February 11, 2014 Updated: February 11, 2014 at 4:40 am
If algebra had been a required course for college graduation in 1967, there would be no Temple Grandin.
At least, no Temple Grandin as the world knows her today: professor, inventor, best-selling author and rock star in the seemingly divergent fields of animal science and autism education.
"I probably would have been a handyman, fixing toilets at some apartment building somewhere," said Grandin, 66. "I can't do algebra. It makes no sense. Why does algebra have to be the gateway to all the other mathematics?"
The abstract concepts in algebra present a common stumbling block for many with an autism spectrum disorder, which affects an estimated 1 in 88 American children according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For autistic and "photo-realistic visual thinkers" such as Grandin, understanding comes from being able to see and work through a concept in images, creating what is in effect a virtual reality program that plays out in the brain. In this manner, Grandin - who didn't speak until she was almost 4 - conceptualized down to minute details her design for a humane livestock restraint system now used on nearly half of the cattle in the U.S.
Fortunately, the academic trend in the late 1960s was finite math, a course Grandin passed with the help of tutors and devoted study, satisfying her college math requirement. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology and both masters and doctoral degrees in animal science. For the past two decades, she's been a professor at Colorado State University.
"I was lucky. Very, very, very lucky," said Grandin, who's widely described as the most well-known person with autism in the world. With appearances on NBC's "Today" show and "Larry King Live," plus an Emmy-winning 2010 HBO docudrama based on her life, there's no arguing she's become something of a pop-culture icon.
The problem with labels
As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to rise nationally, Grandin is sharing her message about the disorder and "differently-abled brains" with packed houses. At the heart of that message is this: Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that - while it might struggle to conjugate a verb - could one day take us to distant stars.
"Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don't build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job," said Grandin, who addresses scientific advances in understanding autism in her newest book, "The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum." "These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things. Don't hold these math geniuses back. You're going to have to give them special ed in reading because that tends to be the pattern, but let them go ahead in math."
Early diagnosis can lead to early intervention and access to special education programs, and, while crucial for children with severe autism, also means a permanent label that ultimately could impede progress - and the healthy development of a child's identity.
"One of the problems today is for a kid to get any special services in school, they have to have a label. The problem with autism is you've got a spectrum that goes from Einstein down to someone with no language," said Grandin, who has a form of high-functioning autism known as Asperger's syndrome. "Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. Basically, you've probably known people who were geeky and socially awkward but very smart. When does geeks and nerds become autism? That's a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism."
Lacking life skills
A label also can impact parental expectations, a major source of therapeutic momentum. A parent with a diagnosed autistic child might be reluctant to teach practical, social skills that are outside the child's comfort zone, such as ordering food at a lunch counter.
"It hurts because they don't have enough expectations for the kids. I see too many kids who are smart who've graduated, but they're not getting a job because when they were young they didn't learn any work skills," Grandin said. "They've got no life skills. The parent thinks, 'Oh, poor Tommy, he has autism so he doesn't have to learn things like shopping.'"
Grandin was raised by her mother in the 1950s, a time when social skills were "pounded into every single child," she said.
"Children in my generation when they were teenagers they had jobs and learned how to work. I cleaned horse stalls," she said. "When I was 8 years old, my mother made me be a party hostess - shake hands, take coats. In the 1950s, social skills were taught in a much more rigid way so kids who were mildly autistic were forced to learn them. It hurts the autistic much more than it does the normal kids to not have these skills formally taught."
Erstwhile jobs such as neighborhood newspaper routes were perfect opportunities for children with autism to learn responsibility and how to function in the real world.
"I wish we still had them because they forced these children to interact with people," Grandin said.
The skills that people with autism bring to the table should be nurtured, for their benefit and society's, Grandin said. And if a cure for autism were found, she would choose to stay just the way she is.
"I like the really logical way that I think. I'm totally logical. In fact, it kind of blows my mind how irrational human beings are," she said. "If you totally got rid of autism, you'd have nobody to fix your computer in the future."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364
Denver autism and Asperger's Conference
Temple Grandin will speak about the "autistic brain" as part of a conference Friday at Davis Auditorium in Sturm Hall, University of Denver, 2000 E. Asbury Ave., Denver.
Registration starts at $65 for persons with an autism spectrum disorder. For tickets and more information, visit fhautism.com and click on "Upcoming conferences," visit templegrandin.com or call 1-800-489-0727.
- 1 in 88 U.S. children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
- 1 in 85 Colorado children is affected by the disorder.
- The national estimated prevalence of ASDs increased 78 percent between 2002 and 2008.
- ASDs were found to affect almost five times as many boys as girls.
- The majority (62 percent) of children with ASDs did not have intellectual disabilities.
Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention