A Sit Down with Dr. Temple Grandin: Animal Scientist and Autism Advocate

 Photograph by  Matt Nager

Photograph by Matt Nager

Written By Dr. Aimée Kaye, ND

     I recently had the honor to sit down with Temple Grandin during her lecture and book tour of Fairbanks, Alaska. Even if you are not familiar with her, when you speak with her, you can instantly tell she is a force to be reckoned with- her passion, energy and intense focus are moving and inspiring.

     Diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Temple was completely non-verbal and had the full-blown symptoms of autism until the age of three and a half or four. With early, tireless intervention of her parents, teachers and therapists, she was able to make progress and take on the many challenges that faced her in life.

     She currently holds a Ph.D. in Animal Science from the University of Illinois and is the most well-known individual with autism in the world. Dr. Grandin first became interested in Animal Science at the age of 15, when she went to stay at her aunt’s ranch for a summer.

     During her stay she developed a deep sense of connection with the animals. Having autism allowed her to understand the animals and their needs in a unique way because she thinks in a similar way. She says, “I don’t think in words. Animals think in pictures, sounds and smells”. Later in life Temple would use her empathetic understanding of animals along with her abilities as a photo-realistic visual thinker to become one of the greatest innovators in her field.

 Temple with 5 cows - Photograph by  Rosalie Winard , from  Templegrandin.com

Temple with 5 cows - Photograph by Rosalie Winard, from Templegrandin.com

     Her pioneering animal holding facilities are used in the majority of livestock facilities in the United States and her numerous books and lectures have also provided the world with some of the first deep, personal and landmark insights into the autistic mind, reframing the way Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is understood.

     In a world where a diagnosis of autism is seen as exceedingly negative, Dr. Grandin normalizes the presence of autistic traits in human genetics and lays the groundwork for a new understanding of ASD. Dr. Grandin frequently emphasizes that autism is a continuum of traits, saying, “there is a point to where autistic traits are a normal genetic variant. A little bit of the autism gene produces an Albert Einstein or Mozart. Too much and you have someone that is non-verbal and not able to function independently.”

     According to Temple, fostering the success of those with autism is inextricably linked to the success of the global community, contending that, “without autism, you wouldn’t have half the people in the Silicon Valley or many of the scientists and great inventors.”

     Despite the fact having autism has profoundly shaped her life, Dr. Grandin says she doesn’t let autism rule her life, articulating that she is an animal scientist first and autistic secondly. Accordingly, she is unfailingly dedicated to promoting career development early on for those with ASD.

I want these [autistic] kids to have a future. And I don’t want them to end up playing video games in some basement on social security. I want them to be all they can be and be successful.
— Temple Grandin

     She feels this is one of the primary ways to give children the best opportunity to be thriving, functioning adults. “These days there are too many helicopter parents. These kids need to be learning work skills from the time they’re 13 or 14. There is not enough pushing them out. Get them out of the house and have them learning different skills that they can turn into a job. Don’t think about getting them a job. Do it”, she says.

     According to Temple, those with ASD are natural born specialists and if this trait is used correctly, it can lead to a wonderful career. “Autistic people tend to have specialist brains-good at one thing, bad at something else. There has to be more emphasis on developing what they can be good at and make a career out of it; less emphasis on the deficits,” she says.

     In addition to building a career, early intervention with structure and engaging activities is a fundamental aspect needed for those on the autistic spectrum to flourish according to Dr. Grandin.

     Similarly, she believes that the rise in autism diagnosis is directly related to the continual decrease in the teaching of manners and structure. “Growing up in the 50s, basic skills, manners, learning how to take turns and say please and thank you were drilled into kids. I think learning these things from a young age really made a big difference for me.”

     Moreover, she feels the decrease of hands on activities-classes such as wood shop and home economics in schools is doing a grave disservice to not only children on the autistic spectrum but all kids. “Early intervention in schools, at home and with therapy is absolutely needed. You have to engage them, teach them words, eating manners and give them lots of one on one time…get kids outside. They won’t be interested in it if they aren’t exposed.”

  Temple Grandin speaking at the University of Miami (FL)  - Image from the University of Miami

Temple Grandin speaking at the University of Miami (FL) - Image from the University of Miami

    Dr. Grandin is very proud of her upbringing and she uses the lessons she’s learned beginning in childhood to inform both the medical and ASD community on some of the best approaches to treating autism.

    When asked why she continues to be so dedicated to advocating for those with autism, she emphatically responded, “because I want these kids to have a future. And I don’t want them to end up playing video games in some basement on social security. I want them to be all they can be and be successful.”

     These are the words of a woman with a heart full of compassion and courage. The work of Temple Grandin has not only benefited and inspired countless individuals on the autism spectrum, but it reaches across to all people.

     Her story of finding and developing strength where some may have seen deficiency and her absolute dedication to improving the lives of others, should be an incentive for us all to wholly embrace ourselves and search for the potential in others—we’ll find it!

This article and interview of Temple Grandin was done by Dr. Aimée Kaye, ND - a naturopathic doctor at the Alaska Center for Natural Medicine. Dr. Kaye specializes in physical medicine, digestive care, and reproductive medicine. To learn more, check out her bio here

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