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Temple Grandin Answers Your Questions About Autism

Dr. Temple Grandin is one of the greatest autism advocates of our time. A six-time author with a Ph.D. in animal studies, Grandin is a living example of the potential of the autism community.

We asked you, our autism community, what you would ask Dr. Grandin if given the chance. We took questions from autistic individuals and their parents, and asked Dr. Grandin her thoughts. Here’s what she had to say.

The Mighty Readers: What is your advice for motivating a child with autism who is not motivated?

Temple Grandin: Well, I’m going to assume that this is not a 3-year-old. For a 3-year old I can give you a standard answer, and that’s lot of early intervention. Now I don’t know anything about this child, so I’m just going to make up a child… Let’s say a fourth-grade fully verbal child. Motivate him through his fixations. If he likes trains, use that motivation – that interest in trains – to motivate mathematics, motivate reading. Play games involving trains, read about the history of railroads. Make an associative link back into his fixations and then keep broadening it out.

When I was in fourth grade, I would draw the same horse head over and over again. I was encouraged to draw lots of different things. But take their fixation and broaden it. Transportation is a real common fixation – trains, cars and airplanes – because of the motion. A lot of these kids really like the motion.

If you have a 2-year old that’s not talking, [first check if they’re] deaf, and [then] start early educational intervention – 20 hours a week. You’ve got to teach them words. And, the other thing you’ve got to teach these kids [is] how to take turns. That was taught to me with board games. They’ve got to learn how to wait and take their turn.

How can you help a child with autism cope with their fears?

TG: Well, I had a lot of anxiety issues. One of the things you can do is give them some choices. When I was 15, I was afraid to go to my aunt’s ranch, so my mother gave me a choice. I could go for a week or I could go all summer. Not going was not going to be one of the choices. Give the child some choices, but becoming a recluse in your room is not one of the choices. That’s one place that my family, my school, just drew a line, and that was just not allowed. You can say, “You can have a choice – you can do boy scouts or you can do robotics.” Give the child some choices, but you’re going to have to get out and do some things.

As an adult, how do you deal with sensory input? Has it changed over time?

TG: Yes, it’s gotten better over time. I still have problems with touch sensitivity. I mean, they seem to be cheapening up the clothes and making the cotton more rough. You know finding pants that don’t itch is getting to be more and more of a big chore. Sound sensitivity for me has just become a nuisance, but I still have a lot of problems with screening out background noise. I’m functionally deaf in noisy restaurants, and my hearing has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. Sensory issues are extremely variable. Now some people have visual sensitivity problems, other people have touch sensitivity problems. My problems were mainly noise sensitivity, touch sensitivity. One of the areas I think is the number one area for research is how to treat sensory issues. It would be my big top priority, and in order to study these issues they have to be looked at by particular sensitivity problems – sound sensitivity, rough clothing sensitivity, problems with bright lights. If you blob it all together you’re not going to get any decent results.

What advice would you give parents whose children have recently been diagnosed with autism?

TG: Usually in younger children they get diagnosed because they’ve got speech delay. You have got to get into good early intervention, and I’ve got a book that’s very good for that, “The Way I See It.” Lots of short, easy-to-read chapters. There’s another book called “Autism Breakthrough,” if you’ve got to start working with a child now. If you have a kid that’s not talking, that’s 3 years old, don’t wait. Start working with this kid now, teach them turn taking and words. Do not let them zone out all day on electronics, absolutely not. If there is some game on a phone, that phone needs to physically be passed back and forth. These kids have got to learn how to wait and take their turn.

Now an older kid normally is diagnosed because he is getting bullied and having social problems in school and is usually fully verbal. I had friends that shared interests. Get them involved in Boy Scouts and FFA, in robotics, in art, in band, in theater – because with these specialized interests that’s where they are going to have friends. And I do a lot of discussion on that in one of my books, “Thinking in Pictures.”

Is handling fame and celebrity similar to coping with autism?

TG: Well, I figure it’s a responsibility. I’ve got to make sure I’m always on my very, very best behavior. I’ve always got to be on good behavior, no matter how tired I get.

How can parents help their nonverbal child communicate?

TG: Well, let’s say you’ve worked on this kid and he’s not learning to talk, then you need to get a communication device. There are some kids who are nonverbal who can learn to type independently and actually have locked-in syndrome – where there is a good brain hidden in there and they may not talk but they can learn how to type. A really good book to read is Tito Mukhopadhyay’s “How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move?” Tito describes a sensory jumbled up world. I consider that book essential reading if you’re working with older children and adults who are nonverbal because you can understand some of the sensory issues these individuals are up against.

What direction do you think awareness should be focused on?

TG: We have different issues. The early intervention, the awareness, I think has gotten a lot better, but I still go to certain parts of the country where the child is getting to first grade without getting any kind of early education. They’re just allowed to zone out on electronics and the TV all day.

I think we need to start, also, focusing on what people with autism can do. The way I got my business started, I showed off a portfolio of my work. In the 1970s when I started in the cattle industry, being a woman was a much bigger issue than being autistic. Being a woman, I had to be five times better than a man. I’ve been horrified over the years on the big mistakes that guys can make on jobs.

How can employers help their employees who are on the spectrum?

TG: There’s a very simple thing that employers can do to help people that have developmental differences. If today, I was hired by Starbucks and I got to tear that coffee machine down, clean it and put it back together again, I would need a pilot’s checklist of the steps to clean it, tear it down and get it reassembled – because I do not have a good working memory. So for a task that involves sequence, I would need a pilot’s checklist.

Also, if they make a social mistake, let’s say they’re working in a retail store and they stand too close to customers, you’ve got to just demonstrate, “This is how you do it. Watch Suzy, how she interacts with customers and then copy that.” It’s like instructing someone how to behave in a foreign country.

How can parents explain the advantages of autism to their children?

TG: Find something they are good at. There are some people with autism that are very good at math or very good at art. My ability in art, when I was a young child, was always greatly encouraged. Build up on the thing the kid is good at.

Are there different kinds of autistic minds?

TG: I talked about this in my book, “The Autistic Brain.” The visual thinkers like me, there are art minds, the mathematical minds, more of the patterned thinkers – kids who are good at math, good at programming, engineering – and then the writer minds. These differences often show up around third or fourth grade.

How can people with autism manage anxiety?

TG: Us visual thinkers, we tend to be really anxious. I do take medication. I take antidepressants. Low doses of antidepressants absolutely saved me, and I discussed that in my book, “Thinking in Pictures.” Even though [the book] is old, that information is still accurate. Read the chapter that’s called “A Believer in Biochemistry.” Some of the worst anxiety problems tend to be in the kids with the art minds, the visual thinkers.

Questions and replies have been edited for length and clarity.

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