236 – Dr. Temple Grandin of Ft. Collins, CO An Autistic Person, Innovator, Author & Advocate for the Neurodivergent
Out special guest this week is Dr. Temple Grandin of Ft. Collins, CO, a national speaker, a best-selling author, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and outspoken advocate for the neurodivergent and those on the Autism Spectrum.
Temple was an Ashoka Fellow. She was also named in the Time 100 List as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in the ‘Heroes’ category.
She also has a number of honorary degrees form universities around the world, including; McGill University in Canada, the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Carnegie Mellon University and Emory University.
Temple is the author of numerous books including:
– Emergence: Labeled Autistic
– Developed Talents
– Thinking In Pictures
– The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across The Spectrum
– Different Not Less
Temple’s TED Talk entitled: “The World Needs All Kinds Of Minds” has been viewed more than 6M times. The movie Temple Grandin, produced in 2010, received numerous awards including seven Emmy Awards.
We are very grateful to Temple for her outspoken advocacy and for sharing her views with fathers raising children with special needs.
That’s all on this SFN Dad To Dad Podcast.
Website – https://www.templegrandin.com
Email – Cheryl.Miller@ColoState.EDU
Phone – (970) 443-1510
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/temple-grandin-9a087165/
Website – https://www.templegrandin.com/
Website – https://www.grandin.com/
Books – Thinking In Pictures – tinyurl.com/2dp589z5
TED Talk – https://www.ted.com/talks/temple_grandin_the_world_needs_all_kinds_of_minds
Tom Couch: Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast, working tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at HorizonTherapeutics.com.
Temple Grandin: My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people. I think in pictures and I connect them. But this is the problem. The verbal thinkers get locked into the label. You’re putting Elon Musk in the same category as an adult that’s non-verbal that can’t dress themselves, and you put the same name on it? That doesn’t make very much sense. See, as a visual thinker, I’m seeing these different people. Oh, that just doesn’t make sense.
Tom Couch: That’s our special guest this week, Temple Grandin, innovator, author, activist, autistic, and subject of HBO’s biopic Temple Grandin: A Humane Approach. Our host, David Hirsch, spoke with Temple Grandin about a whole wealth of topics, and we’ll hear that conversation along with excerpts of Temple’s TED Talk and some snippets from the HBO movie on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Here now is our host, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com, groups, and search “dad to dad”.
Tom Couch: So let’s get right to this fascinating conversation between David Hirsch and Temple Grandin.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with Dr. Temple Grandin of Fort Collins, Colorado, a national speaker, bestselling author, professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and outspoken advocate for the neurodivergent and those on the autism spectrum. You are also an Ashoka fellow. You were also named to the Time 100 List as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in the heroes category. You also have a number of honorary degrees from universities around the world, including McGill University in Canada, Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Carnegie Mellon University, as well as Emory University. Temple, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Temple Grandin: It’s really great to be here.
David Hirsch: Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Temple Grandin: I grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston, so I was an easterner. And when I was a little kid, I was very severely autistic. And then by the time I was four, I was verbal. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of early intervention. Another thing I wanna talk about is the big spectrum. The autism goes from like Elon Musk, who has now disclosed he’s autistic, to somebody who can’t dress themselves. And then you have what used to be called a Asperger type where there’s no speech delay and the kid is just not very social. And half the programmers in Silicon Valley are probably on the spectrum. This is where it’s a true spectrum. In fact, I just found a new article in Science magazine right here where brain scans were looked at with a specialized computer system and they found that it truly is a continuous trait.
So when this slightly geeky and nerdy become autistic. And then you have another kid that never learns to dress themselves. But the thing is, when the kids are very small, they can look really terrible and you don’t know how they’re gonna come out, because I was horrible when I was little. Now, fortunately, I went to a neurologist, and the neurologist checked me for epilepsy, and I did not have epilepsy.
That’s usually a good sign. But my, I was just, I was terrible. But fortunately by two and a half, gotten into very good early intervention. And the emphasis was on learning words, learning how to wait and take turns, and basic skills like dressing and washing your hands, just learning basic skills. I was very lucky to get into that really good program.
And then later on, my mother always encouraged my ability in art. Take the thing the kid is good at and build on it. Now when autistic kids get older, I’m talking about the fully verbal end of the spectrum. They tend to get uneven skills, really good at one thing, really bad at something else. And I was one of these visual kids who was super good at art.
And I’ve also learned that my kind of mind also is good at mechanical things. I would spend hours and hours tinkering with kites and parachutes. And so you have the art mind, object visualizer, good at art, but also good at mechanics. And we’ve got kids growing up today that never learn to use a ruler. I think that’s terrible. Then you got the kid, that’s the mathematics kid and that’s the kid… often mathematics and music go together. Then he may need more advanced math. And then you’ve got the autistic kid that loves words and facts. And we need to be building a lot more on the strengths. And I discussed that in my book, “The Autistic Brain”.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I think the point I hear you’re making about building on strengths is that it’s a leadership skill, right? To know what your strengths are and then play to those, and then try to compensate for things that you know you’re not good at. And that’s not to say focus on things you’re not good at, but find others that might be able to compensate for a weakness that you might have so you can continue to focus on your strengths.
Temple Grandin: Okay, good.
David Hirsch: So I wanna go back a little bit though, and I’m curious to know what did your dad do for a living?
Temple Grandin: He was real estate agent. He probably was on the spectrum. He was not very helpful. My mom, I gotta give her credit for all of the work. The mother’s done a lot of talks in autism and one of the problems, a lot of dads check out. He was one of the ones that checked out and he wanted to put me in an institution. And there’s that scene in the HBO movie where it’s a doctor saying I should be in an institution. That’s the way it normally was in the ’50s when you had a kid that didn’t talk. No, unfortunately it was my father that wanted to do that, and that’s written up in my mother’s book.
And now I did have a man that’s really important to me, my science teacher. He gave me interesting projects to do cause I got fascinated with optical illusions and then that got me motivated to study so I could become a scientist. I get asked what motivated you? This is where a good teacher and William Carlock and I never called him Bill. It was Mr. Carlock, I dunno.
[Excerpt from the HBO movie “Termple Grandin: A Humane Approach”]
Professor Carlock: Oh Temple, you have a very special mind, you know that? You see the world in ways that others can’t and it’s quite an advantage. And you know something? If you weren’t such a goof and you developed this talent, you could easily go on to college.
Temple Grandin: What would I do at college?
Professor Carlock: With your mind, anything you wanted to. Pick a subject.
Temple Grandin: Cows. Do they have colleges with cows?
Professor Carlock: Yes, they do. And horses and pigs and goats and sheep. And it’s called animal husbandry.
Temple Grandin: Animal husbandry. [giggling]
Professor Carlock: And it deals with the care of animals. Temple, think of it as a door. A door that’s going to open up onto a whole new world for you, and all you need to do is decide to go through it.
[End of movie excerpt]
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a teacher, although somebody like Mr. Carlock.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thank you for mentioning that. And I know that he was played by David Strathairn in the movie.
Temple Grandin: That’s correct, yeah.
David Hirsch: And I know that it was a very important relationship. And if I remember in real life, it was at the Hampshire Country School, if I remember correctly.
Temple Grandin: That’s right. And he did a very nice job. I thought all the people… Catherine O’Hara as Anne… I thought all the actresses and actors did a really good job.
David Hirsch: I know that you’d mentioned that your mom was really the leader. She was the one that was your strongest advocate.
Temple Grandin: She was the leader. She was absolutely the leader. And she was very creative, like I’d stick my finger in the mashed potatoes and mother would say, use the fork. She just would give the instruction.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thank God for mothers in society, because if it wasn’t for moms, I don’t know where we would be.
Temple Grandin: The other problem is I see some moms, this is a show for dads, but…, Let’s talk about a fully verbal teenager, doing well in school and they got an autism label. And I’m seeing them get so overprotected by the moms, they aren’t learning things like shopping. And this is where the dad does so nice to come in and say, Hey, we gotta get out and do some things. And that’s something that I’ve, talked to a lot of families where dad really did a lot of good, because some of the moms, especially with the teenagers, overprotect. I’m appalled at the number of fully verbal autistic teenagers I’ve talked to that have never gone shopping by themselves. That is ridiculous.
David Hirsch: So what you’re referring to is having real world experiences, not being sheltered.
Temple Grandin: And then the other big thing is working skills. I had a very good elementary school life, a wonderful little small school. I got kicked out of a big school for fighting and mother found a special school I could go to. She actually gave me a choice of special schools and my family could afford to pay for it. And the first thing they did is they put me to work running the horse barn. And I did no studying, but I learned how to run a horse barn. And what I remember from that is I learned how to work and that is really important. And that’s something that a lot of kids aren’t learning. And then in the last year I was at the school, Mr. Carlock came on the scene and got me interested in science projects. And then all of a sudden overnight, I went from a rotten student to a good one because now I had a reason to study.
David Hirsch: Yeah. It was really a turning point in your own educational experience. Speaking of education, my recollection was you have a BA in human Psychology from Franklin Pierce University.
Temple Grandin: That’s correct.
David Hirsch: Then you went on to get a master’s in animal science from Arizona State University.
Temple Grandin: That’s correct. Yep.
David Hirsch: And a dozen or so years later you got your PhD in animal science from our alma mater, University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign.
Temple Grandin: That’s right. University of Illinois. I was there from 1980 until 1989.
David Hirsch: And what was going on early in your career when you graduated from your master’s program?
Temple Grandin: I was out in the field designing cattle facilities. That was something I was out in the field doing. And one thing I learned very early on is I learned to show off my work and I would show people pictures of my drawings, photographs of jobs. I learned to sell my work. I also saw doors to opportunity. There’s a scene in the HBO movie where I get the editor’s card and I start writing for the magazine. This was a State Farm magazine. Because I knew writing for that magazine would really help my career. I saw that door and a lot of people don’t see doors to opportunity.
And that got me a press pass into all kinds of meetings. Got me press pass into national meetings, and then I walked up to the editor and got the card for the national magazine. See, I saw those doors of opportunity. And I see so many people that just don’t see that. They’re everywhere. They just don’t see them.
David Hirsch: Out of curiosity, as it relates to your career, what was it that prompted you to pursue a career in animal science to begin with?
Temple Grandin: I was originally a psychology major and I wanted to study optical illusions. I actually did a year towards a master’s at Arizona State in psychology. That just didn’t work out.
One of the problems is I’m not very good at math and I’m very concerned that people like me who are really very vivid visual thinkers, can’t do algebra. And the people that I worked with who built a lot of my equipment, also cannot do algebra. And this one guy that owns a gigantic food factory where he invented half the equipment, he’s got a corporate jet, he couldn’t do algebra either, and probably didn’t graduate my time. I can’t tell you what, where the corporate jet took me I’ll just call it Willy Wonka and stainless steel, and we had a discussion of every label he would’ve been. This is the thing that’s a concern is I go back and forth between an industrial world and the autism world, and I’m seeing too many really capable kids getting held back and we’ve got a label now that’s so broad, it’s ridiculous. And I think the reason this happened is when the kids are little… I looked atrocious when I was little, but I looked really atrocious. The only good thing was I was not deaf and I did not have epilepsy, and I was very lucky to get good early intervention.
David Hirsch: So you mentioned that a couple times, the importance of early intervention. And I’m wondering if you could be more specific. What do you recall the benefits of that early intervention being in your situation?
Temple Grandin: Learning how to talk. Also these kids have got to learn how to wait and take turns at games, how to learn and take turns in an activity. And a lot of these kids have problems with that. And that was something that all kinds of turn-taking games were done.
And then just an emphasis on learning skills. I’m seeing too many kids that haven’t learned to get dressed. There’s a lot of emphasis on learning those kinds of things. You know, the teachers had a little school in the basement of their house and they just knew how to work with these kids. Six other little kids. I think there was a kid with Down syndrome in my class. Early intervention is really important. Where I’m seeing things really falling down is getting into work. But then when I’m out there in the world of industry, there’s all kinds of people my age retiring now that own things like metal fabrication shops and they’re not getting replaced.
And I think one of the worst things the schools did is taking out all the hands on classes, cooking, sewing, auto mechanics, carpentry, theater, music, cuz these are all things that can expose kids to possible careers. And some of the people I’ve worked with, one that definitely was autistic, another one that definitely was not autistic. What helped those people, a single welding class started their business. Now, I’m not saying welding’s for everybody, but these are people 60s and 70s now.
David Hirsch: Oh yeah. I can remember, when I was in high school for that matter, taking like an auto class. Really basic stuff.
Temple Grandin: Yeah.
David Hirsch: You learn how to time an engine, you learn how to change a tire, change the oil. Really basic things. And I think for some, like you said, it’s working with your hands. It’s very rewarding. It’s, there’s that curiosity that goes along with, how do things work, and how do I put ’em back together when I take ’em apart?
Temple Grandin: Exactly.
David Hirsch: And you’re training certain aspects of your brain to work in a way. And it’s problem solving basically at a very early age.
Temple Grandin: That’s right. And then there’s a problem with a lot of these young adults getting addicted to video games. And if they were getting fabulous video game industry jobs, I would not be criticizing. But that’s not what’s happening. What I’m seeing with young autistic adults, now let’s go play video games in the basement or get out and get a life. But what I’m happy to say is I’ve now talked to five or six different young adults where they were weaned off of video games with auto mechanics. And they found that the cars were more interesting than the video games. And not weaned off with bagging groceries at the store or something like that. It has to be something really interesting.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. I’m curious at the risk of focusing on the negative, what were your biggest challenges as a youth versus being a young adult and then today for that matter.
Temple Grandin: When I got into puberty, horrible anxiety attacks, absolutely horrible anxiety attacks, and I discussed that in my book, “Thinking in Pictures”. And my anxiety attacks worsened as I got through my 20s. Worse and worse and worse. And then I discovered a low dose of antidepressant medication when I was in my early 30s. And I had nonstop colitis. My health was falling apart. And when I went on the low dose of the antidepressant the colitis cleared up, health problems got not totally cured, but almost, almost none. Not a problem anymore. But that was strictly biology. And that’s why I have a chapter in “Thinking in Pictures” called a Believer in Biology.
David Hirsch: That sort of touches on one of the hot button issues as it relates to autism and some other rare diseases about medication. Because that’s what I heard you say is that you struggled a lot for a long period of time, and then in your case, the medication actually made a meaningful difference.
Temple Grandin: But it wasn’t given to me as a very young child. There are way too many drugs given out to little kids. Way too many drugs. And especially drugs with really bad side effects, antipsychotic drugs that have obesity and other really bad side effects. All of a sudden taking one low dose of ancient old drug desipramine. But I know other people on the spectrum where a low dose of Prozac really turned them around. I think the younger the kid is, the more conservative. And I have a basic principle is if you try a medication or you try a diet or something, try one thing at a time, so you know what’s working. I’m seeing too much where I talk to parents and they’re just throwing prescriptions and stuff, five or six different things with no thought put into it.
David Hirsch: Yeah. There’s probably an emphasis in society today that we’ll be able to resolve things through medication. And there’s a, for some reason, eagerness in the medical community to suggest that they’re a simple solution
Temple Grandin: Medication was very important for me. I would’ve done the dipping that project show in the movie. I was not on medication when I did that project. But then in my early 30s, my health really started deteriorating, and I don’t think I would’ve become a college professor if I hadn’t gone on the medication. It was like my fear system was ramped up, going crazy over nothing. It was all biology. And I’ve talked to other people on the spectrum that have horrible panic attacks and I’ve talked ’em into trying some Prozac. Very low dose. Too high a dose, you get agitation. Has to be a very low dose. And it made a big difference. I also know somebody that was doing very well on a low dose of Prozac. Went off of it, and the result was a disaster.
David Hirsch: If I can summarize what you’ve said that you’re a proponent of biology and the use of medications, but for adults more so than for children.
Temple Grandin: Yeah, for adults more, yeah, that would be right. The other thing is you have to figure out, okay, now autism, you have a non-verbal person and you’re getting, okay, now he’s punching out a wall or something really bad. Let’s do a little troubleshooting on how you, what causes the behavior. The first thing is frustration because he can’t communicate. You’ve got to give him a way to communicate. Another thing in a nonverbal person that cannot communicate, let’s say he’s been good and now his behavior just turned terrible and he’s an adult. Make sure that person does not have a painful medical issue like acid reflux, ear infection, tooth infection, urinary tract infection. Some painful, hidden problem they can’t tell you about. And then also sometimes the meltdowns are more likely to happen in noisy environments. It may be sensory. So you’ve got to figure out what’s setting it off. But too often doctors get stuck in the label. And they’ll say it’s just autism, when maybe he should have been treated for acid reflux. Then over the counter drug.
David Hirsch: Yeah, point well made. Especially when, like you said, you’re dealing with somebody who’s non-verbal. They can’t explain what the issue or the problem is.
Temple Grandin: They can’t tell you where it hurts. That’s the problem. And so you always have to make sure, especially in an adult, where the behavior suddenly turned bad. That’s where you’ve gotta rule out. And they’re simple things to check. Hidden, painful medical problem.
David Hirsch: Good point. You’re probably approaching retirement. I’m not suggesting that you should be retiring, but we’re of the same age group. And I’m wondering, you’ve described your challenges as a youth growing up as a young adult. I’m wondering what are the type of challenges that you experience today?
Temple Grandin: I’m still a professor. I’m in my 70s now. I’m still a professor. I’m still traveling. And I’ve thought about what would I do if I got confined to a wheelchair. I’ve thought about that. And we have a science museum here. I think I’d try to get little kids turned on to some of the science museums.
And I was thinking, I’ve looked at walkers and I’ve actually thought about how I’m gonna trick them out. [laughing] The other day I talked to somebody that couldn’t get him to use a wheelchair. So a Harley bike mechanic made him a really cool wheelchair that looked like a Harley. Then he used it. I always liked bike streamers on my bike when I was a kid on the handle bars. My walker’s gonna have bike streamers.
David Hirsch: Okay.
Temple Grandin: I gotta make it hip.
David Hirsch: Gotta make it hip. That’s what I hear you saying. Let’s talk about your books. You’ve written quite a few books and the one that stood out for me was “Thinking in Pictures.”
Temple Grandin: Yes. And that’s my autobiography and that’s one of my favorite books. We just did a new afterward for it where I talk about the different kinds of thinking, talk about emotions. A lot of people will find that helpful.
What I’ve noticed with the, on the high end of the autism spectrum, where there are successful people I worked with, they all had their own businesses. And that’s basically what I did is, having my own business. But this is the problem, and the verbal thinkers get locked into the label and you’re putting Elon Musk in the same category as an adult that’s non-verbal, that can’t dress themselves? You put the same name on it? That doesn’t make very much sense. See, as a visual thinker, I’m seeing these different people. Oh, that just doesn’t make sense.
David Hirsch: So what would you propose? I don’t think there’s a simple solution.
Temple Grandin: There, there is, but I think the reason why it happened is because when the kids are three, I looked really severe. The only hint that was good was the no epilepsy.
David Hirsch: So one of the turning points, if I can recall what you just said earlier, was that your mom really pushed you, right, to develop a vocabulary.
Temple Grandin: And she had a really good sense of how to stretch me because you don’t just throw a kid into a sensory overload situation. She always gave some limited choice, but she knew how to stretch me. One time I was afraid to go to the lumber yard myself to buy some stuff for remodeling the kitchen. And she made me go. And I had to go in and talk to the staff there and get the boards bought. That was stressful, but I did it. She had a very good sense of just how much to stretch. Cuz I think a lot of moms overprotect, and this is where some dads, when they do good things, they get the kid doing stuff. I’ve talked to several places that do like adventure camps for individuals with autism like surfing or going on boats and what these camps teach the parents in a three day session is that yeah, their kid actually could go on a boat, maybe even go on a surfboard. You show the moms that the kid actually could do something because this is where when dads are helpful, they push the kid to do some new things.
David Hirsch: Do you think that that’s directly correlated, Temple, to building some self-confidence and independence?
Temple Grandin: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s really important. And then driving. It’s gonna take a, that took a lot more practice. Anne taught me to drive and we had, she had an old pickup with three on the tree and a bad clutch and it was three miles up to the mailbox on a dirt road and three miles back. And that’s where I learned.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s beautiful. I can remember when I was 16 or 17, learning how to drive a manual transmission on an old pickup truck and that’s probably like the best type of vehicle in the world to do that. It’s very forgiving.
Temple Grandin: You started out in the middle of the horse pasture lurching around, is where we started.
David Hirsch: That’s wonderful. So I’m back to your book, “Thinking in Pictures”. You’re a visual learner and you’ve got a gift, many gifts. But one of your gifts is that, and once you’ve seen something that you can recall it.
Temple Grandin: Well, and so the very first thing I did in cattle handling was to look at what cattle was seeing when they were walking through shoots and shadows and things like this that other people just didn’t think to look at those things. But when you’re a visual thinker, it was obvious to me to look at what the cattle were looking at. And when I was in my 20s, I didn’t know that other people thought in words. I didn’t know that.
But I’m learning more about how people thinking words are different. Like I just got off a Zoom call, really nice agricultural school. And one of the professors was asking what’s all this shadow stuff? And I said shadow changes at different times of day. And at 10 o’clock in the morning, the cattle went through the facility just fine. At 3:30 in the afternoon, a shadow appeared and it was terrible. And the cattle refused to walk over the shadow.
You see now when I talk about that, I’m seeing it. But there are some people that are very verbal, they don’t see it. But I think another thing looking at the whole autism thing is by the time I was five, we could do normal activities like church, visit granny’s, shopping, go to a movie. But then you have the family where the kid is so severe that they can’t do any of those things.
That’s where things get a lot more difficult. A lot of divorces. Usually the mom gets us to work on it. So at one end with a fully verbal moms overprotect. But then on you’ve got very severe problems. The mom, the work gets dumped on her.
[Excerpt from the HBO movie “Termple Grandin: A Humane Approach”]
Mother: People don’t want to hear all those details about cattle.
Temple: But I do. I wanna be with cattle.
Mother: Sweetheart, I don’t want you to avoid people.
Temple: They make me feel bad.
Mother: Then ignore them. You are the only master of science in the room, and I am so proud of you. Temple, look at me. Look at me. Do you know that people tell each other things with their eyes? This is me telling you that I love you and I respect you.
Temple: I will never learn how to do that.
Mother: I know.
[End of movie excerpt]
David Hirsch: So what was this device that you created when you were a young person that provided you with a certain level of comfort that you went on to patent?
Temple Grandin: I had all these panic attacks and I watched cattle going through a squeeze shoot at my aunt’s ranch. So I made a squeeze shoot like device that I could get into that applied pressure, and I found it calmed me. Deep pressure can be calming.
David Hirsch: What’d you call that device?
Temple Grandin: Squeeze machine. And it’s described in detail in my book “Thinking in Pictures”.
David Hirsch: And were you able to manufacture that or was somebody able to manufacture that?
Temple Grandin: There’s a company called the Therafin Corporation that does manufacture it. Now, the downside is it is expensive, but you also can use things like weighted blankets and weighted vests and get some of the same effect, and they’re not expensive.
David Hirsch: What I found interesting about your situation with the squeeze machine is that you preferred that over human touch, from what I recall.
Temple Grandin: With sensory issues In autism, it’s easier to tolerate something if I could control it. And this is also true for sound sensitivity with autistic kids. If they don’t like something like the vacuum cleaner, let them turn it on and off. Let them turn the hair dryer on and off. And then one kid found the vacuum cleaner was his favorite thing. And he can control it. See the squeezing machine, I could control it. And that’s one of the ways that you can desensitize. So see, now I like to be hugging people where I could control it. That element of control is really important in helping desensitize some of these sensory problems.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thanks for emphasizing that. You have a number of other books. The other one that I read was “Different, Not Less”. And there are a dozen and a half individuals that are sharing their story.
Temple Grandin: That’s right. And there’s 18 of them in that book. And I learned a lot editing that book because each person tells their own story. And we’re getting diagnosed later in life. And these were all fully verbal, all employed, all different kinds of jobs where they diagnose, help them later in life. In the relationships, that’s where it was helpful. Like I had a lady come up to me at the Denver airport and she goes you saved our marriage. I read your book and now I understand my engineer husband. [laughing] And it gave me insight being the editor of that book.
David Hirsch: So are you in favor of individuals who are seeking employment to wear their autism on their sleeve and being very transparent about it? Or would you be recommending that they just not draw attention to that? Where do you fall on that?
Temple Grandin: I never disclosed. Actually, starting out in the cattle industry in the 70s, being a woman was 10 times the barrier. 10 times the barrier. Being autistic was a non-issue. And I learned how to sell my work. I would just show off my drawings, show off my pictures. That’s how I got the jobs. And you can get in there asking for so many accommodations that you annoy people.
Now there’s a few things that I can’t do. Multitasking. The other thing is I like really clear guidance on what I’m supposed to do. I’ll do the designing, but I need to know what the boundaries of the job are. So the cost range for the job. If I have to do a task that involves step by step instructions, I need to write them down. So I just say I need to write it down. Let me write it down, then I can do it. Maybe that’s advocating for myself, but there’s still some discrimination. I’ve heard some very bad discrimination where somebody lost a good job when they disclosed.
David Hirsch: Yeah. My sense is that it’s circumstantial, right? At some point, it’s just who you are, right? I’m an autistic person, not a person with autism.
Temple Grandin: Yeah. And when you get into the whole thing about person with autism or autistic, my very first book, “Emergence: Labeled Autistic”, autistic was in the title before I even thought about what they call person-first language.
David Hirsch: And what I’m learning is that it seems like with all disabilities, right, you want to be person first, but with autism there’s a sort of a pendulum is swinging back the other way.
Temple Grandin: That’s right.
David Hirsch: And individuals, especially adults like yourself with autism, don’t want to be person first. This is just who I am. I’m proud of who I am.
Temple Grandin: Well, autism in it’s mildest forms, it’s just a personality variant. See, this is the problem. You can say half the population is more emotional and social. And the other half the population is more into what they do and less social emotional. And then it just goes in severity. And there’s new study that shows that you are looking at brain scan data. It’s on a true continuum. And when do you slap a label on it? You’re gonna call every computer scientist in Silicon Valley handicapped? This is the problem.
It isn’t like you’re blind and you can say, now you’ve got this much sight loss. Now you’re totally blind, or you’re deaf, or you can’t walk. The problem you got with autism and it’s mildest forms. I think it’s just part of variation in its mildest forms.
David Hirsch: Yeah, that’s a good point. So I’m thinking about your TEDx talk. Or your TED Talk, I should say entitled, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds”, which you did back in February of 2010.
Temple Grandin: That’s right.
David Hirsch: And it’s been viewed over 6 million times.
Temple Grandin: Yeah.
[Excerpt from TED talk, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds”]
Temple Grandin: I think I’ll start out and just talk a little bit about what exactly autism is. Autism is a very big continuum that goes from very severe, the child remains nonverbal, all the way up to brilliant scientists and engineers. And I actually feel at home here because there’s a lot of autism genetics here. [laughing] You wouldn’t have any… it’s a continuum of traits. When does a nerd turn into the Asperger, which is just mild autism?
[Fade out of TED Talk]
David Hirsch: Where did you give your talk and how did you go about deciding the topic?
Temple Grandin: I’ve always been interested in the different kinds of minds. And another thing I’m concerned about is my kind of mind. I think our educational system is screening out my kind of mind with draconian math requirements, which I would not be able to pass today.
But the thing is, we need our visual thinkers, to fix things, to build stuff. I worked with and a lot of the people I worked with, I’ve talked to ’em and I can’t do algebra either. Gigantic shortage of electricians, shortage of people to fix cars. It’s a different kind of intelligence.
David Hirsch: So were there any surprises, any reactions that you got to your TED Talk?
Temple Grandin: A lot of people, I remember them laughing when I said that a lot of the people in Silicon Valley were probably somewhat on the spectrum. No, I’ve been there. I’ve been to those places.
David Hirsch: You keep making reference to Silicon Valley and you’ve made reference to Elon Musk more than once. Have you ever met Elon Musk?
Temple Grandin: No, I haven’t, but I’ve only, I read Ashley Vance’s book quite a few years ago when it first came out. Ashley Vance’s book, “Elon Musk”, and I marked up that book when it came out where I thought he was autistic, but I couldn’t say it. But then after he came out on Saturday Night Live, then I can say it. And I’ve got a copy of Elon Musk’s book. Yeah, here it is, right here. Complete with ancient post-it notes where I marked it, where I thought he was autistic.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s something that your mom and his mom have in common is raising somebody with a brilliant mind. But the early experience was very difficult, right, because you didn’t process things the same way.
Temple Grandin: He got horrible bullying in school.
David Hirsch: And didn’t you experience some of that?
Temple Grandin: Oh yes. Teenage years. Horrible. Worst part of my life was teenage years. Managed to get through elementary school without getting bullied cuz a teacher explained to the other students I had a disability that wasn’t visible. But high school was horrible, absolutely horrible. And the only place I had friends was friends who shared interests, like in horseback riding or electronics.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s a wise word to parents, right, when they get to, when their children are that age, right, they need to be thinking a little bit outside the box and what they can be doing to help their young teenagers to navigate these tricky parts of life.
Temple Grandin: No, they were the worst years of my life. Absolutely the worst years. And bullying, it was absolutely horrible. The other thing is I have problems with all the disabilities just being lumped together. Because you have disabilities, like a very severe autistic teenager, very severe autistic adult, parents may have, can’t do anything. And then you’ve got somebody who’s just nerdy on the spectrum.
See, that’s the thing. You have this huge spectrum. As I talk to parents where they’re so stressed out, they can’t even have a night out. Dad and the mom can’t go out to dinner, just have a nice night out once in a while. They’re completely stressed. This is the problem you get with autism is you’ve got that at one end of the spectrum and other end of the spectrum, you don’t have that. And then you have everything in between. I have problems with the generalization, because I see them as specific cases. Verbal thinker just tends to merge all the words together.
And I had a blind roommate when I was in college. We got along. She was one of the best roommates I ever had. In fact, I used to go to the movie with my blind roommate and we’d sit in the back and I’d whisper what was on the screen in her ear.
David Hirsch: Yeah you’re taking a page out of a friend’s playbook. I don’t know if you know the individual. His name is Jim Stovall. He’s out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And Jim lost his vision entirely by the time he was 29. He’s in his sixties now, so he is been blind, completely blind for more than half of his life. But because he saw at the beginning of his life normally, and then his sight deteriorated the last 10 years of his life, he went on to create something called the Narrative Television Network, which is allowing people who are blind or who are sight impaired, there’s about 13 million Americans that fit that description, to be able to enjoy movies and TV and videos. And they have this little narration that comes in between the dialogue, just like you were doing with your roommate.
Temple Grandin: That’s what I was doing with her. We would sit in the back. So we try to get away from the other people and I would whisper what the picture was showing. That’s what I did. And we went to a bunch of movies. I remember going to “Dances with Wolves” with her and something called “The Time Bandits”.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s wonderful.
Temple Grandin: Yeah.
David Hirsch: Another thing you’re emphasizing is the importance of having friendships.
Temple Grandin: Absolutely. And for the autistic person, it’s gonna be friends who shared interests. It could be art, it could be music, it could be robotics club. It could be a lot of different things.
Tom Couch: We’ll be back with more of the conversation on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast in just a few moments. But first, this quick message. Please help 21st Century Dads gather research on families raising children with special needs by having them complete the Special Fathers Network Early Intervention Parents Survey. A link to the survey can be found in the show notes. As a token of our appreciation, each person, mom or dad, who completes the survey, will receive a Great Dad Coin. Thank you. Now back to the conversation.
David Hirsch: So let’s talk about the movie entitled “Temple Grandin”. How did that project come about?
Temple Grandin: Emily Gerson Saines is the mother of a young autistic adult more on the severe end of the spectrum. She’s also an acting agent in New York, so she approached me. And gave me an advance and then she, it took her 10 years to get the project together cause they couldn’t get the right team of people together to do it. Then she finally found Mick Jackson, the director, Claire Danes, Christopher Munger, the writer, and they had the right team and I think they did a really good job on the movie.
But the producer, it was a mother of an autistic adult who had severe autism, and she wanted it done right. And it shows my visual thinking exactly how I think visually and it shows the sensory issues in autism. They did a great job with the movie. I’m very pleased with it. They showed all my projects and all the projects were in the movie I actually built.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I loved Claire Danes’ role, the role that she plays as Temple Grandin. She was just brilliant.
[Excerpt from the HBO movie, “Temple Grandin”]
Temple: But the cowboys killed three cows in it! Three in five minutes because they wouldn’t follow my design.
Man: Temple, would you like to…
Temple: I can’t protect the cattle unless I design the whole system. From the moment they enter to the moment…
[Fade out of movie excerpt]
And she did go on to win an Academy Award and an Emmy from what I remember.
Temple Grandin: Yeah. The movie got seven Emmys, five of them were shown at the awards showing. So one of ’em was Best Single Camera movie, and that was Mick Jackson.
David Hirsch: So what did you like most about the movie?
Temple Grandin: I loved the fact that it had my projects in it. It showed the main character so nicely and Claire Danes just became me. In fact, I remember listening to an interview on the radio where they were interviewing me and then playing scenes from the movie. And I’m in my car listening to this and actually mixing up me and Claire [laughing] until I recognized the line in the movie.
David Hirsch: Do you think it was more exciting for her to meet you or for you to meet her?
Temple Grandin: She’s very serious about what she does and I went and visited the set, but I was mainly down there to make sure the cattle stuff got done right. That’s a lot of conversations about that. Don’t have any Holsteins in there. You wouldn’t have Holsteins on a Western ranch. [laughing] Had to make sure that kind of stuff was right.
David Hirsch: How much editorial license did the producers take with the movie?
Temple Grandin: You’ve got a two hour movie. But the things that were important, the projects were correct. The main characters were shown really well. That the sensory thing and visual thinking was shown. Yeah, there’s some things, that crazy horse, that was a bit of an exaggeration. [laughing] But overall I thought they did a really good job with it. And people have told me that watching that movie helped them in working with kids with autism. See, I was very concerned about clinical accuracy. Show visual thinking correctly. It illustrated sensory issues correctly.
David Hirsch: Yeah. What I really enjoyed about the movie was that it’s one thing to see a person that has quirks or is on the spectrum and identify with that just from an observational standpoint.
Temple Grandin: Yes. Yeah.
David Hirsch: And what I thought was really creative is that the producers would cut from what the scene looked like, the actual scene, to what you were seeing and it juxtaposed these.
Temple Grandin: Oh, and that’s where Mick Jackson really knew how to do that.
David Hirsch: Yeah.
Temple Grandin: And then Mick Jackson, visual thinker, worked with Christopher Munger, the writer, to make sure that it didn’t mess up the movie with too much of that back and forth. And that’s where you get the right team, visual thinker with the writer. Because you do that kind of stuff wrong, it would’ve messed up the movie.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Yeah. I thought it was brilliant. I really enjoyed it.
[Excerpt from the movie, “Temple Grandin”]
Temple: Thank you. It was very nice to meet you. I’m Temple Grandin.
Betty: t’s nice to meet you too. I’m Betty. Are you waiting to meet somebody or something?
Temple: No, I have trouble with automatic doors sometimes and I’m nervous. I’m autistic.
Betty: Oh. My son is artistic and he’s got the same thing with airplanes. Oh, come on. You just come along with me. All right. Come on. And I’ll make sure that they stay open.
All right. You are safe. Now. You’re safe.
Temple: Thank you.
Betty: My pleasure. Are you a horse woman? You sure…
Temple: I like horses, but I work with cattle. I designed a dip that Cattle magazine called brilliant.
Betty: Oh my golly, my husband read about you. He works over at Abbott.
Temple: Abbott Slaughterhouse?
Betty: Yeah. You heard of it?
Temple: I wanna redesign it. I went there, but they wouldn’t let me meet with them. But I have several ideas about how to make a new facility that’ll be much more humane and efficient.
Betty: I guess you just have to meet my husband then. How wonderful that we bumped into each other.
Temple: [laughing] A door opened and I went through it.
Betty: Yes, you did. And I held it.
[End of movie excerpt]
So I’m thinking about advice now and I’m wondering if there’s any advice that you can share with parents and specifically dads who realize, either from the time of birth or shortly thereafter, that they’re raising a child with differences. Maybe you can start with somebody on the spectrum and then just talk more broadly.
Temple Grandin: The problem is with the first thing I tell every parent with three year olds that you cannot judge ’em by the severity at age three. You gotta do your early intervention and see how it comes out. That’s the first thing.
Then it’s been sometimes dads that get the kid out doing stuff. They even want some of the nonverbal kids. Moms tend to overprotect. And unfortunately what I’ve seen with a very severe adult, dads tend to check out. I hate to say it, but that’s what I’m seeing. But let’s say you have a kid, dad’s a computer programmer, then he teaches his kids computer programming.
But I’ve also seen parents that were both computer programmers, so locked in the autism label they didn’t think to teach the little math genius child computer programming. And I suggested that and they said, oh, we hadn’t thought of that.
But I remember reading a new book coming out on visual thinking that’s already on Amazon. It’s really about Stevie Wonder, and he was blind in name. He was out climbing trees and doing all kinds. Let’s get ’em out doing things. We have to look at what they can do. See, this is the problem we’ve got with disability. I see somebody in a wheelchair and go, okay, if the top half works, they can do any job at a computer that you know that their mind can do. I don’t need the bottom half of the person at a computer. That’s how I look at it. But then you’ve got very severe cases. Where unless you have some caregivers, they can’t do any normal activities with them at all, and that’s very difficult.
David Hirsch: Yeah. What I hear you saying is that parents, moms and dads, need to err on the side of engaging their kids and exposing them to things.
Temple Grandin: Yeah. That’s right.
David Hirsch: And if you don’t try, you’ll never know.
Temple Grandin: You’ll never know. That’s the thing. And even somebody who’s nonverbal, some of the nonverbals who look very severe, can learn to type independently even though they can’t control their movements. See, this is the problem. This is where you have such a range of things.
But one thing where dads have been really helpful in talking to a lot of families is getting kids out doing things, where moms tend to overprotect. Alright, let’s get him out on a boat and just introduce it gradually so it’s not scary. Then the kid finds out that going on a boat is fun. That’s the place where you know dads can do things.
Okay, you’re blind, let’s go climb a tree. You can do that blind. See, there’s a tendency to overprotect. See, that’s something I can say. And look at Steven Hawking just before he died, he told the New York Times, concentrate on those things your disability does not prevent you from doing well. That was the quote in the New York Times, and I’m adding to that.
He could do math in his head really well and not much else, but boy could he do math in his head. Okay. That’s concentrating on what your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well. So I think we have to look more at that and I’d say, okay, you’re blind, you’re deaf? Yeah, there’s plenty of stuff you can do.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thank you for sharing. So I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up.
Temple Grandin: It’s been really good talking to you, and I always try to help families with practical suggestions, and it’s not theoretical. I talk about how I learned money. I had a little allowance and I learned, I could buy five comic books with it, but if I wanted a more expensive airplane, I had to save for two weeks.
Just simple stuff like that. Encouraging strengths. One thing about being autistic, I’m a problem solver. I’m a techie, so I wanna try to help the family make the situation better.
David Hirsch: Excellent. So if somebody wants to learn about your work or contact you, what’s the best way to do that?
Temple Grandin: I’ve got a website, TempleGrandin.com. That’s autism. You can write to us. I can be reached through the Department of Animal Science at Colorado State University. All my books are available online and my books are shown on my website. I do like to go out and do talks. If somebody wants to contact me about doing another interview or going to a meeting, you can give ’em my phone number. You have my phone number.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s very generous of you. Thank you. We’ll be sure to include this information in the show notes, so it’ll make it as easy as possible for somebody who wants to follow up with you. Temple, thank you for the time and many insights. As a reminder, Temple’s just one of the individuals who’s part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501c3 not-for-profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax-deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support. Temple, thanks again.
Temple Grandin: Thank you so much for having me, and I guess it’ll be time to leave the session, but it’s great to talk to you today.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com, groups, and search “dad to dad”. Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch.
Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at HorizonTherapeutics.com.