Temple Grandin, PhD, took the stage as the special guest of honor at a recent Los Angeles benefit for Autism Works Now. She’s an extraordinary author, professor, animal expert and speaker. Also on the bill: actor Ed Asner, whose son and grandson have autism. A multi-Emmy award-winner, he works as a tireless advocate for people along the spectrum. The night also featured rocker James Durbin, who was diagnosed with Tourette and Asperger syndromes at a young age, and went on to compete on American Idol. Behind the scenes at the Temple Grandin and Friends event, several people with autism worked on the production. ABILITY’s Stan Hoskins caught up with Grandin and Jane Sparango, Publicist, amid the festivities. Stan
Hoskins: This is a wonderful evening. Temple
Grandin: It is. These students are all working in a real venue, not a classroom. They’re getting to see how it feels to be professionals. I’m really concerned about people on the autism spectrum not getting into the workforce. Last week I was at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where you’re gonna have people with Asperger’s who are hi functioning and undiagnosed, while on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people who can’t dress themselves. People with autism tend to be good at one thing and bad at something else. There’s too much emphasis on the deficit, and not enough on building up the thing that a person is good at. For me it was art. That became the basis of the work that I did in cattle-handling facilities. Designing is art.
Hoskins: Tell me about your formative years.
Grandin: I was lucky to get early educational intervention, because I had no speech until I was four. Also growing up in the ‘50s, social skills were taught in a much more rigid way, and not just to kids on the spectrum. You were taught table manners and “Please” and “Thank you.” You learned how to take turns at games… That ended up helping me. A lot of smart kids today haven’t been taught how to shake hands correctly; they don’t know how to shop and don’t have basic skills. My mother had a really good sense of how to challenge me: When I was 13, she set up a little sewing job in the neighborhood. When I was 15, I cleaned horse stalls. I’d go out to my aunt’s ranch and take people on trail rides. I waited tables. I’m seeing too many kids on the spectrum who graduate high school, maybe even college, but have never done a single job. Learning work skills needs to start way before they graduate, I’d say by 13. In some states, Project Search has been successful: Students get job training for a whole year before they graduate high school. For instance, they may set up instruments for surgeries in a hospital.
Hoskins: You’re talking jobs that teach skills and give a sense of purpose.
Grandin: Yes. We need to find “paper-route substitutes,” since the paper routes themselves are all gone. How about walking dogs for the neighbors? How about setting up chairs at the community center? When they’re 16, give them a little job at a grocery store. Now, unfortunately, there are people who think that if somebody who’s on the spectrum is really smart, that collecting shopping carts should be their whole career. No, it should not be a career, but a summer doing that teaches discipline and the responsibility of work. They’ve got to learn that.
Hoskins: Do you think this education needs to start at home?
Grandin: I’m saying, in general, that we’ve got to stretch these kids. There’s a tendency to baby and overprotect. I see too many situations where parents do all the talking for the kid. I’ve been in meetings where the mom starts in, “My son has a question,” and I go, “Wait a minute, your son’s gonna have to ask the question. Here’s the wireless mic,” and I get the child talk to the whole group. That’s when he finds out that he’s able to do it.
Another problem that we’ve got now in the schools is that they’ve taken out art, sewing, woodworking, cooking, theater, music… How’re you gonna find out if you like a musical instrument, if you never try one? I had a recorder when I was a child. I was a real dud at it, but I had access to it. I found out playing an instrument was not for me. But art was for me. And that was always encouraged. If I hadn’t had art when I was in elementary school, I would’ve hated school altogether. That made it worth going to. Art was the basis of my design work in the cattle industry.
Hoskins: How so?
Grandin: You have the industrial design side of a product like an iPhone, for example, and then you have the engineering side, to make the inside of the phone work. At Fermi Lab, the physicists were talking about a lot of stuff that I didn’t understand. But then I went down to the drafting department—these are the people who create the drawings for the equipment—and I understood what they were saying. I went to the machine shop. Without the drafting people and the machine shop people, they wouldn’t have any equipment. That’s an example of different minds working together.
Hoskins: What do you think is the next step in getting more people with autism into the workforce?
Grandin: You have to talk more specifically about the person’s level of functioning. This is the problem with autism. With dyslexia, socially you’re usually good. You may have trouble with reading, but other things are pretty much okay. If you have ADHD, that’s a much narrower spectrum. But the problem with autism is we’re going all the way from artists, Einstein, no language till age three, to somebody who can’t even put their clothes on and is completely nonverbal. All that is considered to be autism. So let’s start the “paper-route substitutes” around 13, 14 years old. Let’s look at the level of function. Can this person dress himself or herself? Do they talk? Can they read at the level of USA Today? If you can read at that level, you can do most jobs.
There’s gonna be different levels of jobs, but at around age 13 we’ve really got to start thinking about having these young people work outside the home. Volunteering does count, as long as it’s on a schedule: Every Thursday night you’ve got to set up chairs. At 6 in the morning, you’ve got two dogs to walk for a full 30 minutes every day, rain or shine. And then, when they’re 16, let’s get them into retail. Let’s get them into the real economy in some way.
Hoskins: Like a job.
Grandin: Right. We could be getting a lot more creative with this. I’ve found that working in the construction industry for 20 years has affected the way I think. I would design a job, supervise the construction, start it up, and make it work. It’s all about getting the job done. And on the high end of the spectrum, I’m seeing too many kids graduate from college—sometimes with honors— but they’ve never held a job. Those job skills need to start way before then.
Hoskins: How do we get the workforce to open up to people with disabilities?
Grandin: If someone has a nice portfolio to show, we have to tell him or her that presentation matters. I just looked at a portfolio … last night; it was beautiful artwork. She could start showing in galleries right away, but I said: “You’ve got to do better at presentation.” Her artwork was on a piece of paper ripped out of a notebook. I said, “You didn’t even cut the holes off before you photographed it. Get dollar-a-sheet paper, buy some frames for about 10 bucks, and your work is worth $500 a pop.” I learned the hard way: I showed some messy stuff to some people, and they were not impressed.
Jane Sparango: Temple says, “Carry your portfolio in your phone.”
Grandin: Yes, your portfolio now needs to be in your phone, because you never know where you’re gonna meet someone who needs to see it. It could be your programming work. It could be math. You could have your music on your phone. I know a phone’s not the greatest thing to listen to music on, but when somebody comes by who can open a door for you, you’ve got to whip out that phone and show it to them, and maybe let them listen to it, if it’s music.
Sparango: And Stan, what Temple says is that a lot of times our kids fall down in that interview process. They’ve got to have that phone.
Grandin: We’ve got to bypass that [conventional interview process]. What I did when I talked to potential customers was whip out my big drawings. I had articles from the Beef magazine out there. I just put it all out on the table. Sparango : And they were like, “Whoa!”
Grandin: Yeah, people didn’t want to talk to me, because I was too “weird,” but when I whipped out the drawings, I got respect. If you put examples of your work on your phone, you may have to wiggle it around to show it. But that’s fine.
Hoskins: It’s portable.
Grandin: Yes. We didn’t have these phones in the ‘70s. I had to carry a notebook with me. Now we’ve got back doors to show what we can do, and we’ve got to find more of them.