Last night, I attended the final event of FSCJ’s 2016-2017 Author Series: a live presentation by Dr. Temple Grandin! If you’re not familiar with Dr Grandin, she is an autistic animal scientist, famous for her humane redesign of U.S. slaughter plants. She has written several books on animal behavior, such as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation. She has also written several books on living with autism—her latest being The Autistic Brain. My FSCJ students have been reading her book Thinking in Pictures, and it has inspired the best discussions of the semester!
Dr. Grandin’s presentation was an utter delight. She lectured on autism and learning differences and answered audience questions with patience and forthrightness. Her honesty had the audience laughing, nodding, and applauding the whole time.
Grandin began her presentation by profiling famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and Jane Goodall—and her refrain was, “What would happen to this person in our current educational system today?” Whether it was a designer of rockets, an inventor of light bulbs, or a famous film director, Grandin emphasized the commonalities among these extraordinary minds: early exposure to career interests, questionable performance in formal academic environments, and an indirect, “through the back door” entry into their field. The most compelling fact for me was that Dr. Goodall was originally hired to be another researcher’s secretary. A secretary! It’s thrilling to think of how she overturned this archetype of female exclusion!
Another of Dr. Grandin’s emphatic repetitions was the phrase “work skills”: she passionately insisted that autistic people need to be doing meaningful work where they can learn to collaborate, be on time, and complete routine tasks. To almost every parent who approached her with a question, she asked, “What does your child do? What do you do?” To help individuals on the spectrum, Grandin holds everyone accountable.
Despite her work as an autism advocate, Grandin declared her desire to “break out of the autism box.” She told us that her priority, the identity she considers first, is her work with animals. This is a powerful statement for all disability activists who are often encouraged to work only with their population. People see a successful blind person and they say, “You should teach at the blind school.” They see a woman like Dr. Grandin, and they seem surprised that she doesn’t devote 100% of her time to autism lectures. But in putting her career first, Dr. Grandin is emphasizing the very privilege that some nondisabled people take for granted: the freedom to build your life around the passions and causes that you value most. Dr. Grandin’s outspoken career ambitions remind us what we’re all advocating for: increased self-determination for all members of society, regardless of their medical labels.
Dr. Grandin argued that medical labels can only stretch so far in helping us understand and accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum. She encouraged us to abandon the inflexible (and often confusing) medical jargon of diagnosis, to pick up the precise language of engineering in its place. She emphasized the need to “troubleshoot” each individual case, to look for “site specific” problems, and to avoid over-generalizations and abstraction. She described her own thinking as “bottom up,” and her comments and questions showcased a precise determination to sort out every issue.
Dr. Grandin’s presentation highlighted the importance of creativity and collaboration with all kinds of minds. She emphasized the importance of specifics, of treating each individual as an individual. For some in the disability community, the diagnosis is the necessary step to services and inclusion, but for others, it’s an unhelpful label that people get hung up on. If the label doesn’t serve you, she said, stop using it.
Grandin left the audience with a few guiding principles, applicable to people on and off the spectrum: less screen time, more hands-on activities, and greater exposure to different things. She reminded us that the most successful innovators have been exposed to art, theater, or hands-on work. She reiterated how she made friends: through shared interests. For anyone who has been bullied or ostracized, she emphasized the importance of what Seth Godin would call “finding your tribe”—the people who are willing to work just as hard for the things you love.