Author clarifies fair use of autism label
Temple Grandin, author of the freshmen summer reading book, discussed traits of people with autism during a Thursday, Sept. 29 lecture in the Tuttle North gym.
During a breakfast with students Thursday, Sept. 29, Temple Grandin elaborated on points she’d made in her lecture and also discussed unrelated issues, such as hydraulic fracturing.
"In 1950, I was labeled autistic and had to grope my way from the far side of darkness," Temple Grandin wrote in Emergence: Labeled Autistic, the summer reading book for College at Brockport freshmen this year.
During a lecture Thursday, Sept. 29 in the Tuttle North gym, Grandin discussed the appropriate and inappropriate uses of the autism label. She also explained how people on the autism spectrum think differently than people without autism.
"If you have a kid (with autism) then you need services, and you need the label," Grandin said. "If [a person with autism] works in Silicon Valley, [he or she does not] want that label."
Helping children with autism
Grandin said she believes the label is useful for young children with autism because they need a lot of one-on-one time with parents or mentors in order to develop the basic social, communication and behavioral skills they often struggle with.
"The worst thing you can do for a child (with a learning disability) is to do nothing," Grandin said.
People with autism often become fixated on certain hobbies or abilities, which can help him or her develop a unique set of skills. However, some people with autism struggle with repetitive behaviors and therefore, many people with the disorder do not use these skills to his or her advantage.
During a Thursday, Sept. 29 breakfast and book-signing with more than a dozen Brockport students, Grandin told a story of one artistically-talented person with autism who could not find work because a potential employer wanted drawings of birds and the artist did did not want to draw birds.
"Little autistic kids just want to draw the same thing over and over again," Grandin said. "It's called work — you can't always do what you want to do."
Grandin said children with autism must be pushed outside of their comfort zones in order to turn a fixation into a profession.
"You have to stretch these kids," Grandin said. "If you don't stretch them, they won't accomplish anything."
To illustrate this point, Grandin explained how as a teenager, her mother had urged her to spend a week at her aunt's ranch. Grandin said she was initially hesitant, but agreed to go after her mother promised Grandin she could return home after a week if she did not like the ranch.
"If I had never been pushed to go to my aunt's cattle ranch, I would have never become interested in cattle," she said.
Autism in adults
As Grandin's work has demonstrated, many people with high-functioning forms of autism can become successful, because many people with autism develop fixations on areas of interest or have an ability to think and reason in different ways than an ordinary person. Many successful computer programmers are on the autism spectrum, Grandin said. Even Albert Einstien would, by today's standards, be considered a person on the spectrum.
For these people, Grandin said the autism label is an unnecessary burden. For adults with autism, Grandin said the label can increase insurance rates, alter the perception of bosses or co-workers and even threaten the job of a person with autism. For example, people with Asperger's syndrome — a disorder on the autism spectrum — are not allowed to serve in the military.
Grandin also said the far-ranging symptoms and abilities of people with autism make the label discriminatory for those with high-functioning forms of autism, such as herself. In addition, she said people with other learning disorders, such as Aspergers syndrome or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), are sometimes grouped together with people on the autism spectrum.
"It's a very big spectrum," she said.
Some low-functioning people on the spectrum may never learn to speak or socially interact, while high-functioning people may use their unique ways of thinking to accomplish great things.
Another autism issue Grandin addressed was her concern that some children with autism become obsessed with their diagnosis.
"I see smart kids get fixated on their autism," she said. "If I got fixated on my autism I would have been fixated on myself. (Instead) I got fixated on cattle chutes and I turned that into business."
Success with autism
Grandin's abilities as a "visual thinker" have allowed her to identify common objects in slaughterhouses that needlessly terrorized cattle during their final moments.
To address this, Grandin designed a curved cattle chute that reduces anxiety because it takes advantage of cattle's natural tendencies to return to the place they came from. This allows cattle to walk into slaughterhouses blissfully unaware of their impending deaths.
As a proponent of animal welfare, Grandin has explained she believes using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but "we owe the animals (the) respect" of a painless death.
For this reason, Grandin has studied to gain insight into the minds of cattle in order to prevent needless suffering. Grandin stated that certain traits of people with autism, such as their acute attention to details, are similar to an animal's way of thinking.
Grandin attributes her success to her visual thinking, a fixation on her studies and her attention to detail. Still, Grandin said, she is constantly asked the theoretical question, would she snap her fingers to do away with her autism, if such a thing were possible?
"I say ‘no, I like the way I think,'" Grandin said.
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