Dr Temple Grandin

Autistic: Differently Abled With Gifts to Contribute

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

(1 Corinthians 12:22)

Children labeled autistic don’t fit the mold of what peers and society considers ‘normal.’ Other children often ridicule, bully, and isolate them because they are  ‘different.’  Yet these children often possess unique skills. They make significant contributions to society when encouraged and nurtured.

Such people sometimes exhibit an extreme fixation on one thing, to the exclusion of everything else. This makes for some bewildering and awkward social encounters. However, this tendancy to tune out everything else, leads them to creative breakthroughs that enrich and benefit society.

Dr. Temple Grandin – Labeled Autistic

Consider the case of Dr. Temple Grandin. Today she is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is also a published author and popular conference speaker. Parents, teachers and other professionals pack auditoriums to learn about autism from someone who knows about it first hand.

She didn’t begin to speak until she was three and a half years old. When her mother consulted with professionals about her daughter’s difficult-to-manage behavior the doctor suggested her mother institutionalize Temple as a hopeless case. Fortunately her mother didn’t take that advice. Temple’s world began to turn for the better after she spent a summer at a relative’s ranch, where she spend hours focusing on the habits of cattle.

A Teacher and a Mentor

Her life took another turn for the better when her high school science teacher, Mr. Carlock, recognized her interest and capabilities in science. His mentoring helped pave the way for her career in livestock management. Today half the cattle in the USA benefit from animal management equipment she designed. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for her many contributions in the fields of both animal science and autism.

Her first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, was groundbreaking because it was the first autobiography by anyone labeled with the condition.  She has since written several books about both animal science and autism, all available on her website, https://www.templegrandin.com.

One Approach to Education Is Not Enough

The American Psychiatric Association revised its definition of autism in 2013.  The range of symptoms now encompasses brilliant scientists such as Albert Einstein, artists, and musicians as well as people who cannot dress themselves The criteria for an autism-related diagnosis changes, meaning the same child might be labeled autistic, then ADHD, and then learning disabled.

Unfortunately, in order for a child to get the kind of intervention that can make a significant difference in his or her life, the child has to be diagnosed and labeled. Dr Grandin prefers to think of these children as having ‘differently-abled brains.’ She maintains, “Rigid academics and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars. Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job. Those kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things.”

Society Needs All Kinds of People

The ancient author of the Corinthians text used the analogy of our physical anatomy to make a point about the Corinth Christian community. We tend to be selective about which traits we admire and which we distain, but God doesn’t see it that way. Perhaps the kid picked last, or not at all, because he or she lacks athletic abilities, will become the scientist who finds the cure for a devastating disease.

This issue is personal for me. Though never diagnosed, I am fairly confident my older brother has dealt with some form of Asperger’s, one of the conditions in the autism continuum. In school he tested in the top two percent academically, but struggled to fit in socially. He has the tendency to fixate on whatever holds his interest at the moment. His interests change from time to time, but the tendency to over-focus on them remains constant. He owes what successes and happiness he has enjoyed to an equally brilliant wife who has shown him extreme patience, kindness, and empathy.

If autistic tendencies impact someone you love, I commend Dr Grandin’s website for books, articles and other information.  It is a good resource for insights about people who can use their differently-abled minds to make unique and important contributions to society.

If you enjoyed reading about Dr. Grandin’s work with livestock, you may enjoy this article about an amazing dog: Balto’s Journey From Nome to Cleveland.