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With Autism Awareness Month around the corner, this edition of Expert Spotlight features the world’s most famous person with autism, Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
You likely know Dr. Grandin from the 2010 Emmy-winning HBO biopic about her life. She speaks internationally on autism and has transformed people’s perception of autism spectrum disorders. In her first book, “Thinking in Pictures,” Dr. Grandin explained the way she thought, opening the eyes of doctors, psychiatrists, educators, and parents, many of whom thought their child or patient was “retarded.” She has expanded understanding with many subsequent books, including “The Way I See It,” “Different . . . Not Less” and, most recently, “The Loving Push.”
What you might not know about Dr. Grandin is that she is also renowned in the world of animal science. A professor and advocate for the humane treatment of animals, she has helped improve our understanding of how animals should be handled humanely and has designed many of the largest animal handling facilities in the world.
Dr. Grandin will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Autism Conference (in Omaha on March 11 and Orlando on May 1), hosted by Future Horizons, the world’s largest distributor of resources on autism, Asperger’s, and sensory issues. Even with her very busy schedule, Dr. Grandin was kind enough to answer a few questions for us:
There are so many resources available for autism now that weren’t available when you were younger. What has been the biggest change you have seen in society’s interaction with autistic individuals?
Getting really good early intervention programs in place. This is so important. You have 2- and 3-year-olds that aren’t talking. You’ve got to start working with these kids now. You have to get good early intervention.
Also, a change in diagnostic criteria. A diagnosis for tuberculosis is definitive. The problem with autism is that there are no tests like that. It’s a behavioral profile. If a child shows certain behaviors, you give them an autism label.
Over the years, doctors have been changing diagnostic guidelines. Back in the ‘80s, to be labeled autistic, the child had to have speech delay. Then in the early ‘90s, they added Asperger’s. So you now have autism with speech delay, and Asperger’s with no obvious speech delay. In 2013, they removed Asperger’s and, basically, the autism with speech delay and with no speech delay all merged together.
What’s the impact of that?
The impact of that is not good. You now have a huge spectrum that goes from a genius programmer working in Silicon Valley to someone who can’t dress themselves. Really smart kids are put in the same classroom as really severe kids.
There are three different levels: normal (or higher) and socially awkward; a mid-range group with some speech; and then very severe kids that stay severe, with no speech and severely impaired. One of the mistakes that’s made when they get older is that they’re all being treated the same way.
What’s the solution?
If you don’t do early intervention, you definitely have a higher probability that they’re going to do badly. You’ve got to do early intervention. The worst thing you can do is do nothing.
You are also a big proponent of animal welfare and improving standards in slaughterhouses. How did you get involved with that?
I was exposed to beef cattle when I went to my aunt’s ranch when I was 15. This brings an interesting point that kids get interested in things they’re exposed to. Schools are cutting funding for arts programs and kids aren’t getting exposed to enough career options to find out what they want to do.
What were some of the problems you saw in the industry?
I saw cattle being treating badly. In 1999, I was hired by McDonald’s to implement a simple scoring system to evaluate floor plans [in slaughterhouses].
The first thing you have to do is get people to manage stuff right. I have a real emphasis on finding practical solutions to making things better. I can fix equipment, but I can’t fix people management problems with equipment.
You were the focus of the HBO film “Temple Grandin.” What was it like to see your life depicted on the screen?
They did a beautiful job. Emily Gerson Saines, the producer, is the mother of an autistic child, and she did everything she could to make it good. It showed me accurately what I was like as a teenager. It was sort of like going through a time machine.