“Locked into the Label”: Temple Grandin on how to unlock potential from different minds

(Photo By Erin Fitzmaurice)

Though she is now a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, an author of ten books and the subject of an award-winning HBO film, there was a time when Dr. Temple Grandin could not speak and her doctors recommended her to be placed in an institution.

Diagnosed in late 1940s Boston with severe autism at the age of two, Grandin’s grim future of institutionalization was avoided due to her mother’s defiance.

However, Grandin still faced great uncertainty as a young child.

It’s an uncertainty many young people who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) face even today.

“When I was three, I was really bad,” Grandin told the full-capacity audience in DPAC on Tuesday.

However, due to a well-structured home and a daily educational routine, Grandin was able to overcome the stifling limitations of the autism label.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance in getting a really good, early educational intervention,” Grandin said.

Now one of the world’s most renowned experts on cattle behavior and livestock equipment design, Grandin credits set meal times, being taught how to shake hands and waiting her turn as vital to her development as a young autistic learner.

“Kids have got to learn how to know when to take their turns,” she said. “I was taught with board games.”

Though it was important to reduce her “deficits” through repetition and encouragement, Grandin said the most impactful aspect of her early educational intervention was the emphasis placed on her innate talents.

Though public awareness about ASD has increased as diagnoses of this developmental disability have continued to rise over the last several decades, Grandin said many educational systems and educators themselves have often failed in their attempts to address the issues facing those who have been labeled with the disorder.

“Too much emphasis on deficit and not enough emphasis on what they’re good at,” Grandin explained. “When you give labels, kids tend to have uneven skills. Good at one thing; horrible at something else.

“Let’s build up on the things they’re good at,” she added.

The elimination of many hands-on courses, such as “cooking, sewing, woodworking, theatre and music,” in educational institutions over the years, she said, has had an adverse effect on many students who have developmental disabilities.

Educators “are now realizing putting those things back in may be a really good idea,” she said.

“My mother was always trying to push me to try new things and always encouraging me to try lots of different art. Gave me plenty of time for creativity and experimentation,” she recalled.

As a student at Dedham Country Day School, Grandin said hands-on courses and participating in shared interests with her fellow students had a profound influence on developing necessary social skills.

Often the target of bullying while in high school – classmates nicknamed her “tape recorder” due to her habit of endlessly repeating the same phrases over and over again – she said the teasing would cease when she engaged in shared interests with her fellow students.

“The more you get out and have experiences, the less likely you’re going to sound like a tape recorder,” she said.

“You got to get these kids out and doing things,” she added.

Another challenge for those labeled with developmental disabilities, Grandin said, is that many schools treat them as if they all have one type of mind.

“I’m seeing a lot of educators treating everybody like they’re the same,” she said.

The problem with this approach, Grandin added, is that no two minds are alike.

To prove her point, she presented a Powerpoint slide showing various types of minds. Among the minds detailed were “visual thinkers,” “pattern thinkers” and “verbal thinkers.”

“I’m a visual thinker,” she told the audience. “I think in pictures.”

Despite her brilliance, Grandin said her educational career was nearly derailed due to algebra – an issue that plagues many students to this day.

“I’m seeing too many kids go up against an algebra barrier,” she said. The reason for this, at least for visual thinkers, is this particular type of math has a little to no visual component to it.

“A lot of visual thinkers can’t do algebra, but they can do geometry. Let them do geometry,” she said.

She added the insistence on treating the mastery of algebra as a core requirement in many schools has hindered many students from ascending in their educational careers.

On pattern thinkers, Grandin said, “This is your mathematician, the computer programmers. [They] think in patterns, not pictures. These are the kids who will do origami and may become engineers.”

The key to unlocking greatness and true innovation, Grandin suggested, is strengthening these individual types of thinking and having them engage with one another.

An example of a result of different minds coming together and creating something incredible, Grandin said, is the iPhone.

“Steve Jobs was an artist. He wasn’t a programmer,” she said. “Then the engineers had to make the inside of the phone work. That’s different minds working together.”

Grandin said she worried how the bright mind of Jobs may be labeled today.

“He may have been labeled autistic,” she said.

With labels come “gross overgeneralizations,” she said, adding this painting young minds with a broad brush may prevent many educators from finding the next brilliant thinker.

“Einstein didn’t know language until age three,” she said.

“What would happen to little Albert Einstein, Jr. today?”