“Diagnostic labels have their limits,” according to Professor Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, speaking to a recent graduate group at Harvard University.
Professor Grandin was diagnosed with autism when she was 2-years-old and was the subject of a 2010 movie ‘Temple Grandin’ starring Claire Danes, for which Danes won an Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress.
“In special education, there’s too much emphasis placed on the deficit and not enough on the strength,” said Professor Grandin. “I’m seeing a lot of 10-year-olds getting completely hung up on their autism, caught up in a handicapped mentality.”
Much of Professor Grandin’s activism has focused on connecting autistics with education and careers.
“I like to think about how the different kinds of minds can work together and complement each other.”
Speaking at length about her own “different thinking,” she said, “my thinking is bottom-up and grounded in specific details.
“When I think about a cathedral, I see a series of specific cathedrals, not an archetype. People who think in words tend to ‘over-abstractify’ the world too much and miss the details.”
Professor Grandin showed two brain scans to demonstrate her much larger circuitry for visual thinking compared with the average brain.
“Being a visual thinker has really helped me in designing livestock handling facilities. Animals are sensory-based learners,” she said.
She offered several suggestions for educating students with autism or unconventional learning styles.
“Kids on the autism spectrum tend to get fixated on the things they like,” she said. “You need to use those fixations to teach kids different subjects. If a child is fixated on aircraft, the teacher might use planes to illustrate lessons in physics, engineering, history, and more.
Mentors are also important. A particular teacher sparked her interest in science, Professor Grandin said. Educators need to nudge students “slightly out of their comfort zone” to challenge them while providing support.
Autistic children also need responsibilities and tasks — paper-route-type jobs — to build work skills, she said. Adults can’t “allow kids to become recluses playing video games by themselves all day.”
Professor Grandin also offered some advice to autistic people in the job market: “You need to sell your work, not yourself. Create a portfolio to show your work and carry it around with you.”