March 14, 2007

Prof Gives Autism Personal Perspective

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Prof. Temple Grandin, animal science, Colorado State University, is world-renowned for her work in livestock handling and animal welfare, and as a prolific author of books on autism. She has been honored with the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Professorship at Cornell and last night gave a lecture titled “On Autism” to a large crowd of members of the Cornell and Ithaca communities in Bailey Hall.

“Autism is increasing. Asperger’s is here. They’re all over the place, undiagnosed,” said Grandin.

Grandin speaks from personal experience. Diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome, she is a leading advocate for the idea that early intervention and supportive teachers can direct autistic children to lead satisfying lives.

According to Grandin, people with autism have uneven skill, and it is necessary to develop the skilled areas. She strongly emphasized the need for autistic children to receive the proper amount of education, about 20 hours of intense training a week.

“When I was a young child, I had no language up to age three. I was lucky to get very good early education,” Grandin said.

Since autism has only recently begun to be recognized as a disorder, Grandin was formally diagnosed as an adult. She lists a number of scientists and artists including Einstein, Mozart and Van Gogh, who today would have been diagnosed as autistic.

Grandin said that with the resources available today, autistic children should be educated in a way that will allow them to make use of their unique talents.
“Where is the next Einstein? Working at a convenience store and hating it? I’m worried about that,” Grandin said.

Grandin is concerned that a large number of intelligent people are being blocked out by today’s society when they are diagnosed with autism.

“In special education, they tend to pound away at the disability rather than look at what the person can be really good at,” Grandin said.

Today, Grandin is famous for equipment she has designed for the humane treatment of slaughter animals. This equipment is used by over half the meat packing plants in the country.

“It’s a field where I use my ability.” Grandin said, who describes her strength in visual thinking. “I can test run a facility in my mind like a virtual reality computer system. I didn’t even know that was a special skill. I thought everybody could do that.”

Grandin’s mind works in pictures, which she describes as “thinking in Google images.”

While she is able to visualize intricate processes that a non-autistic person could never see, she is unable to grasp simple, abstract concepts such as the number five. Instead, when she thinks of the number five, she sees images of five fingers or high fives or a nickel. Algebra is impossible, because she is unable to visualize it.

“If I can’t see a photorealistic picture, I can’t think about something,” said Grandin, “It’s sensory based, not word based.”

While mild forms of autism can be a gift in many ways, more severe forms can be a handicap. In many severe cases of autism, the person has difficulties with basic functions and tends to be non-verbal.

“If we stamp out autism, we would have no biomedical researchers, no iPods, no cell phones, music or all kinds of wonderful things.” Grandin said. “But I do think we need to do something about more severe cases.”

Grandin also talked about the best ways to develop autistic kids and allow them to realize their full potentials. A lot of this responsibility falls on parental guidelines, the viewing of media, and the way schools are run. Autistic children need a more rigid system of rules to help them understand social norms and to become functioning members of society.

Grandin says she was lucky to have grown up in the 1950s when rules and values were more concrete and structured.

“I’m very concerned today that kids are not learning the right things. I didn’t see sports figures behaving really badly or movie characters behaving badly. I knew clear cut right and wrong,” Grandin said.

Grandin said that this constant emphasis on moral values and standards is what helped her develop her skills in the right way and accomplish all the things she has done, including her advancements in the humane treatment of animals.

Grandin has worked closely with food science Prof. Joe Regenstein on issues of equipment and design in animal slaughter.

“I thought she would be a great resource for students here.” Regenstein said. “She is unique enough not to be duplicated somewhere at Cornell.”

Cornell students in attendance agreed. Laura Kohler ’09 read one of Grandin’s books last summer and is interested in working with kids with autism.

“It was a good experience to hear from someone truly successful in the field.” Kohler said. “Just to know that every child is so different. It is important to take the time to find their skills because there is so much potential.”