All kinds of minds: interview with Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin is a renowned scientist whose inventions have revolutionised the way we treat farm animals. By openly talking about her experiences as a person on the autism spectrum, she’s also changing the way we see autism. Here, she gives advice on how to help all young people soar.
If you think a young person has autism, the worst thing you can do is nothing.
I didn’t speak until I was nearly four. Doctors assumed I had brain damage, but my mother pushed for answers. She took me to see a wonderful speech therapist, and we practised one word at a time. That early intervention was vital. Before I got help, I could only communicate by screaming.
When somebody speaks to me, their words are instantly translated into pictures.
I translate words into full-colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. Language-based thinkers find this difficult to understand, but when I design things, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage. I have video memories of every item I’ve ever worked with – steel gates, fences, latches, concrete walls, and so on. To create new designs, I just retrieve bits and pieces from my memory and combine them into a new whole.
Not everyone on the spectrum thinks like me. Some young people learn best if they focus on patterns. Others learn in words. Learning styles and sensitivities are very variable and different kinds of thinkers respond well to different kinds of activities. Ask your young people how they like to do things and tailor your approach to suit them.
The spectrum has broadened and shifted. It’s great that more young people are getting diagnosed properly, but labels can be limiting. We mustn’t let them shape our beliefs about what we can and cannot do. It’s important to evaluate on a case-by-case basis. In my case, autism is an important part of who I am, but the scientist in me always comes first.
The world owes a great deal to people with autism and we need all kinds of minds. If the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool early on, we might be less advanced as a species today. In fact, we might still be standing around in caves, chatting and socialising and not getting anything done. It’s likely that the first human to invent the stone spear wouldn’t have been the extrovert leading the group, or the gossipers huddled around the campfire. We were probably driven forward by the awkward, studious person sitting at the back of the cave, chipping away at the rocks until they figured out how to turn them into tools.
Innovation and (high-functioning) autism often go hand in hand. I’ve been to Google. I’ve been to Microsoft. I’d estimate about half of the people working there are on the spectrum. Young people on the spectrum may have different or challenging traits, but they have the potential to do amazing things if they’re well supported. Albert Einstein was non-verbal until he was four. Mozart had trouble with social interaction. Steve Jobs was disruptive in the classroom as a child, but soared as soon as he joined extracurricular computer clubs. If any of these people were born today, I have no doubt they’d be diagnosed with a form of autism.
We need to teach basic skills for life. Things like knowing how to pay for groceries, how to greet someone, how to speak up when something feels unfair. Negotiation is a basic social skill, but it’s something I would never have picked up if I hadn’t been taught. I practised and practised until I got it right.
We shouldn’t throw young people in the deep end, but we shouldn’t be afraid to stretch them, either. Planning things in advance is a great way to reduce the amount of anxiety people on the spectrum might feel. Most people with autism find comfort in routine, but it’s important for them to feel prepared if and when plans change. If any major changes are likely to happen, such as the introduction of a new Scouting volunteer, or a change to a camp itinerary, then it’s right to make sure you give that person as much notice as possible, so there’s less of a shock. Equally, there may be situations you can’t predict, so it’s good for them to understand that, too.
It’s important to give young people a choice. I was terrified to visit my aunt’s ranch when I was 15. My mother gave me two choices. Either I could go for two weeks, or I could go for six. I said yes to the two weeks and ended up staying for the whole summer. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it introduced me to my life’s passion – working with animals. Today, the majority of livestock plants in the USA are using the technology I invented. I may never have started if my mother hadn’t given me that choice.
When I first started working on cattle ranches, I was usually the only woman in the room. Some people doubted me, but I didn’t know it. I wasn’t so great at picking up on subtleties. In a way, not noticing helped me to do my job well. Things have thankfully changed a great deal since. It’s just terrific to see more girls in Scouting.
If video games had been around when I was a kid, I would have been a total addict. Scouting is great because it encourages young people to step outside of their bedrooms and outside of their comfort zones.
For a long while, my friends were my horses. Then, I found other kids who shared my interests. Finding a shared interest is vital for kids on the spectrum and participating in group badges and team-based tasks is just great for them. What I find unique about Scouting is the variety of badges you have, to suit different kinds of thinkers. These badges unite kids who share interests, however unique those interests might be, and they teach them how to co-operate outside the home.
If a young person struggles to complete tasks, break everything down into a pilot’s checklist. Although there are many kinds of thinkers and many forms of autism, one of the more common issues is trouble remembering the sequence of things. You can make tasks more manageable if you break them down into lots of individual steps.
Empathy and patience are very important. People often assume that the people with autism are the ones who lack empathy. It’s true that autism can make it more difficult to understand emotions and feelings, and it’s true that some people with autism lack emotional empathy. But many people in society show a real lack of understanding towards young people with sensory issues. If a child starts screaming in a restaurant, for example, people assume that that child is poorly behaved. In reality, that child may be extremely sensitive to crowds and lights and smells. That might be just why they’re screaming and crying. Few people consider that, because it’s just too far away from their own experience.
Knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety. Recently I heard about a pig farm that was hiring a lot of young kids on the spectrum, and teaching them how to cope with the workplace in a really exciting way. Rather than interviewing candidates, they invited them to an open day at a hotel. When they arrived, the kids immediately assembled into groups with their future workmates, and put on the uniforms they would be wearing at work, so they had plenty of time to get used to the different materials (some people with autism can be highly sensitive to itchy clothes, for example). Then, they practised all of the tasks they would be carrying out on the job, in a less intimidating environment. So, instead of injecting real pigs with their health vaccines, they injected oranges with water. And instead of putting ear tags on real pigs, they put tags on cardboard pig heads designed to look and feel just like the real thing. By the time they arrived at the farm itself, they were familiar with the process. This hugely reduced their anxiety and helped them to do their jobs extremely well, despite their supposed disadvantages. Leaders won’t be interviewing their Scouts, but they may be introducing them to new things. To increase confidence and reduce nerves, sometimes all it takes is a little tweak.
For more information on how to support and better understand the needs of a young person on the autism spectrum in your section, use the Parent/Carer Conversation Framework. You can find this at scouts.org.uk/conversationframework.
You can also download visual stories about what to expect from Scouting during key moments like the Grand Howl from scouts.org.uk/autism and at scouts.org.uk/visualresources.