'We have to start figuring out what a person can do': Temple Grandin on dealing with autism

World-renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin was in Vancouver recently to give a talk at the Pacific National Exhibition about developing individuals with different minds, an event hosted by Autism B.C.

World-renowned animal scientist was in Vancouver for a one night talk on autism

Temple Grandin was in Vancouver recently to give a talk called Developing Individuals with Different Minds, an event hosted by Autism B.C. (Courtesy Temple Grandin)

World-renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin was in Vancouver recently to give a talk at the Pacific National Exhibition about developing individuals with different minds, an event hosted by Autism B.C.

Grandin didn't speak until she was three and a half years old. Now, she's a best-selling author, public speaker and advocate for people living with autism.

The Early Edition's Stephen Quinn spoke with Grandin about cultivating the autistic mind.

For people listening who might not know much about it, can you describe what it's like to live with autism?

Well, autism varies from Einstein — who didn't talk till he was three  — to somebody who never learned to dress themselves. If you have a two or three-year-old who's not talking, you've got to start working with this child right now.

The thing with autism is some of the social circuits don't get hooked up. So, in the milder forms, you might have circuits in the brain that can do math or art really well, but they're socially awkward. So, you have to teach the child how to do social rules, like shaking hands and the distance you stand from others.

Develop the child's strengths. Take that thing they're good at and develop and expand that.

What were your biggest challenges growing up?

I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk.

When I was a teenager getting bullied was just terrible. The only place I was not bullied was with those friends who shared interests like electronics lab or riding horses.

Tell me about your journey to becoming such a world-renowned animal scientist?

When I was 15, I had a chance to go to my aunt's ranch, which brings up a really important thing: people get interested in careers they're exposed to. I was exposed to the cattle industry when I was 15 years old.

Many people look up to you as an inspiration. What has helped you to be able to use autism as an advantage?

Well, I had some very good mentors starting with my mother, my science teacher in high school and my elementary school teacher. There was a very good person who approached me about designing handling facilities for cattle.

So it's about having great mentors.

Do people realize the advantages of hiring people on the autism spectrum and how beneficial it is to have someone with a different brain working in an organization? Is that finally being recognized?

It's being recognized and you wouldn't even have a radio station if it weren't for the autistic brains that invented radio in the first place.

I think what's harder now is social skills aren't taught in the same structured way that they were taught in my generation in the 50s and 60s.

What message do you have for parents who may have just discovered that one of their kids has autism? 

The problem with autism is it goes from a Silicon Valley computer programing guy who has never been diagnosed to somebody who never learned to dress themselves, and it all has the same label. But the first thing you have to do is teach basic skills.

There are different kinds of minds. Some people are visual thinkers. Another kid is going to be a pattern thinker and another one a word thinker. We have to start figuring out what a person can do. And this is true for all things involving disability.

This interview was edited for clarity; you can listen to the full interview below.

The Early Edition's Stephen Quinn spoke with Grandin about fostering the autistic mind. 7:14

Read more from CBC British Columbia

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.