they can't.

Here is an edited transcript of her interview.

Rona Dougall: What was your message to today's conference?

Temple Grandin: I want to see people that learn differently, people that might be labelled with autism getting good jobs. I am a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. I've designed major systems for handling livestock all over the US and in Europe and other countries. One of the things I discussed today is how different people think. Some people think visually. They can be really good at a skilled trade and we have a huge shortage of plumbers, electricians, mechanics and welders. They might be good at maths, engineering, computer programming. Or maybe a word thinker, really good at sales of specialty products.

Rona: You think it is about finding the skills and the positives of people who have got autism?

Temple: That is absolutely right because the skills tend to be uneven. Good at one thing, bad at something else. Like when I designed the cattle handling facilities, I could visualise the whole system in my mind. In fact I have a website, a number of books on livestock handling and I've had a very good career in that.

Rona: So you don't think it should necessarily be regarded as a disadvantage?

Temple: Autism in the milder forms, where the person is fully verbal, can give some advantages in specialised areas like computer programming, engineering, graphic design, photography and skilled trades. High end skilled trades like plumbing, electrical, mechanics and these are good jobs too that are not gonna get replaced by computers.

Rona: How do you define and diagnose autism?

Temple: In the milder forms I think it's just a personality variant. In the more severe forms, where the individual remains nonverbal, that is definitely a disability. But in the milder forms, a brain could be more thinking or a brain can be more social and emotional. You make a brain more thinking then you might have some extra circuits back here for maths, music maybe graphic design or making things.

Rona: How important do you think  it's for people to get diagnosed? There must be lots of people who go through life never being diagnosed. Is that a problem?

Temple: I have grandparents come up to me all the time that are in skilled trades, tech industry, computer industry, who find out they are autistic, they are socially awkward, after the kids get diagnosed. One of the problems we have today is social skills are not taught in the same rigid way they were taught to me in the 50s. Kids were taught to shake hands, taught to eat correctly. What is happening today, since social skills are not taught in the same rigid way they were taught to everybody in the 50s, the kid that's kind of socially awkward doesn't get it. They've got to learn it like being in a play.

Rona: And you were diagnosed with autism at quite a young age...

Temple: I did not talk until I was age four and so as a little kid, it was obvious I was really messed up when I was a little kid. No speech, I got really good early intensive speech therapy. They had to teach me how to take turns and I was in a regular elementary school, bullied and teased in high school. That was the worst part of my life. I got kicked out of ninth grade for fighting. And then I went to special school and they put me to work running a horse barn. Big problem with a lot of these kids today is they are not learning how to work. And that needs to start before they graduate from high school. With dog walking for 11 year olds, church volunteer jobs, learn how to do a task on a schedule outside the home. Then when they get older, real jobs. Maybe working in a shop.

Rona: When you were bullied at school, that must have been very tough...

Temple: It was terrible. 

Rona:  Was that because you were regarded as different? 

Temple: Yes, I was different. So they called me tape recorder, I worked in the horse barns so they would call me work horse. Just nasty things that they called me. And the only place where I had friends was where there's a shared interest. Riding horses together, doing electronic projects together. Shared interests.

Rona: So you got past that. How has it shaped the rest of your life?

Temple: I'm an extreme visual thinker, so in my work in animal behaviour, it seemed obvious to me to look at what cattle were seeing. I noticed cattle going up a raceway would stop at a coat on a fence. Stop at a mud puddle. At the Kentucky Derby, the horse moved off a puddle and got disqualified. Animals notice visual distractions. And being a visual thinker helped me in my design work.

Rona: So it's turned out to be a real positive for you? I did read somewhere that you had said if the autism could have been taken away from you, you would want to keep it.

Temple: I like the logical way I think. We need visual thinkers because visual thinkers are really good at a lot of things that mathematical thinkers are not good at. Let's take something like the iPhone. It is easy to use because Steve jobs was an artist and he developed an interface that was easy to use. The more mathematically inclined engineer had to make the phone actually work. That is the different minds working together.

Rona: Your contribution to animal science is amazing. Do you think enough is done to try and understand what people with autism want to achieve in life? Or do you think they are disregarded in a way?

Temple: Autism is a very broad spectrum. Einstein probably had autism. Tesla, the inventor of the power plant, probably had autism. There's a whole lot of famous people that probably had it, especially in science and music. And what would happen to some of these big innovators if they had been in today's educational system? Thomas Edison was probably autistic. I've read a biography on him. And he was described when he was in school as a hyperactive adult, high school dropout.

Rona: Do you think the children that are in school at the moment, should they all be in the mainstream, do you feel? You said when you went to a different school, you flourished...

Temple: It depends on the severity. I think the fully verbal ones need to be, but then you have some nonverbal with very severe problems. The diagnosis is not precise, it is not precise like a diagnosis with tuberculosis where you either have it or you don't have it. And you've got autism diagnoses for someone who can't talk, has epilepsy and all kinds of other health issues to engineers in Silicon Valley. I have been out to Silicon Valley, the people that run those tech companies. Well, the artistic brain, actually a book called the Artistic Brain, well, they made computers to start with.

Rona: And you are seen as the kind of poster girl of autism. Are you happy with that title?

Temple: Well I want to help people to get good jobs. And one of the reasons I am pushing skilled trades like plumbing, electrical, mechanics to fix cars, trains, airplanes and trucks, heating and air conditioning, and welding where you can read drawings, tons of jobs here and you're not going to get replaced by computers.

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