FEATURE | Posted Feb. 19, 2015

Warm, witty and wise: Temple Grandin visits UC Davis MIND Institute

Grandin shares insights with faculty, staff

View video: Temple Grandin discusses her early experiences with faculty and staff at
the MIND Institute.

In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session at the UC Davis MIND Institute Temple Grandin, surely one of the world’s most famous people with autism, discussed the iconic story of how she emerged from a childhood as a person with low-functioning autism to become one of the world’s best-known livestock management experts.

Grandin is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about autism or about her profession: livestock management. She was in Sacramento for the UC Davis Campus Community Book Project, which focused on her 2006 work Thinking in Pictures. Her life also was the subject of the 2010 Emmy Award-winning film “Temple Grandin,” which chronicles her challenges with autism and triumph when the innovative livestock-management concepts she championed revolutionized the field.

Grandin wore a turquoise western-wear shirt tied at the neck with an orange scarf. One could easily have imagined her trudging across a cattle yard. She sat in the front of the room with faculty and staff seated around her in a semi-circle. Beside her was moderator Robin Hansen, director of the UC Davis Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

Hansen introduced Grandin and asked for audience questions. The room was silent. So Grandin broke the ice: “I’m going to pick someone!” The group erupted into laughter and communication started to flow.

“I’ve seen too many kids today, they don’t know how to shake hands. They don’t know how to shop. They haven’t been taught these basic things. They’re getting too over-coddled.”
— Temple Grandin

Grandin related some of her early experiences, similar to what she describes as “1950s Methods for Teaching Social Skills that Worked for Me.” She peppers her strong opinions with humor and does not mince words.

As a young child, Grandin said, she always was encouraged to be social — though she didn’t begin speaking until she was 4. When she was 2 or 3 her mother, Eustacia Cutler, made her “party hostess” at parties. She was encouraged to cultivate a good, strong handshake. How do you teach turn-taking? Use board games, she said. She was taught to play Parcheesi.

“I’ve seen too many kids today, they don’t know how to shake hands,” Grandin told the audience. “They don’t know how to shop. They haven’t been taught these basic things. They’re getting too over-coddled.”

At school, Grandin said she was required to participate in class with the other children, with few exceptions.

“They recognized when I was in elementary school that I had sound sensitivities. They let me step out of the room when they were going to do a physics experiment and there was going to be a loud bang. But other than that, I participated in everything,” she said.

When she was older, she was made to do chores and learned work skills.

Robin Hansen, Temple Grandin and Randi Hagerman © UC Regents
Temple Grandin during a visit to the UC Davis MIND Institute. To her right is Randi Hagerman, MIND Institute medical director. To her left is Robin Hansen, director of the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the MIND Institute.

“When I was 15, I was cleaning horse stalls every day,” Grandin said.

She repeatedly expressed concerns about the role that video games play in the lives of adolescents and young adults with autism today.

“The thing we’ve got to not have is these video-game recluses,” Grandin said.

“I am hearing about this all across the country, and it’s not acceptable. From the little video game playing I’ve done I thought, ‘Uh oh, crack cocaine! I’m not going there.’ I could have been one of those recluses,” she said.

Grandin said she worries that, because young adults with autism may not have developed social and work skills, they may not be able to participate in society and lead full lives that are satisfying for them, even when they are bright and capable.

“The same people that they have in Silicon Valley at the Googleplex are the ones you have sitting in their basements playing video games,” she said. “Parents, the job is not finished until the kid is educated and employed.”

The stern admonishments were softened with wit and humor. For example, she told the story of how she made a fake flying saucer one night and flew it past two boarding school classmates’ bedrooms, which terrified them.

“Just as they turned off the light, I swung the thing past the bedroom window, and they screamed,” she said, snickering. “And I ran back inside and went back to my room. When they graduated a few months later, I gave it to them.”

“Sometimes I’d hide their clothes, so they’d have to go to class in gym clothes,” she continued. “That did not make them happy.”