When Temple Grandin, famed autism activist and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, was 13 she was employed by a freelance seamstress to do sewing projects. When she was 15, she cleaned 8 horse stalls every day. By the time she finished college, she had carpentry work, sign painting, and farm management under her belt.
“Today, you have some of these kids getting through college having never had a job,” Grandin told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “That hurts the kids who are kind of different. There’s other people on the autism spectrum who have PhDs. Quite a few in fact. But where I’m seeing the problem is getting and keeping jobs.”
Grandin describes herself as “a child of the 50s,” where you always had to be on time. That helped her work through her diagnosis of autism, a complex disorder of brain development that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction, communication and repetitive behavior.
She says that kids today spend too much time with video games and, instead, should invest time in walking dogs, volunteering at church and other activities that need discipline. Helicopter parenting is not helping things, Grandin said.
“I had a lot of anxiety when I was a teenager,” Grandin said. “But one of the things the school and my parents wouldn’t allow was becoming a recluse in my room. I had to be out doing things. And I got bullied and teased a lot in school. The only place I wasn’t was in special interests, things like electronics, horseback riding. Kids who were interested in specialized things were not the kids doing the teasing.”
Grandin visited St. Louis on Oct. 30 to share her experience at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the invitation of the UMSL SUCCEED program. The program is “designed to encourage and facilitate students to gain independence through academics, vocational experiences, and residential/student life.”
Grandin told Don Marsh that autism is getting attention today because of Silicon Valley.
“The problem with autism is that it goes all the way from Steve Jobs and half the computer programmers in Silicon Valley, to someone who cannot dress themselves. There would be no radio station right now if there were no autism genes. There’d be no computers. A brain can either be made more thinking, cognitive, or a brain can be made more social-emotional. In mild forms, it is personality variant. In more severe forms, some of them are very handicapped.”
For Grandin, working with animals has helped her visual-thinking mind. “Being a visual thinker has helped me work with animals because animals are sensory-based, their memories are going to be pictures, sounds, smells,” Grandin said. She has done pioneering work in the humane livestock industry.
Grandin’s story reached a far broader audience in 2010, when Clare Danes portrayed her in the biopic “Temple Grandin” on HBO. Grandin said that the movie helped spread her message about autism.
“I have people coming up to me all the time,” Grandin said. “I have kids do projects about me. I get letters from a lot of students that I’m motivating them to succeed. I think that’s a good thing. I get asked about all the time how I feel about people recognizing me at the airport. I say: ‘It is a responsibility.’”
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.