To understand why Temple Grandin is an icon, it’s not enough to read her books or watch the Emmy Award-winning movie about how she overcame the challenges of autism.
You have to watch her connect with a crowd, the expressions on the faces of people who come by the thousands to hear her speak, as they did last Thursday at the Bank United Center at the University of Miami. Grandin, a Stanford Distinguished Professor at the Center for Humanities at the university, delivered a lecture, “Different Kinds of Minds.”
Dressed in her characteristic Western style shirt and belt, Grandin lives life on her own terms, as a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, an author, an advocate for people on the autism spectrum and a savvy businesswoman whose company has designed half of all the livestock handling facilities in the United States. In 2010, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in its “Heroes” category.
Now 65, Grandin rose to national prominence during the 1980s as the first person with autism to write about the experience. Through her book, Emergence, Labeled Autistic, readers got a firsthand description of what it was like to be autistic. Her new book, The Autistic Brain, is due out in May.
“One might say that the history of autism consists of ‘BT’ and ‘AT’ eras, before Temple and after Temple,” said Michael Alessandri, executive director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism Related Disabilities. Before Temple, he said, “people with autism were relegated to institutions.” Today, “We have people with autism integrated into society in ways we might never have imagined BT. To us in the autism community, she’s quite simply a rock star.”
When Grandin took the stage, the stadium erupted in a standing ovation. She quickly grabbed the crowd’s attention. “What is autism? It’s a developmental disorder, and on one end of the spectrum you’ve got Steve Jobs and Einstein. Einstein had no language until age 3. Steve Jobs was a weird loner who brought snakes to his elementary school, and was bullied and teased and had all kinds of problems. … It’s a very, very large spectrum. It’s a continuum.”
Grandin said she meets people with autism (her diagnosis) or Asperger’s, a milder form of autism, everywhere she goes. Some are diagnosed, while most are not. There is a genetic component to the disorder, she said, and some people tell her they have grandchildren with autism. Like her, she said, they survived the struggle, the teasing and bullying, by finding an outlet in school clubs, music, art and obsessions with scientific projects.
She has a message for the world’s educators, policy makers and corporations. Producing successful business results and public policy — and preventing everything from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan to the economic meltdown in the United States — will require different kinds of minds working together.
As a byproduct of her autism, Grandin literally thinks in pictures, which she describes in her book, Thinking in Pictures. For example, she can build and test design models for complicated devices in her head. Others on the autism spectrum may rely more on words, sound and patterns.