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Dr. Temple Grandin: A Special Breed of Hero


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It’s the late 1940s — a period many of us might associate with being simpler times, despite the War. In 1947, shortly after World War II ends, a baby girl is born in Boston, Massachusetts. Only two years later, she’s diagnosed with autism — a term then only recently created and quite misunderstand — and labeled as being brain damaged. At an age when most children are speaking, Temple Grandin says nothing. According to her mother, her father probably wanted her institutionalized due to her inconsistent and anti-social behavior at a young age. Fortunately, thanks to a mother who didn’t give up on her daughter, a doctor who suggested speech therapy and a nanny who played special games with her and her sister, Grandin did finally start speaking at age four.

While school was difficult for her socially, she endured the cruelties and bullying of high school classmates and made it through. She went to college and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and master’s and doctoral degrees in animal science — an incredible accomplishment for someone with autism. However, as Dr. Grandin points out in various public talks, autism diagnosis is not precise, that it’s a big spectrum of problems, sensitivities and disorders that need to be dealt with individually. As a result of her personal experiences as well as her studies, she’s one of those rare, very remarkable people who is an expert in not one but two subjects: autism/ learning and animal science/ livestock handling.

Achievements, Awards and Recognition

Dr. Temple Grandin has a long list of accomplishments, not just in raising awareness of autism, but also in the area of animal welfare.
• Is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, receiving a B.A. in Psychology in 1970, an M.S. in Animal Science in 1975, and a Ph.D. in Animal Science in 1989. The latter two degrees were achieved through part-time study.
• Has 3 honorary degrees to date from top universities: in 1999 from McGill University (Canada), in 2009 from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and in 2012 from Carnegie Mellon (USA), McGill (Canada), and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
• Has authored or co-authored a dozen books, including her autobiography – a first for anyone with autism. She’s currently the world’s best-selling author on autism.
• Is on Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of 2010 in the “Heroes” category.
• Was given a 2011 Double Helix medal for positively impacting human health by raising awareness. Other recipients include former boxer Muhammad Ali (who received the very first such medal for raising awareness about Parkinson’s), Michael J. Fox, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sherry Lansing, James Watson and others.
• Has appeared on several U.S. TV shows, and been the subject of a few films.
• One film is the documentary “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow” — which was first aired on the BBC in the UK.
• Another is the HBO biopic starring Claire Danes. This film received 15 Emmy nominations and won 5 of those. Danes won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Dr. Grandin.
• She was listed in the “Who’s Who of American Women” in 1990. Her awards for animal welfare are mentioned further below.

Raising Awareness About Autism

From her long personal experience as well as from her 2013 book “The Autistic Brain,” Dr. Grandin has given many lectures on autism. Here are some of her thoughts on autism and how parents and educators can deal with autistic children in a positive way, after some initial stats surrounding ASD (autism spectrum disorder).
• Between 1 to 1.5M Americans had ASD as of 2012.
• The autism diagnosis rate has risen to 1 in 50, according to the CDC, as reported in 2013. (Note: stats based on a CDC / HHS survey.) This is a 72% increase since 2008 figures, where the rate of autism diagnosis was 1 in 88 children. Other rates: 1/150 in 2000 and 2002, 1/125 in 2004, 1/110 in 2006 — showing how quickly the rate of diagnosis is climbing in a short period of time.
• ASD does not have a cure.
• Recent stats suggests that ASD occurs in all racial or ethnic groups. However, children born to older parents are at higher risk for ASD.
• ASD cost families, on average, $40-$60K per year as recently as 2011 — for behavioral interventions — and an extra $4,110-$6,200 per year per individual in medical costs.
• Autism research received only $169M of the $30.86B NIH (National Institutes of Health) 2012 health funds allocation budget — or less than 0.55% of the budget.
• The cost of ASD in the U.S. in terms of healthcare could be $200-400B by roughly 2020.
• Dr. Grandin has endured living with autism, which can mean having painful social phobias.
• Her first public talk about autism was in the mid-1980s.
• She advocates early intervention to deal with autism, and that teachers are supportive and can coax each child’s individual autistic problems into something positive by focusing on their skills and learning preferences.
• According to her, it’s not black and white where “normal” stops and “abnormal” begins.
• Diagnosis is not precise: It’s part science, part opinion and categories change.
• There are a spectrum of behaviors and symptoms.
• Each child responds differently to different sensory stimulations.
• So deal with the problem, not the label. Effective solutions have to focus on the specific problems instead of at autism in general.
• If you fit a certain behavioral profile, you get labeled autistic. “Autistic children need a very wide variety of services.” Unfortunately, “we now seem to need labels to get services.”
• She compared labeling a whole spectrum of people as being autistic to the same lack of distinction between being sad and being depressed, despite that there’s also a spectrum of states.
• Rules and routines should be consistent between home and school, and focus on bottom-up thinking.
• Teachers may have difficulty switching between students on and not on the spectrum.
• Teachers sometimes inhibit children from doing studies that are more advanced.
• Fit learning and testing towards each child’s special abilities.
• Most people think top-down (form the concept, then acquire data). Autistic people tend to think bottom-up.
• Acknowledge for learning programs that there are three types of thinkers: pattern, visual and verbal. Most people are a mixture of these types, but autistic children may gravitate towards a specific type.
• 1 to 1 face time with a trusted adult is important for younger language-deficient students. Older language-deficient students should be encouraged to speak by learning verbal manners, ordering food at restaurants and so on.
• There are two types of speech patterns amongst children in the autistic spectrum. One type is that hard consonants are not heard, so when an autistic child repeats what they hear, they do so without those consonants. The other type is when a child will clearly enunciate words verbatim, often learned from watching movies or TV commercials, but without understanding of the words.
• Flash cards and iPad screens are both useful for the second type. Start with noun words.
• iPad is good for learning typing because there’s no attention shift from keyboard to screen.
• Many mildly autistic people do have top jobs. Work skills should and can be learned as early as Middle School.
• Autism has not stopped people from achieving high-ranking jobs. She feels that half of Silicon Valley might suffer from Aspergers — which while it’s listed by the American Psychiatric Association as a separate disorder, some experts believe it is a mild form of autism.

Raising Awareness About Animal Welfare

While many people might know Dr. Grandin because of her talks on autism, her field of work is in animal science. She has formed an incredibly empathy for animals, especially livestock animals, and managed to change the practices of an entire industry. While not everyone agrees that what she has done for the state of livestock handling is actually significantly more humane than previous, she has at least encouraged handlers to reduce many of the terrors for animals going to the slaughterhouse. In the BBC-run documentary about her entitled “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow,” Dr. Grandin suggests that her understanding of animals may come from being born autistic, that fear is the main emotion of autism as well as of a “prey species animal”. Whatever the reason, Dr. Grandin has contributed significantly to animal welfare, been recognized for this work, as well as inspired others.
• She created the “hug box” when she was 18, a device which calms and de-stresses people by applying gentle but firm pressure — a concept she took from the “squeeze box,” a similar device used to calm livestock animals that she saw on her aunt’s Arizona ranch. This was the beginning of her association with animals.
• The hug box theory is also applied to the Thundershirt, which is a wearable item for cats and dogs, to calm them, especially during thunderstorms.
• In addition to other awards and accolades, she was given a “Visionary” Proggy award from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
• Her philosophy is that using animals for food is ethical, but that they need to be treated with some respect, given a decent life and painless death.
• Initially, she faced resistance in the multi-billion dollar livestock industry, both because she was a woman in a predominantly male, industry and also because she was advocating practices that had never been done in the past. There were incidents of bullying even at this point in her life, including having had bull testicles placed on her car.
• She challenged the thought that cattle got distressed on their way to slaughter because they sensed what was coming. She found that cattle behaved the same way when they were being inoculated.
• Her findings led her to put animal welfare concerns into 2 categories: “Abuse and Neglect”, and “Boredom and Restrictive Environments.”
• The first category deals with cruelty and pain issues.
• The second category deals with abnormal behaviors which may result from environments that do not provide stimulation.
• As the result of her work, U.S. government agencies turn to her to help monitor cattle welfare standards.
• She has written over 300 articles on animal handling, welfare and facility design — both for scientific journals and livestock periodicals.
• She has received about 3 dozen awards just in the area of animal welfare.

Temple Grandin

Information for this article was collected from the following pages and web sites:

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