Temple Grandin met up with me in the restaurant at the Hilton in Ft. Collins, a place where she’s a regular and the staff know her quirks. We discussed her work with autistic folks over family style appetizers. I began by telling her how I had heard about her from African ranchers almost a decade ago. She wasn’t surprised. What follows is brief excerpts of our very long conversation.
YS: Can you give us a brief intro to who you are, for folks who don’t know you?
TG: Well, I’m a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. I’ve been here since 1990. My specialty is cattle behavior, cattle handling, design of handling facilities for livestock.
YS: I had no idea that I would live in the state where you live and encounter this story, and find out that you’re also doing stuff in education.
TG: Yes. Well, I’m really concerned that too many kids that are quirky and different are getting a kind of a handicap mentality and just um, and just going nowhere.
YS: And what are your other activities?
TG: I do a lot of speaking. I started out doing small events and conferences ’cause when I was three I had no speech. I was severely autistic. Of course I got a good education. My art ability was encouraged and that became the basis for my work in design. And, I started doing talks on that, and then I started learning about how my thinking was different than other people’s thinking and I think in pictures.
YS: Some people would make the argument that autism integration has come a long way.
TG: Well I think the problem we got now is autism diagnoses have changed over the years. See, it used to be, to be autistic, you had to have obvious speech delay. Then in 2005 that got merged in with the Asperger’s, which is basically socially awkward with no speech delay.
YS: What do you say to someone who was probably either misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.
TG: Oh, I am having grandparents and older parents coming up to me and grandkids are getting diagnosed and they’re figuring out they’re on the spectrum. And they’ve all had jobs. Because in our generation, work was taught. Kids learned how to work.
YS: So what is your educational philosophy?
TG: Schools work best when they’re small. It takes the kids’ abilities and builds on them. There’s too much emphasis on the deficit and not enough emphasis on abilities. Take what they’re good at–they’re good a music? Let’s develop that. But you gotta develop these things.
YS: You pointed out that one of the problems today, for a kid to get special services at school, they have to have a label.
TG: That’s right. But what I’m seeing too many kids kind of becoming their label.
YS: What is the most significant change that education can implement to support folks on the spectrum?
TG: Well, I think in general, they need to be putting a lot of hands-on classes back in.
YS: One of your big goals is helping autistic people get into good careers.
TG: The thing is, there’s a lot of those guys they learn to work skills young. I mean Einstein had a job at the patent office. And he was really weird. He wore green corduroy slippers with pink roses on them to work. And they gave him all the science-y patents to do. Think about the knowledge he got exposed to in that patent office.
YS: What’s next for you?
TG: Well, I’m still doing a lot of talks. I wanna teach. And I really like talking to young people about careers. I think we ought to be thinking a lot more carefully about careers. You know, education has gotten a lot more expensive. We’ve got to start thinking about, “What do you think you’d want to be?”