At the age of three, Temple Grandin could barely get out a full sentence and doctors diagnosed her with autism, advising her parents that she should be institutionalized. Now the esteemed animal scientist can charm a roomful of people with stories and advice for others who have been given the same diagnosis. Grandin, who was portrayed in the 2010 motion picture "Temple Grandin" and who is the author of the book "The Autistic Brain," spoke recently at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington D.C.
Afterward, Grandin -- who turns 67 today -- sat down with HuffPost Science for a wide-ranging interview that touched on everything from where she gets her inspiration, to advice for parents of children with autism, to modern-day society's obsession with computer and television screens.
What follows is a condensed and lightly edited version of the discussion.
Macrina Cooper-White: Can you describe your earliest memories?
Temple Grandin: As a little kid I couldn’t talk and that was very frustrating. I went into a very good early educational treatment, very similar to what’s being done today.
MC: How did your parents and teachers help you?
TG: When I got a little older in elementary school it became obvious that I was good at art, and my ability was always encouraged.
"There really are different kinds of minds and they can work together."
When I got to high school, that was a disaster for me. But I had a great science teacher. He got me turned around, got me studying. For some kids, regular high school works out really well because the kids get into things -- they get into art, or a school play. Then those places serve as refuges. I think one of the worst things schools have done is taken out all of the stuff like art, music, woodworking, sewing, cooking, welding, auto-shop. All these things you can turn into careers. How can you get interested in these careers if you don’t try them on a little bit?
MC: How have you managed to be so successful while many other people with autism have trouble?
TG: Mother knew just kind of how hard to push me. Then, when I got out in the cattle industry, I had a lot of problems. Being a girl in the seventies, going into a man’s industry, that was really very difficult. But there were some people that helped me. There was a contractor that helped me get started. There was my boss, who said, "It’s okay to be eccentric, but you can’t be a slob."
MC: Can you speak more about "being a girl in a man's industry?"
TG: When I started in the seventies in the cattle feed yards, the only women were secretaries in the office. There were no women working in the yards.
MC: Was that discouraging?
TG: Well, this is maybe where being autistic helped, because I had an iron will. I got chucked out of the Scottsdale Feedyard because the cowboys’ wives wouldn’t like it that I was there. And what people call sexual harassment today was nothing compared to what I went through. Being a girl was the hardest thing, and one of the things I had to do was be like five times better than a guy. And what got people to take me seriously was when I’d show them my drawings.
MC: Do you have advice for parents of children with autism?
TG: For these kids with autism, I’m seeing them getting too coddled. I’ll go to an autism convention
"I think one of the worst things schools have done is taken out all of the stuff like art, music, woodworking, sewing, cooking, welding, auto-shop."
and a ten year old comes up to speak to me, and the mom does all the talking. I want to hear what the kid has to say. And I’ll say ‘Okay, let’s practice shaking hands,’ and he doesn’t know how to shake hands. Well that’s totally ridiculous. The other thing that I really emphasize is teaching work skills. My mother got me a sewing job when I was thirteen, and I was cleaning horse stalls when I was fifteen... I have a book called "Different... Not Less." It's about 14 'Aspys' who were diagnosed later in life and they all were self-supported. They all had paper routes when they were kids. Kids have got to learn those work skills.
MC: Recent reports in the media have featured the stories of "kids who beat autism." What separates a kid who "beats" autism from one who doesn't?
TG: Basically, just looking at [autistic] kids, you can’t tell when you’re working with them who you’re going to pull out, who is going to become verbal and who’s not. And there seem to be certain kids who, as they learn more and more, they get less autistic acting, and they learn social skills enough so that they can turn out socially normal. But I think the brain deficits are still there.
MC: What are some commonly held myths about autism?
TG: One is that all people are savants like “Rain Man.” That maybe is only 10 percent of people with autism. That is a myth. Probably half of the people in Silicon Valley have a little bit of autism.
MC: What do you believe should be the next steps for autism research?
TG: For some of the things, you can find out exactly where there’s
"There really needs to be a time when we just put all the screens away."
a problem in the brain. But then there’s a point –- you know, people talk about curing autism -– if you got rid of all those traits, who’s going to make the next computer? I think a brain can be made “more thinking” or made “more emotional.” At what point does this become abnormal? Autism in its milder variants, I think, is part of normal human variation.
MC: Let's talk more about your own experience. You've spoken in the past about how you "think in pictures." Can you explain how your visual thinking works?
TG: It’s sort of like Google Images. I think the best way to describe it is, give me some keywords and I’ll tell you how I access my memory. And don’t ask me something like house or car, get a little more creative.
MC: OK, how about dessert?
TG: I went to Starbucks yesterday afternoon and I had two chocolate cake pops over at the hotel. Now I’m seeing a delicious, decadent flourless chocolate cake I had another place. Now I’m seeing desserts I had as a child: strawberry shortcake and coffee ice cream. Now I’m up at Ben & Jerry’s getting a scoop of 'Coffee Buzz Buzz.'
MC: Do you ever find that this is distracting to you?
TG: I can control it.
MC: Can you describe your emotions? Do your emotions differ from those of a “neurotypical” person?
TG: I tend to be much more in the present and my emotions are simpler. I can be happy, I can be sad, I can be depressed, but there’s a complexity that I don’t have. I don’t brood the same way. Fear is my main emotion.
MC: What's your social life like?
TG: Work. What do I do when I go home? Work. That’s basically my social life. I’m married to work.
MC: How about romance?
TG: Nope. I had a little thing… You know, I've seen too many marriages that have been terrible. My mother and father, my aunt and uncle at the ranch. I haven’t seen that many good models.
MC: Do you have any hobbies?
TG: I’m a Star Trek fan.
MC: Who's your favorite character?
TG: Oh, Mr. Spock! And Commander Data. Star Trek always had good ethics. In the fifties, there were much clearer values about right and wrong, heroes. Superman just did good things.
MC: How about your career. What are you working on now?
TG: Now I’ve got a lot of other people who do a lot
"Being a girl was the hardest thing, and one of the things I had to do was be like five times better than a guy."
of things for me, so I’ve gotten to a part in my career where I’m doing a lot of talks because I want to get kids turned on. I want to see these kids, these geeky nerdy kids, go out there and do something. I’m seeing too many geeky, nerdy kids get addicted to video games and they’re going nowhere. It’s making me crazy. They’re getting a label and they’re going nowhere and they’re becoming their label. And then I go to Silicon Valley and there are whole rooms of them having fun and getting paid doing it.
MC: Can you speak more about the danger of kids getting addicted to video games and "going nowhere?" Do you have any solutions?
TG: There really needs to be a time when we just put all the screens away. I’m concerned because I see a lot of kids today, they’ve got no resourcefulness. How do you problem solve, how do you figure things out?
MC: The majority of your research has focused on animals. Do you have any advice for humans that might help fix our problems?
TG: People are getting too far away from the real-world. Politics is just ridiculous, it’s totally dysfunctional. I think we’ve got to get people out of the office. They’ve got to find out what’s really happening. The thing I think is interesting is how states are doing things on their own. You go to places like in North Dakota. I visited there, and I found out their legislature meets only every two years for three months. So everyone that’s in the legislature has a real job. I’m a child of the fifties. The Republicans built the interstate highway system and the Democrats went to the moon. We did things -– did great stuff. We’re losing the ability to do things. All they do is fight over stupid things. I'm an equal opportunity bipartisan trasher. I’m interested in how do we get things done so that we have decent outcomes.
MC: How have you come up with your best ideas?
TG: My best stuff doesn’t get thought up in 10 seconds, because I’ve got to troll through the database. What tends to happen, what happens with my best design stuff, is I did it while I was just going to sleep. Or I might be in the shower, or I might be driving in no traffic, just the open road. Those are the places where an idea will come.
MC: What do you find inspiring?
TG: Certain people. I’ve always had Einstein’s posters on my wall. I’ve had them on my wall ever since graduate school. Jane Goodall is another person I’ve followed really closely. People that got out there and they really did things.
MC: What motivated you to write your book, "The Autistic Brain," which was published last year?
TG: I had done all of these brain scans. Also I wanted to go into a lot more detail on the different kinds of brains. The visual thinkers, the math thinkers and the word thinkers. And talk about the research that shows that’s really true, that there really are different kinds of minds and they can work together.
MC: What's something that people might not know about you? Can you share a fun story with us?
TG: When I was in high school, I made a flying saucer about 18 inches in diameter, a classic fifties-style saucer. Put a Dairy Queen dish on top with a light in it. Got up on the roof of the house and just as the other two girls went to sleep I swung it in front of the window. First swing they didn’t see it, second swing they screamed. I ran back inside. Then 10 days later there was a flying saucer sighting in Exeter, New Hampshire. So the whole school believed it.