April is Autism Awareness Month. A common saying in the autistic community is if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. “The problem with autism,” Dr. Temple Grandin once said, “is you’ve got a spectrum that ranges from Einstein to someone with no language and intellectual disability.”
Grandin is an author, inventor, animal behaviorist and autism advocate. She was one of the first people to come out publicly as an adult with autism. Her books and speeches have not only offered neurotypicals a glimpse into the mind of a person with autism, but they have also been a massive help and encouragement to others on the spectrum, as well as their loved ones.
Grandin was born in 1947. Autism wasn’t well studied back then. In fact, experts in those days believed autism was a form of schizophrenia. As a result, children who displayed autistic characteristics were often placed in institutions, isolated from their families and the world.
Grandin’s mother, Eustacia Cutler, fought both the doctors and her husband to keep her child home. She took her daughter to one of the best neurologists in the nation, enrolled her in speech therapy, and even hired someone to engage her in play every day. Later, she sought out private schools that would accommodate her child’s special needs. To this day, Grandin credits this early intervention with her success.
“Different, not less.” ~ Temple Grandin
As a person with autism, Grandin has a number of sensory challenges. She has said that her ears work like microphones with the volume turned up full blast. Her sense of smell is keener than that of a neurotypical. Her inability to bear the sensory strain of human touch led to her first invention as a teenager. The squeeze machine was modeled after a cattle squeeze chute (a device used to hold the animals in place for vaccinations). Grandin’s human-sized squeeze machine applied deep pressure to the body, mimicking the feeling of a hug without the unpleasant sensation of human physical contact, which she described as feeling like “being stuffed inside the scratchiest sock in the world.”
Another thing that makes Grandin and other autistics different from neurotypicals is the way they think. In her book Thinking in Pictures, Grandin discusses three different thinking styles of people on the spectrum. She is a visual thinker. She sees images in her mind, automatically converting words to pictures. Her ability to think visually, along with her extreme empathy for animals, led to her career in the cattle industry. Grandin gained massive success in the male-dominated beef industry by redesigning livestock handling equipment and implementing practices that reduced the animals’ stress while making the operations more efficient. Her work in the field led her to be recognized as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.
Today, at age 71, Dr. Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She also writes and speaks about autism, advocating early intervention for children believed to be on the spectrum. Her success is evidence of the importance of identifying and encouraging the strengths of owners of “differently-abled brains.”
“There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what he cannot do.”
~ Dr. Temple Grandin
To learn more about Dr. Temple Grandin, her life, and her advocacy for autism and animal welfare, check out some of the following materials from BCLS: