Photo Credit: Rosalie Winard
Temple Grandin’s first boss called her into his office and ordered her to the lunchroom to apologize to a coworker, a welder named Whitey. Forty years later, Grandin, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, said that she can’t thank that boss enough.
She had insulted Whitey by telling him that his welding skills were equivalent to something along the lines of “chicken doo doo.” At the time she was in her twenties, Grandin said, and she was furious, but she wanted to keep her job, so she apologized.
“Now I didn’t go up to Whitey and tell him that his welding was wonderful, but I went up to Whitey and apologized for using such rude language; and I said I was sorry for that,” Grandin said in an interview with AllPsychologyCareers.com.
Grandin has a PhD in animal science and teaches at Colorado State University. She is a best selling author, one of the few livestock handling equipment designers in the world, and works as a consultant to the livestock industry on the humane treatment of animals.
Those are the accomplishments, career highlights, and personal interests that Grandin wants individuals to know about her first and foremost. The fact that she also happens to have autism is secondary, yet also an integral part of her life.
Advocate for Autism
Although her autism doesn’t define her, it’s a part of her life that she works to educate others about, an endeavor that attempts to help others more than herself, especially those who are younger and starting their careers. She works tirelessly as an advocate for those individuals with autism spectrum disorders, a classification that includes many subtypes of autism, ranging from the more mild or high functioning to severe.
During the interview, Grandin spoke about effective ways for how counselors and therapists help those living with an autism spectrum disorder succeed in college, and life.
She talked mainly about two focus areas, social interaction skills as well as everyday functioning skills - behaviors that must be developed in order for high functioning autistic individuals to move successfully through their college years, and into careers.
One of the most essential skills, as demonstrated in her story about dealing with Whitey the welder, centers on social interactions, or ways of relating socially with classmates, coworkers, and teachers.
Almost all individuals living on the spectrum, from the most mild to the most severe, struggle with some type of social deficiency.
What others learn intuitively, ways of showing politeness, appropriate ways of expressing irritation, sadness, happiness, and anger, many autistic individuals need to be taught.
In addition, autistic individuals don’t pick up on or understand the social cues sent by others, such as facial expressions, body language, or displays of emotion.
Counselors Teaching Social Skills
One role of counselors and therapists, Grandin said, is to teach these individuals – literally teach them – how to interact with others. What might appear simplistic or natural to others, such as making eye contact, handshakes, or even appearing to listen to others as they speak, often must be explained, and demonstrated.
Just as Grandin had to learn not to use rude language with coworkers, so will others have to learn this skill. Grandin credits the help of her first boss for giving her that lesson early in her work life, but it’s a skill that counselors must address with autistic individuals as they transition into every new environment. Anger is a hard enough emotion to process without a developmental disorder, and those with a spectrum disorder have an especially hard time with it.
Learning how to manage emotions, as well as innumerable social behaviors, must take place concept-by-concept, Grandin said. In other words, it’s “bottom-up learning.” And it’s a lifelong process. But for many, successfully learning these skills is possible. Grandin happens to be the world’s leading example.
Born in the 1950s, a doctor told Grandin’s parents that institutionalizing their daughter was the only option. She didn’t speak until she was 4 years old, and her peers teased her throughout her school years. Many teachers doubted her intelligence and abilities.
Back then, little was known about the nature of autism; in fact the term autism spectrum disorders didn’t exist. Counseling, therapy, and disability services for these individuals were nonexistent.
Because of their seemingly weird behaviors and inability to connect socially with others, autistic children were pushed to the margins. Professionals simply didn’t understand or know what these children needed, or how to work with them.
Fortunately, Grandin had a mother who wouldn’t institutionalize her, or push her daughter to the margins. Grandin said her mother expected her to act politely, to have manners, to recognize authority figures, to get her work done and on time.
Her mother taught her the basic skills of living, and did not excuse her daughter from these responsibilities because she had autism. It took more effort, and much of the learning had to take place concept-by-concept, but Grandin learned the basics from her mother.
Yet as a freshman in college, Grandin struggled immensely with the social environment. She shared too much personal information, and those she told “blabbed it all over campus.”
Counselors Help with Transitions
This is one area where a counselor can really help, Grandin said. Transitioning to dorm life is extremely difficult. Yet many learn and adjust, and Grandin believes with the right mentoring and counseling, those with autistic disorders will lead successful social – and academic - lives.
Her breakthrough as an undergraduate came from participating in a talent show. Working with others building a set, developing a program, sharing a goals, all contributed to others accepting her.
That’s’ why she believes that clubs or events that involve shared interests are integral for getting those on the autism spectrum socializing with other kids. Clubs that have specific defined goals and objectives, such as robotics clubs or engineering clubs, teach those on the spectrum how to cooperate with others and work in groups.
Autistic individuals need clearly defined goals with specific outcomes – in fact they flourish with these types of projects. A group that gets together to simply socialize is not comfortable or conducive. Those with spectrum disorders struggle to mingle, make small talk, and mix because of their social impairment.
But not only do small, specific clubs help socially, they also prepare individuals for work environments, Grandin said, who emphasizes that finding fulfilling jobs is essential for those living on the spectrum as well as for society as a whole.
These individuals, most of whom are visual learners, have much to contribute to society, in specific jobs that not only benefit from, but also are expertly completed by visual thinkers. Yet, many are not prepared for the workplace because basic skills of interacting and managing one’s life have not been taught.
Learning to Take Direction
Grandin bristles when she hears that some schools, teachers, and parents excuse poor behavior or disregard it because the child has an autism spectrum disorder. Grandin stresses that regardless of the diagnosis, an individual must learn to take direction from authority figures, and learn the social rules that govern society’s expectations of appropriate behavior.
This means understanding that authority figures, like bosses and police officers should not be rudely argued with or disrespected. Respecting authority, she never struggled with because of her 1950s upbringing, and her mother “pounding the rules it into her.”
Yet because of looser social rules today, both parents working, and the excusing of “bad behaviors,” Grandin believes that those living on the spectrum have a much harder time today. This is another way that the counseling field helps those living on the spectrum – by setting limits and boundaries, and teaching individuals the importance of accepting direction from authority figures.
Managing Life’s Complexities
In addition, many living on the spectrum also need counseling on basic daily functioning skills, such as organization skills, and time and money management. This includes getting up in time for class, getting to class, and learning how to function within the classroom. It also means learning how to handle a checkbook and pay bills.
Counselors also help those on the spectrum learn how to organize themselves. Grandin recommends a visual, paper calendar printed out three months at a time, and pasted to the student’s dorm wall. All papers, exams, and important assignments such as speeches, are marked on the calendar.
Helping students organize their coursework, notes, and papers on their computers is also essential, Grandin said. It simply means a folder for each semester, with subfolders for each class. Counselors can show students how to save their notes and schoolwork to the appropriate folders.
Many with spectrum disorders also need coaching about classroom etiquette. Counselors explain to these individuals that they must not interrupt the teacher or monopolize the class with questions. Grandin said she gave herself permission to ask only two questions in class per day.
Counselors and therapists working with college age or older individuals with an autism spectrum disorder also help these individuals with the depression and anxiety that often accompanies the disorder.
The therapeutic approach for treating depression and anxiety is similar to working with these conditions across the general population. Yet therapy is also tailored to the conditions of living with and managing an autism spectrum disorder.
Parents, autistic individuals, and teachers all cite the need for counselors and therapists to become specifically trained and knowledgeable about autism spectrum disorders. Colleges and universities need counselors, in addition to communities and nonprofit organizations.
If you have a passion for helping those with spectrum disorders, and their families, consider a career in disability services at a university or college, or as a mental health counselor. A background in psychology is required. For more information, contact psychology schools or counseling schools for more information about how to prepare for a career in one of the many fields that directly affect those living on the spectrum.
Temple Grandin’s Unique Philosophy on Animal Psychology
Temple Grandin understands how animals think because, as she states in numerous journal articles, her New York Times best seller “Animals in Translation,” and conferences across the country and world, she has autism.
And it’s this understanding that has led to her fame and recognition in the highly specialized niche of livestock handling equipment. In fact, it’s her sensory understanding of animals that led her to revolutionize cattle movement systems, redesigning them in order to make the death of animals moving through slaughterhouses more humane.
Grandin maintains that the idiosyncrasies of autism enable her to think as animals, such as the ways she thinks visually or in pictures, and the linking of those pictures to associations.
“People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations. These associations are like snapshots or events and tend to be very specific,” Grandin said in the article “Thinking the Way Animals Do,” published in the Western Horseman.
She explains that horses, for example, might fear a bearded man in a barn if the horse has had a bad experience with a bearded man in barn. However, the horse might not have a fear of bearded men in a riding area. Or, a horse that experienced fear in a barn with skylights might fear all barns with skylights.
The main emotion in autistic individuals is fear, as it is in all prey animals. “Things that scare horses and cattle also scare children with autism.”
For these reasons, Grandin knew how to redesign livestock handling equipment that did not produce fear.
The fact that she works to enable death among cattle doesn’t bother her, or conflict with her work as an animal advocate.
Humans breed cattle for human consumption; therefore humans owe them a quality life and a quality death, Grandin maintains.
In the book “Animals in Translation,” Grandin categorizes autism as a way station on the road from animals to humans. For those families with an autistic family member, or individuals struggling with autism, or for anyone who attends one of Grandin’s talks, most feel that Grandin provides a unique “way station” to a better appreciation of all life – animal and human.