Special Stories with ESN:

Dr. Temple Grandin

Interview by Meghana and Nithila | Published on November 12, 2020 | 15 Minute Read

Thank you so much Dr. Grandin for joining us today. We have a lot of questions to ask so we’ll get right into it.

How was your experience in schooling?

Well, I had severe autistic symptoms. I had some very good speech teachers and early intervention teachers when I was in elementary school. I can't emphasize enough how important good teachers are , they really do make all the difference in the world. Another thing is my mother always encouraged my abilities. I was good at art and that was always encouraged so I use that as the basis of my business.

As an initiative we are working towards inclusion in our schools. I think we have this problem especially at my school where our special education is segregated from the rest of our school. So there is definitely a certain amount of inclusion that still needs to happen within school. So I think a lot of what was mentioned through your different stories was how you were bullied a lot in school. Do you think that your bullying was detrimental to your success or did it help you build character and resilience?

I managed to get through elementary school because the teachers explained to the other children that I had a handicap that was not visible like a wheelchair and they called that peer mediation in the event. That's a fancy word for years that mediated intervention and high schools where I got bullied. And no, it didn't help build character. It was just completely miserable and the only way I could get away from it was surrounding myself with students who had a shared interest with me such as electronics model rockets or horses. For someone else it might be music , it could be some other thing, but that is one of the best ways to get kids that are different included. By getting them involved in school play, chess club, computer club. Things that they can do with like minded interest students.

So do you wish that there was some kind of system that helped with the bullying that you experience in high school, whether that's through the thing I stopped at an elementary school. So I've talked to a lot of parents where there's a lot of bullying with their elementary school kid. My teacher was doing this method of peer mediated intervention where he explained to all the children that they need to be little therapists not and not torture the kid and it worked in elementary school, but high school was absolutely awful. A large high school did not work for me and I actually got kicked out of ninth grade for throwing a book at a girl. Things didn't work out well at all.

Got it. So I think now we're going to transition into your journey because you're obviously a very successful person in your industry. So were there any setbacks in your journey to success in the livestock industry with regards to animal behavior?

In my twenties, I started in the Arizona livestock industry and being a girl, being a woman was a much bigger barrier than autism ever was. Much much much bigger barrier. Because back in Arizona in the 70’s, only the men worked with the cattle and the women worked in the office as secretaries.

There's a scene if you've watched the HBO movie, it shows how I think visually there's a scene in there where I get the editors card because I knew if I wrote for that magazine that would really help my career. I made myself really good at the writing that I did in the magazines. I made myself really good at my design. I was very good at the things that I did. So find something that's a specialized skill. You know some kids with autism are very good at mathematics. Well, that's something that's a skill that other people want. You can get good at that.

If you don't mind talking about it, in what ways they are unfair to you?

Well they call me names like “tape recorder” because I would use a lot of the same phrases over and over again. They called me “bones” because I was really skinny and the only places I was not bullied was when I was with the students with the shared interest like the model rocket club. You know maybe today's computer programming club. It could be a whole lot of different things.

And do you think that since you have said a lot that you're a very visual thinker. Do you think that because you are such a visual thinker you were a lot more skilled in your areas of design and stem and science because you could see what was happening?

Well visual thinking can make you good at things like art, and design work. Also a lot of people that are visual thinkers are very good at mechanics. They can fix motorcycles and fix any car. Really good at fixing things. Then you've got your mathematical minds. They're going to be really super good at computer programming and there's lots of mathematical minds working in Silicon Valley. That's the mathematical minds and there's a lot of people working in programming because I've been to the big tech companies, and they're on the autism spectrum. And they're the ones that bring us all the electronic technology we use. So those are your more mathematically inclined kids. So the thing I want to say is take something the kids are good at and expand on it and that will usually show up around 7 and 8 years old. That's when you really could see this gift of art, and then a lot of the art kids can fix any vehicle, fix any mechanical device, can build anything and then the math kids engineering, programming these kinds of things.

Your way of thinking is extremely visual tight? Was particular was a particular moment when you realized that your visual thinking was a lot different from the way that others thought?

When I was in my twenties, I didn't know that other people didn't think visually. I thought everybody thought the same as he wants you upstairs while thinking works. This is my book thinking in pictures.

You know it wasn't until I got in my forties that I really found out how different that I think. I originally kind of divided the world into visual thinkers and word thinkers and then I discovered this third type, the mathematical thinker and there's now scientific evidence for this. I'm an object visualizer. Like I see things. The other kind of thinkers are visual-spatial. It’s a more abstract kind of visualization. That's your mathematics mind who's going to be good at programming and all kinds of mathematical things.

So your visual thinking it's actually very similar to what Megan and I were talking about earlier. If you know Sherlock Holmes, he had this thing called a Mind Palace where he was able to visualize certain ideas and designs in his head because of the way that his mind thought so and I think it's very similar to how you were able to envision the mechanisms that would be in place at the slaughterhouse plans that you built for Abbott. Many people say that this kind of thinking is impossible.

Actually, I have extreme visual thinking. In my other book, the autistic brain, this book presents the science in the autistic person. I present the science to show that this visual thinking of the object visualizer, that's my kind of thinking, and then the more pattern visuospatial mathematical mind and how there's research that shows that that's absolutely true. And since the Autistic Brain has been published, there's a lot more research to verify that. It's true. And then you've got your word minds who think pretty much totally and language.

Do you think that this is your object visualization and you're kind of thinking is something that you developed over time?

It’s always been there, always been there. What’s developed over time is my awareness of how my thinking is different. From other people, you know, I've talked to people that think in words and they have a hard time understanding visual thinking correctly. They don't even know it exists. Then there's a few people who have no visual thinking at all. Like if I said to you visualize going to the grocery store that you normally go to having deliberately picked something I know is not in the room. When I say when you say that to me, I'm seeing the King Soopers grocery store where I go. I’m seeing that grocery store. Somebody that has no visual thinking, they won't see the grocery store and then somebody that's thinking just you know, mildly visual they might see kind of a vague grocery store. But I I see King Soopers or SafeWay when the visual thinker starts naming them. It's not a grocery store or just generic.

So I actually want to transition into a different sort of idea. But you've mentioned in the past that the current diagnosis of autism has categorized kids with various social and various intellectual abilities under one label and the label being autistic. And you mentioned that people are too hung up on the labels and how they should be more interested in the child's ability. Do you think that our current Public School System should target each kid's ability individually and give them individualized schooling plans? So for example for an object visually thinking child, they should focus more on Geometry than algebra.

That's right. One mistake that was made in my math education in high schools is that it pounds algebra first. Never have learned to do it, and I never took a geometry or trigonometry course because of it. I was definitely a mistake because the object visualizers should jump to geometry and trigonometry.

So do you think that our current schooling system should individualize each student's plan even though it might be done at the cost of the student with special needs being less integrated into general education in schools?

Well, that's a very general sort of question. When you get into things like inclusion. I'd rather you work one school at a time. I don't like when you say the whole system. Schools in the system vary from really good to terrible and they vary from district to district but I think I tend to think in a more of a bottom-up approach. All right, here's a kid we put in inclusion and it worked and this is how we did it. What were the things that we did to make this particular method work? You see that sort of more the approach that I took with some of my livestock handling projects. I would design something for a ranch and then I wrote about it in the Ranch magazine. Well you do something really good with inclusion, let's say you do this peer-mediated in her vention to get rid of bullying in one school, and you write about what you did in this one school. The bullying stopped.

It's like conducting an experiment.

And the problem we've got now is the autism label is it’s so broad. When they took out the Asperger's in 2013, you've now got somebody who is nonverbal can't dress themselves in the same label as somebody who could be working in Silicon Valley. That doesn’t make very much sense to me. Now they are doing some levels but the thing is you can't do levels of autism on little kits. When I was three, I looked atrocious, absolutely atrocious. You know, what you do, what you got to do with little kids is you got to work really hard on them and see if you can kind of pull them out of it.

What do you think about the social factors in school?

You know, kids on the autism spectrum have to learn social behavior almost like being in a play. You just got to learn and one of the things I had to learn is that people don't want to talk on and on and on about high school carnival rides. I went crazy that after I talked about that a few times the other kids are sick of talking about rides and so I kind of need to make a rule. I can tell that story about that one carnival ride twice. That's it.

There was a quote in your auto biographical movie in which your mom and you later on had said that individuals with autism are different but not less. Do you think this message is maybe lost among our population?

During covid actually more than people watching the movie. Well, that's a good thing.

So you've actually written a lot of books on the autistic behavior and the brain. What are the most important things that you want your audience to take away from your books on autistic thinking?

Well, I want to take and build the kids strength. There's too much emphasis on the deficit and not enough emphasis on what are the things that the kid can do. My ability and art was always encouraged. That was really important. I was encouraged to do lots of different things because when I was in third grade, I just drew the same horse heads over and over again. I never got the whole horse or maybe draw it stable.

So, how is your book writing process like? Is there a topic that you're really passionate about and then you go full force in and try to form a story around that?

Well I’m more of a scientific writer. When I wrote Thinking in Pictures, I made each chapter sort of a standalone essay and I covered a certain area. The problem with the visual thinker is that it tends to ramble. So I've got to make a really strict outline so I don't ramble. The other thing is that in a lot of my books, I've had a co-writer because I need the verbal linear so that I'm not rambling just all over the place.

And then to kind of end off our questions, what do you think is the biggest problem that we as autism advocates have to combat in our society?

Well, you're asking really really general questions. I think we ought to get out there and make a real positive message and look at what the kid can do. I was good at Art so that was the courage and then the way I got jobs where I grew up is I'd show off my drawings. Often when people looked at my drawings they were impressed. At first, thought I was really weird. But then I just show off my drawings and it might be nice and big and it shows off my drawings and people would go, “wow you did that!” That's how I sell the job. Now, maybe it's computer programming and you show off some of your code, put it on a LinkedIn page. I worked on selling my work more than yourself. Well, I showed people, you know, the things that I was capable of doing in in work.

I completely agree with that and lastly, is there anything else that you would like to say before we end off our short interview today?

No, I want to get kids getting out there, doing the best. I got one more book to show you. This is my most basic autism book. There’s a lot of short chapters: The Way I See it. Tips on working with kids and just real practical things. We gotta take it and work on what the kid can do and build up on it. Also, you might have some problems with sound sensitivity. Many kids are sound sensitive. Well, let's say it's the buzzer on a gym scoreboard and I realize most people aren't going to the gym now, but there was a kid who got over being afraid of the buzzer on the scoreboard because I took him down there when nobody was there to let him press the button. When he made the sound, he was able to tolerate it. Do the same thing with something noisy like a hair dryer. Let the kid turn it on.

Well, thank you so much for raising awareness! It was so great to meet you!

Thank you very very much for having me. So glad to meet you too. Thank you very very much. Alrighty. I guess we'll leave the meeting now. Thank you. Okay. Goodbye.

About the Interview

Dr. Temple Grandin

Mary Temple Grandin is a prominent proponent for the humane treatment of livestock for slaughter and author of more than 60 scientific papers on animal behavior. She is a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, and an autism spokesperson. (From Wikipedia)