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.