Autism rights advocate Temple Grandin hails those who think differently

The world needs people who think differently, Temple Grandin says.

Grandin has broken barriers both in the animal science industry and the public’s understanding of what it means to live with autism.

Grandin is an award-winning scientist, animal behaviorist, inventor, and proponent of autism rights. She offered a pair of lectures to two sold-out crowds on Wednesday, Feb. 8, in Holland as a fundraiser for Benjamin’s Hope. Grandin shared candid insights about living with autism, including how she “thinks in pictures.” 

She offered strategies for people with autism to obtain employment and says everyone deserves to grow up and have a life that is full and purposeful. In many tech and industry jobs, “you need different kinds of minds,” she says.

“Throw out the autism box. Companies need the brains of the visual thinker. My brain sees how things work in a way verbal thinkers can’t,” she told the crowd during one of the presentations.

Grandin estimates about 20% of the people she has worked with over the years have been autistic, dyslexic, have ADHD, or were otherwise not what is labeled as neurotypical.

“There are different ways of working with problems,” Grandin says. 

Types of thinkers

She describes three types of thinkers: verbal thinkers, such as writers, teachers, and lawyers; visual thinkers, such as artists and engineers; and spatial-visual thinkers, those who are good at both, such as mathematicians and musicians.

Grandin, herself, is a visual thinker. She remembers things in photo-realistic images and video clips in her mind. 

It was Grandin’s 1995 mostly autobiographical book, “Thinking in Pictures,” that was the catalyst for Benjamin’s Hope.

Krista Mason, now the executive director of the farmstead community for adults with autism, was a young mom with two boys in the mid-1990s. Her youngest, Ben, was 2 years old and had just been diagnosed with autism.  

The moment the doctor told her Ben had autism was a scary one, Mason recalled for one of the crowds.

“I remember feeling in that moment like this man had some giant eraser, and he, in the speaking of that word (autism), erased everything I thought I knew about Ben, about being Ben’s mom, about what his future might look like, and he replaced it with a word that was frightening to me,” she says.

The seed

Shortly after, someone put “Thinking in Pictures” in Mason’s hands, and she devoured it.

“That was the seed of starting to imagine, ‘What would a farmstead community for adults be like?’” Mason says.

The Park Township nonprofit includes a residential program for 31 men and women, as well as Sunday evening church services and Monday through Friday programming for the community at large.

Grandin posits that luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Michelangelo, and Thomas Edison would be labeled as neurodivergent — and possibly autistic — today.

“All of these people learned how to work at an early age,” Grandin says. “What would happen to Michaelangelo today? He’d probably be addicted to video games in the basement.”

She pushes back against overprotecting or accommodating children. Instead, in a speech filled with practical advice, Grandin advocates for starting the transition to work early, albeit gradually, with chores and volunteer jobs for pre-teens and small jobs outside the home before teens are out of high school.

“We’ve got kids growing up today who have never used a tool. That’s ridiculous,” she told the crowd at one of the sessions.

Educational failure

The educational system is screening out visual thinkers such as Grandin, she says. Today, she teaches veterinary students, but she couldn’t get into veterinary school when she failed the math portion of the SAT.

There’s a huge shortage of electricians, mechanics, and welders who can read drawings, she says.

“We’ve paid the price for taking hands-on shop classes out of schools,” she says.

Initially labeled as brain-damaged, Grandin didn’t speak until she was 4 years old. Her mother advocated for her and made sure Grandin had early intervention. Today, she has her doctorate, is an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has designed half of all the livestock-handling facilities in the United States, consults for major corporations, and is a best-selling author. The HBO movie about her life, “Temple Grandin,” starring Claire Danes, won seven Emmy Awards.

This is Grandin’s second visit to Benjamin’s Hope in as many years.

The 40-acre campus is designed to create purposeful and integrated experiences for adults with autism, their families, and the entire community. Benjamin’s Hope offers essential services, such as housing and meaningful day programming, partially funded through public health care dollars and the remainder supported by giving from the community. 

Beyond residential services, hundreds of people in West Michigan participate in the Church of Ben’s Hope, Rapid Prompting Method, Club Connect, and the farmstead’s growing day program, NEXT. 

The programs are designed to provide vital support, respite, engagement, community, and growth, Mason says.

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

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