Guest post: Temple Grandin – ‘Let's build on autistic children's strengths, not focus on their deficits’
Temple Grandin is a doctor of animal science, a professor at Colorado State University, an author, and one of the best-known autistic adults in the world. Diagnosed with autism in 1950, she has since used her visual thinking to design humane handling systems for half the cattle-processing facilities in the US, and seen her life become the subject of a 2010 biopic staring Claire Danes.
In this guest post, she explains how her own strengths were nurtured, and argues that the best way to help autistic children succeed is to focus on what they can do, rather than what they can't.
Author of The Autistic Brain
Posted on: Wed 23-Apr-14 16:59:05
(40 comments )
When I was young I knew a boy, Jack, who could ski better after three lessons than I could after three years. Sometimes, whilst Jack was getting in a lot of ski practice, I stayed at the top of the slope and got to work – my kind of work. I refinished the ski-tow house. I installed knotty-pine boards and stained them; I added white trim; and I made a nice sign showing the insignia of my school. I took an ugly plywood shack, and, because of who I am, I made it into a thing of grace – a grace that my physical movements, also because of who I am, would never be able to match.
That experience was an early lesson in how I can play to my strengths. I didn't think of myself as a ‘picture thinker’ then of course, but I knew that drawing was what I could do best. And so I did it. I took what nature gave me, and I nurtured the heck out of it.
Would it have benefited me to be forced to keep on skiing? No. Today, the focus on deficits is so intense and so automatic that people lose sight of the strengths. We see this in particular with children with autism. Recently I spoke to the director of a school for autistic children, and she mentioned that the school tries to match a student’s strengths with an internship or employment opportunity in their neighborhood. But when I asked her how they identified the strengths, she immediately started talking about how they helped students overcome social deficits. If even the experts can't stop thinking about what's ‘wrong’ or lacking instead of a child’s strengths, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism on a daily basis to think any differently?
As a child with autism, what helped me be successful was playing to my strengths. Of course, I needed to develop some key life skills: when I was three, I had no language, so my speech teacher slowly enunciated words to make it easier to hear the hard consonant sounds, and get language started. I learned turn taking and patience by playing lots of board games. But it was the support I got to develop my natural ability at art which was key: I was good at it, and both my mother and my teachers encouraged me to develop my skills. Eventually, my art ability became the basis of my work designing livestock facilities.
If even the experts can't stop thinking about what's ‘wrong' or lacking instead of a child's strengths, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism on a daily basis to think any differently?
I believe that educators need to emphasise building up the strengths of autistic children into skills that can form the basis of a career. But how can we identify strengths?
In my book, The Autistic Brain, I discuss different thinking types. Children and adults on the high end of the autism spectrum often have uneven skills. They are good at one thing and bad at something else. I am a photo realistic, visual thinker and all my thoughts come in pictures. There are three common thinking types, and this is one of them. Algebra was impossible for me, but visual thinkers are usually good at art, industrial design, fashion design, graphic arts, architecture, and traditional crafts.
Secondly, pattern mathematical thinkers think in patterns. Many of these students have problems with reading, but this kind of mind is good at computer programming, engineering, music, physics, and maths.
The third type is the word thinker. This is a child who knows all the verbal facts about their favourite things. They are good in careers where knowledge of facts would be required.
These distinctions are often not recognized in schools. I had a wonderful high-school science teacher, Mr. Carlock. He identified my strengths – mechanics and engineering – and helped me explore them. He ran the model rocket club, which I loved. He got me interested in all sorts of electronics experiments. But in one crucial respect, his thinking probably held me back. When he saw that I couldn't do algebra – just could not do it – he redoubled his efforts to make me learn it. I'm sure he thought that he was helping me by pushing me harder, but my brain doesn't work in the abstract, symbolic way that solving x requires. My engineering talent should have been a clue. Engineering isn't abstract; it's concrete. It's about shapes. It's about angles. It's about geometry. But the standard curriculum says algebra comes before geometry - so I had to master that first. Mr. Carlock, like a lot of educators, was stuck in a curriculum rut and didn't realize it.
When I tell this story I find many people who've had similar experiences. Instead of ignoring deficits, parents and educators have to accommodate them. To help children succeed, work on building their strengths. Look at what a child is able to do instead of looking at deficits. My mother motivated me by making sure that I got real recognition when I did a good job – like when she framed a watercolour of a beach that I'd painted.
When I look back on where autism was sixty years ago - when my autistic brain was creating great anxiety in Mother, curiosity in doctors, and a challenge to my nanny and teachers - I know that trying to imagine where we'll be sixty years from now is a fool's errand. But I have confidence that whatever the thinking about autism is, it will incorporate a need to consider it brain by brain, DNA strand by DNA strand, trait by trait, strength by strength, and most important of all, individual by individual.
The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin is published by Rider this month.
By Temple Grandin
What a fantastic and inspirational piece, thank you. I'm reading Spark at the moment, about Jake Barnett and I'm so profoundly moved by both his and your story.
My son is 3.5 and likely to get an ASD diagnosis soon. I want to cherish and nurture him for who he is - and he's already pretty damn marvellous - rather than focus endlessly on his impairments. Unfortunately it seems likely that will get harder as he enters school.
Temple is one of my heroes - an inspirational woman whose contribution to animal welfare is immeasurable. What a wonderful, inspiring piece of writing
I read your book last year about human livestock handling and it was very revealing, thank you for coming to mumsnet.
I love her books.
But it's all well and good to say just celebrate strengths but some kids are low functioning like my DD..she may have strengths but cant communicate them.
Same with DS2, Fanjo. It's a much longer journey for his strengths to emerge than it has been for DS1.
He's bloody good at sorting socks into pairs, though And, more conventionally, appears to have perfect pitch.
Today I was told my son's emotional literacy is so poor that realistically we are unlikely to improve it much with direct work.
Devastated. I knew this ofcourse but to hear it... Well you go back to that grief
Then I read this and remember he's still my boy who is an excellent reader, swimmer and good at remembering fact.
And I remembered that what has always worked is following his cues and believing in him... It's blown away the grief a little bit - thank you.
dayshift we were told something similar. He's at uni, it's taken time to settle but he's sharing a house next year with six girls!
Point being, keep up with the work it'll go in. It takes time, but there are cues and gambits that can be learnt. He is 19 and we are still helping him on a daily basis, but it's working.
I love this woman. I do quite a bit of training on autism and use her examples and videos a lot, particularly to get people to think in terms of strengths, not deficits. Her message here is such an important one, and she articulates the experience of having autism so well.
I have no experience of autism, but this is very interesting, and makes sense to me.
Temple, you are my hero (I think your mother comes a close second). You are the inspiration for so many people affected by autism; and you are the person that helped me realise that people with high functioning autism are nearly all experts at something. I saw you speak in person last year and I think of your illuminating, perceptive words often. My son is high functioning autistic and at ten years old is a visual thinker with an extraordinary memory and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the UK road and rail network. We are trying to think of how to turn this into a career! Director of Network Rail? Taxi Driver? Travel agent? There is bound to be a use for it somewhere! Despite his difficulties (and he has many), we see him as gifted, extraordinary, privileged. And your story is the perfect example of how much can be achieved when people focus on ability rather than dis-ability and let hard work and expertise speak for itself.
So easy to drop into grief and anguish and worry when you are the parent of an asd child. Wonderful article to give us all faith and hope. Thank you.
Temple, you have been my hero for years! It is an absolute privilege to have you here. Thank you
I used to teach autistic children, and your magnificent achievements brought comfort and hope to so many of those children's parents.
Have just ordered your book. My ds is 13 and has autism along with ODD and ADHD and we are having a really challenging time with him. Puberty is causing aggression which is becoming difficult to control and I'm losing sight of the child that he really is because he towers over me and over powers me!
Having studied autism and living with it your words are inspirational to me. Thank you.
"whatever the thinking about autism is, it will incorporate a need to consider it brain by brain, DNA strand by DNA strand, trait by trait, strength by strength, and most important of all, individual by individual."
Absolutely. I think this is also where the current culture of standardised education fails - you can't get away from the fact that teachers need the resources to teach individual children, not an ability band.
I think that in the next 60 years people with an asd diagnosis will increasingly become the experts on autism.
I <3 Temple. Found out about her through Oliver Sacks. They both encouraged me to value my son's advantages over his disadvantages. And he has many. Honesty, kindness, a searingly different way of looking at the world, unusual and creative links, and is definitely one of her word thinkers.
I do think, for high functioning people with autism, the theory that this is an EVOLUTION of the brain rings true. Certain cerebral areas are getting better, but in the process have used up some of the areas normally reserved for executive functioning/motor skills/socialising. Nature will iron that out over time. But for now I - though it's not always easy - try to view my son for the exciting prototype he is.
I do very much agree that expectations should be high, and actually Temple Grandin and what I read of her mother are my inspirations. Never let anyone say you can't do something! But my boy is in the 50% of children with autism who also have a learning disability (an IQ of less than 70 in his case). For him there may not ever be a job relating to a special skill, but ABA has given us hope that he will have a full, happy and productive life. Today we took him to an art exhibition and an outdoor cafe lunch with friends; before ABA, we could barely leave the house as his behaviour was v challenging. Yet education in this country rejects ABA as cruel, because it expects a lot of the kids. We are way behind the times!
I feel like I need to say all this because I fear that, by default and because they are the ones who can actually talk, the high functioning autistic "voice" is getting taken for the whole autism picture. It really is very different at this end of the spectrum, but there is still great hope and optimism - just different hopes and optimism.
Just as someone who's worked a lot with children including in education I think we do all need to be focusing more on building on strengths - for one thing children and young people's self-esteem is so hugely important
Personally too, as a pretty mixed bag (who isn't ?!), I think it's a lot easier and more productive to build on those strengths (which who knows might even help others/the world as with Temple) than plod away working on those stubborn old weaknesses
Sick..yes ABA has made big difference to DD. She also can now go to cafes and museums which I think is a great achievement for someone with complex LDs and severe autism.
Yes fanjo, I do want to change the misinformation about ABA and I also feel like us mums are the voice for our lower-functioning children, but lots of panels and boards want the "autistic voice" - which seems to rule us out, resulting in the more severe kids' voices not getting heard.
I have a lf son and a hf stepdaughter so I am crystal clear about the differences - tbh, might as well be two different conditions altogether.
My Dd adores the guy who does ABA with her.
I'd be interested if someone could explain a bit more about ABA? - I know a little about autism and aspergers, and would like to understand more.
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