Temple Grandin on Autistics: Work With, Not Against, Their Limits

| by Susan Senator

Last Thursday I went to a conference in Rhode Island held by Community Autism Resources, an advocacy and support organization connected to Dr. Barry Prizant, one of the creators of the SCERTS model of autism education. Temple Grandin was the first speaker. I had heard Temple speak years ago, but having just seen the Clare Danes movie, I was eager to hear her again.

Temple talked a lot about different types/manifestations of autism and how to tackle the various issues associated with them. She spoke in terms of "brain problems," rather than attempting to use traditional diagnostic terms like dyslexia, ADHD, or even autism. Her point was to make clear the fact that understanding the specific learning style of each brain you meet helps you relate to and educate that particular brain. You can't get "locked into labels," she said.

Temple discussed comprehension and learning styles by making three basic categories: those who are visual thinkers; those who are pattern thinkers; and those who are verbal thinkers. Of course there is a lot of migrating in between the groups. Visual thinkers would be "poor at algebra but can do geometry," Temple said, because of how they think in pictures (the way she does). They might be industrial engineers. Pattern thinkers would be good at music and math, or playing 20 questions; they can't show their work, either -- which made me think of Benj. And Verbal thinkers would have no speech delays. They might become journalists. They are word people; they think words.

Right away I could see something revolutionary here because nearly all Nat's life I have heard about how "autistics are visual learners," and it always struck me as a broad generalization and not entirely true when applied to Nat. Nat learned to read by spelling, not by images. I never felt that Nat needed the Meyer-Johnson symbols to understand things; he did so well when I sung things to him or even spelled out loud. Not all the time, of course; some of Nat's learning is indeed visual but the point here is that people have so many variations in their brains that we do ourselves and our children a disservice by assuming one-size-fits-all. Obvious, but then again, easily forgotten.

Temple talked about how some autistics cannot see and hear at the same time. Their central auditory processing is "messed up." They have problems discerning detail in sounds. In some cases, hard consonant sounds disappear; the quicker sounds "drop out," and yet the same person will test perfectly for hearing. "Slow down and enunciate," Temple advised.

"Then you have the echolalic kid who hears fine if [things are] repeated exactly the same." You would teach him that words have meaning, using hundreds of flashcards, with the word and the picture. He would need many, many examples of things to understand their meaning and then generalize to their category. But it can be done. "Explain enough--they'll get it," she said.

Next Temple described those with "attention-shifting slowness," whose ability to focus and then refocus is affected tremendously by distractions. Interruptions in conversation may mean utter breakdown in comprehension. "Give them time to process," she advised.

Further, there are those whose "visual systems are messed up." Their eye exams would be normal, but images break up. They learn through hearing(!). People who have this problem may see print jiggling on the page, and therefore their reading ability will lag. Temple advised pastel-colored lenses to correct this. They're available in Target, she said, and she felt that if people don't try this, something this simple, they're idiots.

Temple calls 'em as she sees 'em. No mincing of words. Her approach is to identify the brain problem and then find the strategies that will apply. Don't waste time on changing the world; put your energy into simple corrections and techniques and stay focused on problem-solving. For example: Supermarket fits? Probably sensory -- bad lighting. Not always behavioral, but sometimes it is. Find out which it is. If the behavior is not sensory but rather is about attention and pushing people's limits, then you should not tolerate it--like rudeness at the dinner table. As Temple put it, "Autism is not an excuse for having a fork in your hair."

Building on her theory that not all autistics have autism in the same way, and that we are talking about individuals with their own particular set of challenges, she brought up the "break it all down into small parts" approach. This is one of the most common forms of instruction for kids on the spectrum. Small steps, small parts. Discrete trials of learning, built one step/layer at a time. Temple blew my mind when she said that actually some folks on the "lower end of the spectrum" do not do well with things broken up like this. With some, you should "use one continuous movement, and it will get through. He must see it all." She talked about one person she knew whose mom realized this; she had to show him how to get dressed by slowly pulling his shirt on in one connected action, not by doing first arms in sleeves, head in neck hole.

Temple's basic approach to understanding autism and life is based on common sense, observation, and experience. A mixture of intuition and scientific research. Her overall philosophy seems to be to figure out your kid's learning strengths and deficits, and work within that configuration. Eventually you will identify learning styles, preferences, and then you can help find hobbies and perhaps one day employment that goes with his particular kind of brain. "Don't de-geekify the Geek," she warns. The differences in brains are the sources of our problems and our suffering, but also, of our individuality, our genius and our creativity. After all, "Who do you think made the first stone spear? It was some Asperger off [alone] in a cave..."

The point being that we don't need to work to change/fix people but rather to help them become the best they can be given their particular issues. Temple's humble, common-sense approach doesn't even presume to know how to change/cure. She blows you away with her humane attitudes and by implication, her compassion.

The most wonderful thing about listening to Temple was that even though she is an Aspie, her philosophy and findings are not just applicable to that end of the spectrum. As she spoke, I could apply much of what she was saying to Nat and many of his peers, all up and down that huge spectrum of theirs/ours. Her underlying message is that there is no big mystery here, just a set of problems to identify and solve. Although she did talk alot about therapies, both alternative and traditional, (GFCF diet, sensory integration, medication) and how many are worth trying for one-three months if they are not harmful, she was not focused on a cure, but rather, on how to work with what you've got. Something we could all use.

Photo by jurvetson via Flickr