As a young child, doctors recommended that Temple Grandin be institutionalized. She had tantrums, couldn’t speak and had no social skills. Her mother, however, defied the professionals and found special programs to treat Grandin’s autism.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, which raises awareness of the disability that affects about 1.5 million Americans. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, with a 10 to 17 percent annual growth rate, according to the New England Center for Children’s Web site.
Today, Grandin is a part-time animal science professor at CSU, the author of six books on animal behavior and a professional livestock facility designer. She has been featured on major television shows like ABC’s “20/20” and NBC’s “Today Show,” and in magazines such as People and Time. She designs livestock facilities for companies such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, and half of all the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in her humane slaughter systems.
Grandin thinks in pictures instead of words, which has helped her succeed in her designs. She is passionate about helping people with autism and other disabilities and explains Autism as being caused by “abnormalities in the wiring that hooks up the long-distance parts of the brain. The skills tend to be uneven.”
“I think in photo-realistic pictures,” Grandin said. “I’m very good at tasks that involve photo-realistic pictures. I’m good at designing things because I can visualize it in my head. My mind works like Google for images. You put a key word in, and I bring up lots of images.”
Wendy Fulwider, one of Grandin’s students seeking a Ph.D. in animal science, described Grandin as being an extremely well rounded person.
“(Working with Grandin has) been wonderful,” Fulwider said. “I’ve learned so many things besides animal behavior. She’s a very warm, caring, sensitive person. She’s involved in so many things.”
Climbing trees and building tree houses were some of Grandin’s favorite things to do during childhood, which she describes as fairly normal. High school, however, was a different story.
“It was a nightmare,” she said. “I was tortured with teasing. This is a real common problem. I got kicked out of a large girls’ school for throwing a book at a girl who teased me.”
Grandin next attended a small boarding school, which proved to be a better fit for her. Grandin’s science teacher provided the mentoring she needed to get motivated and continue her education so she could eventually have a successful career.
“I was a goof-around student; I didn’t care about studying,” Grandin said. “But Mr. Carlock gave me a reason to study, to become a scientist. Now I had this new goal of becoming a scientist.”
In addition to the teasing, Grandin also suffered from severe anxiety attacks during adolescence. She related the anxiety to being in a constant state of stage fright. Her anxiety is now controlled with medication.
Grandin received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College, her master’s in animal science from Arizona State University and her Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois. She said she did well in college, but had to be tutored in math because of the lack of visual thinking involved in the subject.
Although Grandin has a very successful career that puts her in contact with a variety of people, she still does not socialize as much as most people.
“Most of my social life is through shared interests,” Grandin said. “Most of the people I socialize with, we’re interested in cattle, we’re interested in animal behavior or we’re interested in autism. So just socializing for the sake of socializing, I don’t really do that. I just find it boring.”
Kathleen Ivy, a counselor and coordinator of services with Resources for Disabled Students (RDS), said Grandin has unique abilities for an autistic person, and that CSU has had only a small Autistic population.
“It’s very rare that we have a student with autism,” Ivy said. “Usually their disability prevents them from being able to function in this kind of atmosphere.”
The services RDS offers for autistic students depend on what prior documentation supports, but Ivy said a previous autistic student got extra time for exams, one-on-one counseling and extra help in classes that require a lot of group work.
Grandin believes that in order for people with autism to have successful careers, there should be more focus on their strengths than their weaknesses.
“There’s too much emphasis in special education with the little kids on pounding away at the thing they can’t do,” Grandin said. “We need to be working harder on building up the things that they’re really good at.”
Kristen Majors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org