Autism spokeswoman shares insights with students
By Kendra Jones
Animal scientist, author of five bestselling books, and world-renowned autism spokesperson Temple Grandin spent March 9 with York College students and faculty, participating in a variety of activities.
“She is the rock star of autism studies,” said Linda Miller, director of Student Accessibility Services.
Miller said that one of her favorite moments was watching Grandin interact with autistic students at York College, adding that Grandin took time to personally talk with each one.
Grandin was diagnosed as autistic at age 2 and did not speak until she was three and a half. She spent the rest of high school at a boarding school studying horse barn management after she was removed from high school for getting into a fight. She continued on to earn a degree in psychology and masters and doctoral degrees in animal science. Since then she has worked with slaughterhouse operations and large companies, such as McDonald’s, to improve the quality of life for their animals.
Grandin began her day at York College by visiting EquiTeam Support Services, Dallastown, which provides outpatient psychotherapy services to people in York County with the assistance of horses. Before discussing her research and experiences with animal science, Grandin spoke to autistic students from the college over lunch. She led an open question-and-answer session with recreational therapy students on how to be best prepared to work with diversity after graduation. Grandin also had a session with faculty, including resident life, where she discussed how to help students, encourage strengths and handle social issues on campus, according to Miller.
“Look at the outcomes,” said Grandin as she spoke about animal handling at slaughterhouses and ranches to biology students and faculty over dinner.
When she first began her animal handling work, pigs that would be slaughtered for meat were fed garbage. She said that a big improvement has been made just within the last 10 years. Farmers are more receptive, and many young people are getting into the niche market, farming that grows products that not as many people produce. Grandin said that many young people cannot afford to continue on in the market.
Grandin suggested that with any practice, people use stricter but fewer, more sensible rules. She gave the example of traffic rules, such as wearing seatbelts and not texting.
In Uruguay, where Grandin has associates, she suggested one strict rule: stop yelling at cattle during the process to the slaughterhouse. That was one seemingly small but focused improvement that made a large difference in how cattle acted.
“Everything is a balancing act,” said Grandin, referring to animal handling. Without balance, biological overload becomes a major problem — not the kind of positive outcomes she wants to see.
When cows supply milk, their diet and life needs to be balanced. If a racehorse snaps his legs off from over running, that’s biological overload.
“I want to work on biological system overload, but the problem is the industry gets so hot over it.”
In the future, Grandin would like to see more fish farming and hopes for more crop rotation. Without more diversity among crops, bugs will get immune. She is also concerned about the use of farmland because many shopping centers and buildings are being built on some of the best farmland.
Alternative energy is a topic that Grandin hopes to see improve in the future. She said that while wind power is an efficient idea, the energy captured is at its peak when it is not most needed during the day. The energy ends up getting stored and remains unused. A quicker turn-around is required to use and make energy.
Grandin spoke on both animal behavior and autism — and how they hold a strong relationship. In Grandin’s “Animals in Translation,” she wrote, “Animals aren’t ambivalent; they don’t have love-hate relationships with each other or with people … autistic people have mostly simple emotions, too.”
During the dinner, she referred to both herself and animals as having visual minds, which she later reinforced during the lecture with X-rays of the visual thinking circuit of her brain and a nonautistic brain. Grandin described her mind as being like Google Images — associative thinking. Concepts are formed by visualizing specific examples. Like Grandin, autistic individuals may be highly visual or have different strengths; one thing that they all share is the label.
York College and the public were invited to Grandin’s lecture focusing on educating students who have different kinds of minds and succeeding in a world of labels. Before President Pamela Gunter-Smith introduced Grandin, Miller opened the lecture, hopeful that Grandin’s lecture would promote a better understanding of autism and what people can do to help — and what we have already progressed in doing.
“People just see the label,” said Grandin, who only sees examples of autism at different levels.
“Being a woman in a man’s world was 10 times harder than being autistic,” said Grandin. In the ’70s women weren’t working in the cattle feed mills. They were working in the office. She recalled the time at a slaughterhouse when guys put bull testicles on her truck.
Grandin advised the audience to “be everything you can be.” She expressed the importance of exposure to career interests at an early age. At 15, Grandin was exposed to cattle. She reasoned that growing up in an educated family, learning to work hard early on and having a mentor all helped her in becoming successful.
She strongly recommended that children on the autism spectrum be encouraged, coached and instructed in basic skills and simple tasks that build useful self-discipline.
Grandin said that internships are also important; they allow people to try out jobs and get an idea of what you like and do not like doing. She gave the example of people that enter animal science with the goal of becoming a veterinarian. “They all want to be veterinarians because it’s the only career option they get exposed to.” In college, students are exposed to genetics, meat science and behavior, as she named a few.
Not only do all minds require stretching and branching out, experiencing diverse opportunities, but Grandin believes that it is essential for parents to allow their children with any mind-type to stretch and try normal activities, such as shopping, for themselves.
According to Grandin, schools are taking out many programs such as carpentry and music that have helped Nobel Prize winners succeed. Practical problem-solving skills are not being taught, and these are what give students new perspectives.
Grandin made a point that not all autistic people have the visual strengths that she has. Many exceed in math. Many other individuals on the autism scale are fascinated with movement, and Grandin stressed that this fascination should be channeled into other skills with the help of hands-on work.
Grandin assessed people who spend hours playing video games as needing more hands on activities.
A young audience member asked Grandin why she thinks playing the video game Minecraft is a negative activity. Grandin responded that individuals should get into architecture or any other hands-on building activity instead of spending hours building virtually.
“Get up, get out and work. They (the younger generation) haven’t learned that.”
A professor asked Grandin how to help a group of students with diverse minds in writing press releases. She said that some of the students still ask for a “checklist” after seeing press releases in which to model the structure of their own. Grandin stressed the importance of hands-on work. She has written countless press releases, learning to do so by conceptualizing the structure after viewing good and poorly written examples.
Despite what kind of mind a person has, Grandin said that she wants them to have a good outcome. Whether it was accomplishing her work in a man’s world or overcoming the label of autism, she was always searching for the best possible outcome through all of her work. “I was motivated to prove I could do it.”
Pictured above: Grandin stands with biology students and faculty after a dinner and conversation on the York College campus.
Photos by Kendra Jones