Dr Temple Grandin: Focus on strengths rather than deficits in children with autism

Autism advocate and animal specialist Temple Grandin tells Helen O’Callaghan it is important to focus on strengths rather than deficits in children with autism
Dr Temple Grandin: Focus on strengths rather than deficits in children with autism

WHEN Temple Grandin says you must train children on the autistic spectrum just as you’d train someone who doesn’t know how to behave in a foreign country, she knows what she’s talking about.

Being diagnosed with autism herself, Grandin didn’t speak until she was four — she has described her early childhood experience as “groping her way from the far side of darkness”. But there were shining lights in this darkness, especially her mother, who got her “really good education and treatment” when Grandin was little more than a toddler.

“She had a very good sense of how to stretch me,” Grandin tells me in the course of a phone interview from Colorado — she currently works as a professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University. “My mother insisted I learn manners. A standard of behaviour was expected. When I had a tantrum, I was put in my room. When I calmed down, my mother would say ‘you can join the family now’ and there was a consequence — no TV that night. When I made a mistake, instead of screaming ‘no’, she would give an instruction.”

Adding that in her generation manners were taught in a more systematic way, she says teaching a child good manners “enables them function in the world”. To be without manners — or social skills — hurts a child with autism much more than it hurts a ‘neurotypical’ child, Grandin believes.

Asked for her views on the description ‘neurotypical’, Grandin says many people are neurologically a bit different. “It’s not a clear dividing line between neurotypical and neurodiversity – it’s a very blurred line.” In her book, The Autistic Brain, she presents research that shows three types of specialised thinking: photo realistic visual thinkers who think the way she does, math/pattern thinkers and word thinkers.

Grandin — an animal behaviour specialist and a designer of livestock handling facilities, as well as an autism spokesperson — conceptualised down to the tiniest details her design for a humane livestock restrain system, which is now used on nearly half of the cattle in the US. She was in Ireland in May to advise SuperValu and its beef suppliers on current best practice in animal welfare.

Having loved animals as a child, she then realised that gentle handling of animals in well-designed facilities minimised their stress levels. “Animal environments should activate their positive emotions as much as possible and minimise negative emotions,” says Grandin who also invented the ‘hug box’ — a device to calm those on the autistic spectrum.

Grandin traces the roots of her life’s many achievements back to childhood and to her mother’s ‘stretching’ approach. “When I was seven, I was doing very simple shopping. My mother never bought me candy — I had to do it for myself. I had to save for two weeks to buy a toy airplane.”

While she sees early diagnosis on the autistic spectrum as good in that it can lead to early intervention and special education programmes, she also thinks it can mean a permanent label that could impede the child’s advancement. Parents, she says, can get so concerned about the deficits that they don’t develop the child’s strengths.

“I recently talked with a 17-year-old [diagnosed on the autistic spectrum], who’s completely verbal and gets good grades at school. He has never gone to a store and bought something all by himself— that’s an example of being over-sheltered.”

Her advice to schools and parents is to build on what the child is good at, whether it’s music, maths or art.

She has some criticism for the revision by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 of the diagnostic criteria for autism. “You could have a child who’s labelled as having autism, who could eventually work in the computer industry or in music. Or you could have a child who can’t talk. A brilliant 10-year-old maths genius, who needs more challenging work as well as social skills training, has the same diagnosis as someone who isn’t able to dress himself.”

When Grandin meets parents of children diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, she asks: “Can he talk, read, write? What can he do?” Even non-verbal children can often learn a lot more than people expect, she says. What she advocates — as early as possible in the child’s life — is 20 hours a week of one-on-one interaction with an effective teacher, who works on their language as well as teaching them to wait and take turns at games. “When children get older, you have to stretch them. There should be no sudden surprises — these scare. Instead, give them a choice of new activities they can try —whether it’s football or scouting. You don’t start them in the deep end – but you have to keep encouraging them towards the deep end.”

Grandin featured on BBC special The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, she has appeared on many national US TV shows and she has a 2010 TED talk. Claire Danes played Grandin in the Emmy award-winning movie about her life. “I thought they did a fabulous job. Claire Danes became me,” she says.

- Empowering Individuals with Autism be Successful [sic] with Dr Temple Grandin is at Cork’s Clayton Hotel Silversprings, Cork, on Monday, August 14. It is fully booked.

- The Cork Autism Conference – Understanding Autism, Empowering Potential – is at the same venue on Sunday, September 17 (9am-5.30pm). www.bookwhen.com/autismcork.

What they say about Temple Grandin:

- “She’s a fantastic advocate in helping people understand autism, as well as encouraging early intervention. She highlights seeing the person with autism rather than the label. She strongly believes in giving individuals with autism choices of activities and social skills that stretch abilities, develop potential and help them engage with the world.”

Micheál Ó Mathúna, Health Zones founder, instrumental in bringing Temple Grandin to Cork this month

- “She’s invaluable to the world of autism. She highlights the benefits of the autistic mind and how vital it is to have these minds for the world’s progression. She also reinforces the need to teach practical life and social skills so these children can navigate through life a little easier. We need Temple Grandin in our lives — her articulation of having autism creates a bridge of understanding for those who don’t have it.”

Michelle O’Grady, speech and drama teacher for children with autism and additional needs. (realtadrama.com).

- “She’s an inspirational autism activist who proves autism doesn’t restrict an individual from becoming successful. Grandin’s insight has supported me in the development of personalised programmes. She illustrates how we use a lot of verbal instructions when communicating, but children with autism may find it difficult to focus, understand and identify key messages. This reinforces the use of visual supports for teaching, communication and understanding.

“Through Grandin’s insights, I’ve gained a better understanding of the sensory challenges some individuals with autism face and how to support and build coping mechanisms.”

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) tutor Lisa Marie Clinton developed Avail app, a virtual personal assistant app for people with disabilities; (availsupport.ie).

- “She’s a leading expert on autism and, in particular, its impact on the individual and how people can develop. She advocates that people with autism have unique abilities and skills. If these skills are developed, you can get people who rise to the top like her.”

Jim Lennon, head of corporate services at Middletown Centre for Autism, Armagh. (middletownautism.com)

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