NORMAL, Ill. — Some of the best inventions and ideas come from those who think differently. Temple Grandin, often recognized as one of the world’s highest achieving adults with autism, says that the labels applied to students with different learning abilities today may limit them.
“Too many kids get labeled and babied today,” she told a standing-room only crowd at the University of Illinois in Normal April 10.
“Autism is an important part of who I am, but’s its secondary to the livestock industry,” said the professor of animal science at Colorado State University who has worldwide fame for designing cattle handling facilities for Cargill. “I worked 45 years in the cattle business — that had nothing to do with autism.”
She questioned whether innovators like Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs would have achieved what they did if they had labels given today.
“The geeks and misfits build stuff,” said Grandin, author of “Animals Make Us Human.” She’s currently touring the country promoting her newest book “Calling all Minds: How to Think and Create like an Inventor.”
She said her visual skills help her relate to animals and have been a benefit in designing facilities with animal welfare in mind — she sees things that others miss. She notices how animals are spooked by sunbeams, hanging chains, even lose paper towels, and takes all these things into consideration in her designs for animal comfort.
“When I was a kid in high school, a lot of kids bullied and teased me,” she said.
She was “kicked out of school” in the ninth grade for fighting and went to a boarding school that included working with horses. That proved to be a building block for who she became.
She said in her chosen career, being a woman in a man’s industry “was way worse” than having autism as far as challenges go.
During the question period at the ISU College of Applied Science and Technology event, the majority of those who spoke, both youths and adults, started by saying they also had been diagnosed with autism and that Grandin is an inspiration to them.
The best way to change perceptions about autism is to “get out there and prove the things you can do,” she told them. The professor encouraged students to try different jobs and experiences to find what they are best at.
Children need to be exposed more to trade skills, including work as plumbers and electricians, she said.
Teachers were also among those who asked Grandin questions. Grandin had several suggestions for how schools can serve students with autism better. She said schools need to retain or bring back hands-on classes such as art, sewing, woodworking and welding.
“Putting computers in schools doesn’t make schools wonderful. Good teachers make schools wonderful,” she said.
She offered some tips for parents as well. Do not overload the working memory, limit screen time, provide opportunities to learn and do things that provide a choice of activities.
She said her mother and some teachers really made a difference because they pulled her out of her comfort zone. She encouraged parents and teachers to do the same for others.
Grandin, dressed in her signature western rancher-style attire, said that while autism has brought some challenges to her life, she likes the way she thinks.
“Part of the reason I’m glad I have autism is that I like the logical way I think,” she said.