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Columbia Missourian

Temple Grandin advises attendees to see their skills, not themselves

By Briana Gust
October 13, 2010 | 11:35 p.m. CDT
Temple Grandin explains the different sensory problems that children and adults with autism struggle with. Grandin is a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people this year. While talking about growing up with autism and establishing a career, Grandin said she realized "you have to sell your work, not yourself."

COLUMBIA — In high school, Temple Grandin said she was once suspended after throwing a book at another student. She said her emotions are hard to handle, remembering that she often hid to escape her fears.

Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, spoke Wednesday at MU about her experiences growing up with autism, her achievements and her advice on raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Grandin was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2010 and was the subject of the HBO film "Temple Grandin."

Grandin discussed different types of autism with the crowd that packed the auditorium and left many sitting on the floor. She talked about the warning signs of the disorder and specific ways to handle it, saying that autistic people have visual, cognitive, auditory and sensory problems.

“Autism takes many different forms," she said. "We have got to work on developing these kids’ strengths. If a kid likes trains, teach them English, art and physics with the train. Using their fixation motivates them to learn.”

Grandin said that the autistic mind is geared toward details and that everything is learned by specific examples.

“It’s all memorization in the beginning but after learning more and more things, it’s easier to put things into boxes and relate them to each category,” she said. “You sort the cats and dogs. That’s how I form concepts.”

Grandin also stressed the importance of work experience. When she was 13, she worked for a seamstress, and at 15 she was given the responsibility of caring for nine horses. She emphasized the importance for students with autism to recognize their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses.

“There are too many smart kids leaving college with no work experience," she said. "It’s important for them to network and gain life skills. See your skill, not yourself.”

Grandin, who said she has been on antidepressants for 30 years, also spoke about alternative ways to handle the symptoms of autism in young people instead of resorting to heavy doses of drugs. 

“I am on a low dose of antidepressants, but that’s the secret — low dosages,” she said. “Sometimes there is a place for a heavy artillery of drugs but not in a 5-year-old to make him or her a little less hyper.”

Grandin urged the crowd to try simpler alternatives such as a better diet with less sugar, omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, gluten-free foods and lots of exercise.

MU freshman Mike Kirk, who is majoring in special education, came to the event after receiving an e-mail about it. Kirk said his interest in special education sparked after he befriended another student with Down syndrome in kindergarten. Throughout high school, he was a physical education leader in an adaptive gym class for students with special needs.   

“Special education has always been important to me," Kirk said. "I received the e-mail and wanted to see what it was about. I’m very glad I came because it was very educational and informative, and I can’t wait to watch the movie about (Grandin's) life.”

Paula Carter, an MU doctoral student interested in combining autism and theater, has an 8-year-old daughter with an autism spectrum disorder.

“It was amazing to find a person who was so clear about her experiences growing up with autism,” Carter said. “It’s comforting that I could see somebody with her results, knowing that my daughter will go through that eventually.”

Carter said she appreciated Grandin’s concrete and tailored teaching methods on how to help her daughter become a productive individual.

“Because of Temple, I can tell my child that her brain is strong and it doesn’t make her less, it makes her different,” Carter said. “She’s kind of like our role model.”

Janet Farmer, director of academic programs at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, helped bring Grandin to MU as part of the Thompson Center Exceptional Achievement Series.

“The message for the series is that people who start out with disabilities can take advantage of it,” Farmer said. “We picked her because she is just excellent and very willing to do it.”

Grandin will also speak in various animal science lectures Thursday.