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The Autistic Brain, According to Temple Grandin

by Catherine Lamb '15

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Temple Grandin (Photo by Michael Macioce)

“You have got to keep autistic children engaged with the world. You cannot let them tune out,” was one of the major points that Temple Grandin stressed in her latest book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum (co-authored with Richard Panek) and her November 1 presentation at St. Joseph’s Long Island Campus. Grandin was the keynote speaker for the conference, “Educating All: Resources and Best Practices for Diverse Learners,” hosted by the Department of Child Study, in conjunction with the Family Residences and Essential Enterprises Inc. (FREE).

Author of the New York Times best-seller Animals in Translation, Grandin was born in Boston in 1947 and diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. At this time, autism was considered to be a neuropsychological condition that was classified as a subcategory of schizophrenia, and doctors recommended that she be institutionalized. However, through early intervention programs, speech therapy and accepting parents, Grandin grew up to be an incredibly successful adult; she holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College, a master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University, and a doctoral degree in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Since the 1970s, Grandin has designed and implemented humane animal-handling systems that are used across the United States, Canada and Mexico; and consulted with and improved slaughter plants and livestock farms all across the country. Grandin is currently a professor at the University of Colorado, where she teaches livestock behavior and facility design. She has also written 10 books, traveled across the country lecturing and advocating for children with autism, and has been featured in nearly every major publication. Naturally, she has come a long way from a recommendation to be institutionalized.

In The Autistic Brain, Grandin explored the difference between the average brain and the brain of someone with autism — specifically, hers. She showed through MRI scans how sections of her brain are larger or smaller than the average brain, thus explaining why she sees the world differently than other people. She has often described her thought process as “thinking in pictures,” which she attributes to the fact that the visual learning center in her prefrontal cortex is much larger than average. Grandin also said it took her nearly half her life to realize that not everyone thinks the same way as she does, but rather that everyone learns and sees the world differently. It was this realization that pushed her to begin researching the autistic brain, eventually inspiring her book.

In addition to talking about the autistic brain, Grandin spent a great deal of time talking about and advocating for people with autism. She dislikes how “talented, quirky kids are going nowhere” because they let their autism define them. Grandin also spoke about her belief that it’s the job of parents and teachers to cultivate the strengths and interests of these children; these interests must be broadened and then turned into something society needs. She told the story of a little boy she met years ago who loved ripping paper. Instead of trying to suppress this interest, his mother taught him to take the ripped pieces of paper and create images with them, and he is now selling his artwork professionally.

Not only does she feel it’s important to focus on the strengths of people with an autism spectrum disorder, but also to teach them a strong work ethic at a young age. This would allow those people to take those strengths and turn them into a steady job. She is a huge supporter of incorporating people with autism spectrum disorders into society, effectively pushing both society and people with autism outside of their comfort zones.

Hosted by St. Joseph’s College for the last two years, the third annual Educating All conference included workshops on timely teaching topics, such as autism spectrum disorder, inclusion classrooms, differential education practices and dynamic learning methods. Attendees visited the Apps Café to download the latest educational software, viewed an art exhibition and enjoyed musical entertainment.

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