Temple Grandin’s Need-to-Know Advice to Parents of Autistic Children

Steve Osunsami, Harvey Goldberg, Mary-Rose Abraham and Ben Brown
Temple Grandin’s Need-to-Know Advice to Parents of Autistic Children

She was labeled brain damaged at age 2 and a half. And didn’t speak until she was 4 years old. Not a very promising beginning for Temple Grandin, who was eventually diagnosed with autism. But today, she is a noted expert in both animal science and autism.

“Autism is a very big spectrum,” said Grandin. “At one end of the spectrum you got Einstein, who had no language until age 3, and at the other end of the spectrum you got somebody much more severe that’s not verbal, they have to live under a supervised situation.”

With a doctorate and nine books to her name, Grandin skews to the extreme high end of the spectrum. And she even has a TV movie based on her life. In HBO’s acclaimed “Temple Grandin,” actress Claire Danes played the title role.

In Grandin’s latest book, “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum,” she looks at advances in diagnosis and how to build on an autistic child’s strengths. She spoke with ABC News correspondent Steve Osunsami at The Community School in Atlanta, which specializes in teaching boys with autism and related disorders.

“It’s not like diagnosing tuberculosis, where you have it or you don’t have it,” explained Grandin. “It’s a behavioral profile, and if you have certain behaviors, then you have a child that is diagnosed with autism. There’s no black and white dividing line.”

But Grandin cautioned about overdiagnosis: “I get kind of concerned … I’m seeing geeky, awkward kids get diagnosed with autism or mild Asperger’s, and then they get coddled too much.”

With proper diagnosis, early intervention and education is key.

“When you got a young child that is not talking, the worst thing you could do is nothing,” said Grandin. “What you need to do is get some grandmothers, get some students to work with this child, because nothing is the worst thing you could do. Teach them how to play board games taking turns, teach them words, take them out on nature walks, just interact with them.”

Social cues are another area to focus on. When Grandin was in the ninth grade, she was kicked out of class for throwing a book at a girl who teased her.

“One of the things I had to end up doing is switch from anger to crying,” Grandin recalled. “It’s hard to control emotions, but you can switch emotions. Autistic children have got to just learn to be polite, shaking hands, not interrupting, not telling people off,” she continued.

And after early interventions, parents should focus on building on their child’s strengths and talents.

“Where I get social interaction is through shared interest,” said Grandin. “You know good things like agriculture programs, school band, art class, music, writing for the school newspaper. You’re going to get self-esteem if you get good at something and get recognized for being good at something.”

That can build into a job or profession later in life. Grandin advised that starting at age 12, whether it is cleaning swimming pools or walking dogs, autistic children on the higher end of the spectrum need to do a job out of the home.

“We’ve got to start thinking about how do you build a skill into something that is going to make you employable,” said Grandin. “You got a big portion of the spectrum where the child is going to remain nonverbal, going to have to live in a supervised living situation, but there are jobs that he can do. Even those who are nonverbal, he can clean swimming pools, mow lawns, work in a library, work at a copy center.”

Grandin’s one caution for parents of autistic children: Limit the video games to one hour a day.

“I’m seeing too many kids on the higher end of the spectrum who are getting addicted to video games, and they’re not doing anything else,” she said. “You know, if they were learning how to program games, fine, but that is not what is happening.”

Grandin’s other professional interest is animal science, particularly the humane treatment of livestock. Her equipment designs are used in the ranches and slaughterhouses handling half the cattle in America. She has consulted with fast-food companies, including McDonald’s on its animal welfare program.

“Visiting my aunt’s ranch and going out West got me interested in animal science,” recalled Grandin. “You know, we are raising these animals as food, we’ve got to treat them right.”