A conversation with Temple Grandin

03/30/2013  |  John Miller
SEEN interview

Photos by Rosalie Winard

SEEN: It’s a pleasure to speak with you Dr. Grandin. Our districts are seeing more autistic students than ever before. This is creating some tremendous challenges for our educators as we attempt to meet the needs of this growing population. Tell me what we should know about our autistic learners.

Temple Grandin: “People on the autism spectrum have very different strengths and weaknesses. Some are wonderful at math and terrible at reading. I’m really good at art, decent in writing, but terrible in math. 

There is a certain political correctness that everybody is the same. But if that third grader can do the college algebra book, then he should be allowed to do it. I’ve seen too many smart kids being bored when they should be doing much more advanced work. I’m not saying put that third grader in high school; I’m saying bring the high school books down to the third grade classroom and let him work on them because he needs the socialization in the third grade classroom.

Be a little flexible. Be a little creative. We have to rethink, what is the end goal in education? The end goal in education should be for a person to be able to support him or herself in a decent job they are going to like. That’s the end result of education. I’ve known smart kids that have different disabilities. They had a handicap mentality and they never learned how to go grocery shopping by themselves. I will give you an example. A 19-year-old girl, straight A student, 4.0 GPA , and she doesn’t know how to go into a Kroger and grocery shop by herself.”

SEEN: Did someone tell her she couldn’t do it and that’s why she can’t?

Temple Grandin: “Yes. That’s the kind of thing that happens. Someone else just always did it for her. My mother made me go, and I didn’t want to do it. But she made me go in the store and do it myself.”

SEEN: Perhaps the reason the bumblebee can fly is because no one told him he couldn’t. We seem to be telling these kids what they can’t do.

Temple Grandin: “Exactly. That’s a real good example.”

SEEN: There is a real danger that once children are labeled they get treated as such. They get trained into a greater disability.

Temple Grandin: “This is the problem. You have kids with great disabilities that are going to have to live in a supported environment for the rest of their lives. You have other kids where that is not true, but, they get in a disability mindset. And the other problem I’m seeing today is that kids are not being taught work skills. When I was 15, I was cleaning horse stalls. They don’t learn how to work. You know the paper routes are gone. Those taught kids how to work.”

SEEN: How do we get all that back?

Temple Grandin: “Well, I think it’s a disaster, but the schools have taken hands-on classes like sewing, cooking, welding, workshop, drafting, music and art out of the schools. These are all things that kids could turn into careers. They have a shortage now of diesel mechanics. There are a lot of kids (who are better suited for) two-year technical schools where higher skills trades like diesel mechanics are taught.”

SEEN: It’s something that a lot of educators don’t get. Not every child should go to a four year college. It’s just not a fit.

Temple Grandin: “No, it’s not a fit. I went to a four-year college, but the things I actually did with livestock were self-taught. And when I started my cattle equipment design business, there were things that I learned in the four-year college that helped me. I got exposed to a lot of animal psychology and animal behavior stuff that was very good.

“All the old people on the milder end of the autism spectrum and the older dyslexics managed to get jobs. One thing that can be a big problem is, let’s say, a young kid gets a job at the local stationary store when he is in his 50s and the store gets bought out and he gets laid off. That’s where this guy is in real trouble. It’s a problem getting a new job.

“I’m seeing way too many of these smart kids that have different labels that are so involved in these video games that they don’t do anything else.”

SEEN: I think one of the dangers is they are introduced to the computer screen so early. I was just speaking with the folks at the Alliance for Childhood about that. There is a lot of research now that says that it can be detrimental to introduce young children to the computer screen. I’m talking about young children ages two, three and four. They don’t need to be in front of a computer.

Temple Grandin: “They absolutely do not. I would agree with you. These kids get so addicted to video games and that’s all they do. I spoke to a lady I know that is Asperger. She is with an Asperger support group. She’s 50 years old and she’s a nurse anesthesiologist. And young Aspergers don’t want to work. They don’t want any work skills.”

SEEN: I don’t know how much of that comes from a sense of entitlement.

Temple Grandin: “I think that is part of the problem. I was brought up in the 1950s and mother had me doing a sewing job when I was 13 years old.”

SEEN: And that probably did so much for you in a lot of ways. Not just teaching you a work ethic, but it taught you hand/eye coordination and so many other things.

Temple Grandin: “Oh it really did. I already had the hand/eye coordination at that time, but it did teach me the work skills.”

SEEN: I have worked since I was 14, including the entire time I was in college. That seemed like the normal thing to do.

Temple Grandin: “The problem we have now is that college has gotten so expensive even at state universities that you can no longer work your way through. It’s too expensive. The student loans in this country exceed credit card debt right now.”

SEEN: There are still ways to get through if you are creative.

Temple Grandin: “Yeah that’s what Raman noodles are for.”

SEEN: Yep, we’d take a bag of lima beans and a ham hock and that was a week’s worth of eating.

Temple Grandin: “That’s what you do.”

SEEN: What else should we know?

Temple Grandin: “Another thing is building on the kid’s strengths. If he is good at math, then let’s work him ahead in math and let him be in special education for reading.”

SEEN: It seems like we forget to build on strengths. We always address weaknesses, but we don’t address the strengths.

Temple Grandin: “I think it’s a gigantic mistake.”

SEEN: What do we need to do as educators? How do we educate ourselves to do a better job?

Temple Grandin: “One of the things that comes to my mind is how education schools get into all these fads. I just went to an interesting gifted kid’s conference. When I looked at the poster sessions for their research I was not very impressed... a lot of theoretical crap and very little, you know, where they actually did the stuff. Education has gone through so many crazy fads. You and I should be able to remember the teaching machine fads of the 60s. That was ridiculous.”

SEEN: There is nothing common about common sense. You know that don’t you?

Temple Grandin: “Oh, I know.”

SEEN: A friend of mine once told me that genius is the unique ability to see the obvious.

Temple Grandin: “I have a saying that the most obvious is the least obvious. In one of my presentations, I asked why did the core of the Japanese nuclear reactors melt down and burn up? Because they put their emergency generators in the worse possible place — in the basement and the basement was not waterproof. That’s pretty obvious.”

SEEN: It wasn’t obvious to someone.

Temple Grandin: “Well, that’s why four nuclear reactors burned up because they didn’t do the obvious. When I do my presentation, I have a slide of the blown up Japanese nuclear power plant.”

SEEN: Here is something that I wonder. My father, who is deceased, would have been 90 now. When he graduated high school he knew Latin and Greek. He was very good at math. He was an optometrist but back then you didn’t have to go to college before you went to optometry school — and it was three years — but he was one of the most well read, well educated people I’ve ever known in my life.

Temple Grandin: “We don’t do as good a job now of educating people. I was reading about Thomas Jefferson and some of the curriculum he had in school. Man, you got well educated.”

SEEN: Are we really any smarter with all our teaching knowledge? I’m in the teaching knowledge biz and I think we have more red tape and less knowledge.

Temple Grandin: “I agree with that.”

SEEN: To quote one of my favorite singers, Waylan Jennings, “How do you get back to the basics of life?”

Temple Grandin: “Well, I think there is a real problem with that. I find that a lot of young parents today, even with the Internet at their fingertips, are not resourceful. I think some of this gets back to the fact that they’ve never done these hands-on things. When you do your hands-on projects and you mess up or you mess up your carpentry project and you cut the wood wrong, you have to throw out the project or you have to get another piece of wood. I can remember having to throw out a sewing project because I cut it wrong and I didn’t have enough fabric. When you do enough things wrong you learn by having to fix it. I call it a practical resourcefulness. By not having hands-on stuff, many young people today don’t know how to cook. I will say I don’t cook much today, but if I had to cook a turkey I could. I had home economics when I was in high school and I would read the directions and I would cook the turkey. Now I could just go to the Butterball website and get the directions. I can’t buy the turkey the day of Thanksgiving because I know it can’t be frozen. I learned in home economics that you can’t put a frozen turkey in the oven. I know that. I learned that in home economics. I also learned the basic food groups.

“You know, I noticed an interesting thing. I was at Kansas State University and they had pictures up on the wall of all the old stuff they used to do. You should have seen the ladies’ 1930 home economics class. They are standing in their long dresses in front of giant butcher blocks with half a side of beef on it. This is serious stuff here. I didn’t have to cut a side of beef up in home economics class. It was quite a picture.

The other problem is that people don’t do practical stuff anymore. I think doing practical stuff teaches resourcefulness. OK, the lawnmower doesn’t work, well then can you fix it? I remember one night that I just had to get some copies made and the copier would not work. Well, I figured out how to fix the copier. I was pretty mad that I had to do that, but I fixed it.”

SEEN: Inspiration is the mother of invention.

Temple Grandin: “Well, there was something wrong with the printer cartridge and I was able to fix it with scotch tape. I made it work.”

SEEN: It’s amazing what you can do when you have to do it.

Temple Grandin: “That’s the other thing. I’ve worked in construction for so many years and I know you have to get the job done or you’re not going to get paid.”

SEEN: I’ve got to tell you this. My first job out of high school before college was framing houses, working construction in Jackson, Mississippi. I cut a board the wrong length and the crew chief sent me to the trunk for the lumber stretcher. Of course, I went. Everyone just rolled on the ground laughing.

Temple Grandin: “Yeah, that’s like hunting for snipes. I have taken people out doing that. My aunt had guests at her ranch and she would take them out snipe hunting. “

SEEN: And how many snipe did you find?

Temple Grandin: “None. But I had some really good snipe whistles because there were these little chrome-plated pipes that go to the faucets underneath the sinks. You have to cut them to length and I would have a piece left over about four inches long and if you blew over the top of it, it made a great whistle. They looked very impressive because they were all chrome-plated. And I told them that this was a special snipe whistle. I had one that was a little longer and I told them this was for a little special species of snipe. “

SEEN: You know, with your luck, a real snipe would have appeared, maybe the first sighting ever. That would have served you right. That’s so funny.

Temple Grandin: “I’m concerned about where education is going and our ranking internationally is terrible.”

SEEN: If that does not improve we will not remain competitive in the next 50 years.

Temple Grandin: “We’re already behind. Forty percent of all patent lawsuits are just trolls. They don’t actually make anything. They just buy up patents and sue people.”

SEEN: They are bottom feeders.

Temple Grandin: “They are bottom feeders. They call themselves non-practicing entities. Anyone that does patent work calls them patent trolls. We never use to have anything like that. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as a patent troll. “

SEEN: The whole intellectual property world is a mess because other countries don’t recognize each other’s laws. So you have to get patented in a 100 different countries and then certain countries are going to step all over it anyway.

Temple Grandin: “Now it has just gotten crazy. Well I’m going to have to get going but it’s been wonderful talking to you.”

SEEN: Thank you Temple. It was great to talk to you as well.

For more information contact Clay John, 972-623-8512 or John Miller, 919-815-9289. Visit www.Mutualaidinternational.org.
Comments & Ratings

  12/12/2013 3:51:30 PM
Lawrence B 

New Comment 
A wonderful article with a great deal of insight. Letting kids be kids and grow within their skill levels while remaining a part of their age group is right on.
  5/13/2013 11:07:01 PM

No Nonsense 
I love Temple's no-nonsense and commonsense approach to education.
  4/30/2013 11:35:40 AM

ASD Nest program in New York City 
I am curious if you are familiar with the ASD Nest program in NYC, where high functioning ASD kids are integrated with typically developing kids. In my Aspie's Kindergarten class here are 4 ASD kids, 8 regular. 1 general ed teacher, 1 special ed. ASD kids get social development class, OT is needed, and Adaptive phys. ed. Acedemics are the same. Geat program- and it seems to me this model should be implemented more... thoughts?