Renowned livestock expert lectures on autism

Sharon Roznik
Now Media Group


There was a message in the stories Temple Grandin told the crowd at Marian University about her journey from being a toddler with autism prone to tantrums who did not talk or make eye contact, to a doctorate professor who revolutionized livestock handling in the United States.

'Too many kids today are removed from the world of practical things,' Temple told a sold-out crowd in the university's gymnasium on May 20. 'Too many kids are living like a recluse, playing video games in their rooms.'

Grandin was the keynote speaker at Dr. Darold Treffert's ninth Lecture Series on Autism. The 66-year-old professor of animal science at Colorado State University is a prominent author and speaker on autism. She credits much of her success to a mother who insisted she be 'stretched outside her comfort zone.'

Garbed in her standard Western wear and jeans, her graying hair combed back, she fielded questions from concerned parents and teachers. They were looking for answers about how to deal with children with autism.

'You need to find a strength, and run with it,' she told one mother, who said her child was fixated on watching television credits. Another woman said she couldn't get her 13-year-old son to do anything but play Minecraft.

Exposing children to hands-on activities and steering them toward work and careers will help cultivate skill sets, Grandin said. By the time she was 14, she was working as a seamstress, and the following year she had a job cleaning eight horse stalls a day. For a while, she was a roofer.

Doing nothing was never an option.

'We can't let a diagnosis define who these kids are,' Grandin said. 'It's important to not let people with autism get a handicapped mentality.'

Her groundbreaking development of humane processes in the handling of livestock has changed the cattle industry. In 2010, she was named one of Time's most influential people. An award-winning HBO movie of Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes, was released the same year. The video of her TED Talk has more than 3.5 million views.

She was bullied and teased and thrown out of high school for hurling a book at another student who called her 'retarded,' and was sent off to a special boarding school for kids with problems. A series of out-of-the-box teachers and mentors helped her develop her unique abilities.

And her no-nonsense approach to autism.

Grandin told the crowd she sees a growing problem among children with mild autism of not learning word and social skills because they aren't pushed.

'These kids are getting babied, and not learning basic skills, like how to shop,' Grandin said.

She describes herself as a visual thinker who sees the world in a series of pictures. She will know if an engineering design for a machine or system will work by running the process — step by step — through her mind. Other people are verbal thinkers, pattern thinkers, word thinkers.

Steve Jobs was likely on the autism spectrum, she said — an artist who designed the user interface for the iPhone and then had engineers build it.

'Einstein, Mozart and half of Silicon Valley are on the autism spectrum, they just avoid the labels,' she said.

Grandin said it takes a mixing of different kinds of minds working together to build a world.

'Too many top-down policies don't work, and we are seeing that today. You need balance, and some things have to come from the bottom up,' she said.

While in Fond du Lac, Grandin visited Free Spirit Riders and Vir-Clar Farms, an 1,800-cow dairy. She said the cows looked content because they were being handled well.

Treffert said Temple had only one date open this year to visit Fond du Lac. She leaves this week to lecture in England and Switzerland.

'It was caring teachers and a system that recommended strengths, not disabilities, that had a major impact on her life,' Treffert said.