Past Event On April 27, 2019

Dr. Temple Grandin with John Donvan

The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s

Dr. Temple Grandin with John Donvan

“I like the logical way that I think. Autism is an important part of who I am, but being a college professor and the work that I’ve done in the livestock industry comes first. No, I don’t like the illogical way most people think, so I want to stay the way I am.”

Dr. Temple Grandin

The Way I See It: A Personal Look At Autism And Asperger’s

Program Date: April 27, 2019

Dr. Temple Grandin is something of a rock star in the autism community. People with autism and their families know her story, they’ve read her books, and they look up to the woman who simultaneously led a groundbreaking career in animal science and gave the world its first look at life from inside the autistic mind. At The Richmond Forum, she shared with 4,500 Richmonders her visual way of thinking, her successes and challenges, and painted a vivid picture of life with autism.

Temple Grandin’s first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, gave a personal narrative of the disorder, which was previously considered to be a death sentence to a person’s productivity. Grandin’s account proved otherwise.

Public perceptions and awareness of autism have shifted since that book’s release in 1986, as John Donvan, the evening’s moderator, showed through a mini-experiment when the two sat down to begin the evening.

Donvan—the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist book on autism In a Different Key—asked the audience in the dark theater to clap to signal if they had someone in their life who has autism, they have autism themselves, or love someone with autism. Clapping filled the theater.

“So, Temple, what I find so astounding about that as an historian about the diagnosis of autism, as I am now, is that if I had asked that question in this city or any city 50 years ago, there would’ve been almost complete silence. Nobody would’ve heard of the condition of autism.”

Donvan then asked Grandin about her experiences growing up in the 1950s after being labeled with the relatively new diagnosis.

“So my mother gave me a choice: I could go for one week and come home, or stay all summer.  Not going  wasn’t one of the choices. Once I got out there, I loved it. That’s why I ended up in the cattle industry.”

– Dr. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin and John Donvan discuss what it means to have autism

“I went to a neurologist originally. The neurologist referred my mother to a little speech therapy school teachers taught in their basement,” Grandin explained. “And lots of emphasis on teaching turn-taking. I was brought up in the ’50s, where kids were taught [things like] table manners in a much more structured way.”

The structure that her mother and early teachers provided Grandin allowed her to learn useful life skills, like turn-taking, and to gain language skills that didn’t come naturally to her. They adapted to her learning style by giving her concrete examples to help her grasp a concept.

“To learn concepts like ‘up,’ ‘down,’ ‘in,’ ‘on,’ all those words, I’ve got to have five or six specific examples of how each one of those words will be used. I have to make it not abstract, and get a picture.”

That’s how Grandin learned to make sense of the world visually, and how she believed everyone else did as well.

“I didn’t realize until my late 30s that other people didn’t think in pictures. And my first breakthrough on that was when I talked to a speech therapist and I said, ‘Think about a steeple,’ and she just sees a vague, pointy thing like this,” she said, drawing a steeple in the air with her arms. “I’m going, ‘I only see pictures of specific church steeples. I started to realize that other people think differently.”

Explore the program book.

A “visual thinker” is one of four types of thinkers that Dr. Grandin explained to the audience. The second is a “pattern thinker,” someone who excels at math or music. The third is a “verbal thinker,” who processes through words and often memorizes lots of information about their favorite subjects. The fourth is an “auditory thinker” for whom visual perception is fragmented.

Her abilities as a visual thinker allow her to solve problems that other types of thinkers could not. In her career as a livestock handling expert, she’s used her visual thinking skills to imagine some of the most efficient handling equipment in the meat processing industry.

She also told Forum attendees that if she had designed the Boeing 737 MAX plane or the Fukushima nuclear reactor, neither would have met disastrous ends. A visual thinker would immediately foresee the issues with the plane’s sensors or the dangers of housing the reactor’s sensitive electronics in a flood-prone basement. In the latter case, she described visualizing a tsunami crashing over the plant’s seawall and causing the damage that it did indeed cause.

Her growing understanding of the different types of thinkers has led Grandin into advocacy work to help children and young adults with autism and other conditions find success.

Dr. Temple Grandin explains how she thinks in pictures

Grandin credits her mother for stretching a young Temple out of her comfort zone, and she urges other parents and teachers to do the same. In Grandin’s case, her path to success in the cattle industry started with a “choice” her mother presented to her:

“The reason why I’m in the cattle industry is when my mother got remarried when I was 14, that brought a ranch into the family. And when I was 15, I got a chance to go out to the ranch and I was afraid to go. So my mother gave me a choice: I could go for one week and come home, or stay all summer. Not going wasn’t one of the choices. Once I got out there, I loved it. That’s why I ended up in the cattle industry.”

It’s important to Grandin for kids with autism today to have similar experiences and she lamented the decline of hands-on classes offered in schools, like shop class, woodworking, or arts classes. By getting rid of those classes, students might miss an opportunity to discover a talent or passion for a skilled trade.

Grandin paraphrased the late Stephen Hawking: “Find something you can be good at that your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing.”

She holds an affirming view of her abilities and what her autism allows her to do, rather than focusing on her “disability,” and encourages others to do the same.

When asked by a Forum subscriber if she would rather be a person without autism, she said:

“Well, I like the logical way that I think. Autism is an important part of who I am, but being a college professor and the work I’ve done in the livestock industry comes first. No, I don’t like the illogical way most people think, so I want to stay the way I am.”

The way she is works for her, and appeared also to win over the crowd at The Forum. Donvan ended the evening with a note of praise from an audience member about her wonderful personality. Grandin responded with a warm “Thank you all for coming!” as she walked off stage, waving.

For a few hours, Richmond enjoyed a trip into the mind of Dr. Temple Grandin.

Dr. Temple Grandin answers an audience question about bullying

“Dr. Temple Grandin guided me to a deeper understanding of what it means to be different and how incredibly hard it is to be extraordinary among ordinary people. May her visual thinking continue to lead us all toward greater compassion and acceptance of one another.”

– Subscriber Comment

About Dr. Temple Grandin

Mary Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world. Dr. Grandin is a prominent author and speaker on autism and animal behavior, a consultant on livestock handling and animal welfare, and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

Grandin didn’t talk until she was three-and-a-half years old, communicating instead by screaming, peeping, and humming. In 1950, she was diagnosed with autism and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. Even though she was bullied for being “weird” in her young school years, she eventually found a mentor in her science teacher, who recognized her interests—horses, electronics, and model rockets—and her abilities, and encouraged her passion for science.

Grandin developed those interests into a successful career engineering livestock-handling equipment. Today, half of the cattle in the U.S. and Canada are handled in facilities she designed. She has also developed animal welfare guidelines for the meat industry.

Her 1986 book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, stunned the world because until its publication most professionals and parents assumed that an autism diagnosis was a death sentence for a person’s achievement or productivity. In the foreword of Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that her first book was “unprecedented because there had never before been an inside narrative of autism.”

Her other bestselling books include The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’sThe Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the SpectrumUnwritten Rules of Social RelationshipsAnimals Make Us Human, and Animals in Translation. Her most recent book, Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor, shows young readers how to think like her by sharing many of the projects Grandin worked on as a child.

Dr. Grandin has been featured in national radio, television, and print media, including on the TIME 100 list of the most influential people. Her life story, with its many challenges and successes, was brought to the screen in HBO’s Emmy Award-winning movie Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes, and in the award-winning children’s book The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Temple Grandin.

She is an inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and a past board member of the Autism Society of America.

Dr. Grandin holds a Bachelor’s degree in human psychology from Franklin Pierce College, a Master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Grandin lives and farms in Fort Collins, Colorado.

About John Donvan

John Donvan is a four-time Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, storyteller, author, and speaker.

A veteran network correspondent for ABC News and CNN, Donvan served as Chief White House Correspondent for ABC News and held long-term assignments in Moscow, London, Jerusalem, and Amman. He is a contributor for NPR, hosts and moderates the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series, and has moderated several Richmond Forum programs.

He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book In A Different Key: The Story of Autism (2016, co-authored with Caren Zucker) on the history of autism and autism advocacy. In a Different Key is the basis for an upcoming documentary film of the same name to be produced by its authors. On the film’s crowdsourcing page, Donvan and Zucker introduce it as “the first-ever full-length documentary to travel the timeline of society’s tense and sometimes misguided response to people on the autism spectrum.”

Donvan holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Dartmouth College and a Master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. Donvan is married to Dr. Ranit Mishori, and lives in Washington, D.C. They have two children.

Who Else has spoken at The Forum?

More than 240 distinguished speakers have participated in The Forum since its inception in 1987. Our list of alumni includes past U.S. presidents, sitting heads of state, and leaders from the sciences, arts, business, and more.

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