TED Radio Hour
9:48 am
Fri January 3, 2014

Can Autism Be An Asset?

Originally published on Tue January 7, 2014 1:48 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Overcoming.

About Temple Grandin's TEDTalk

Temple Grandin struggled with autism until she realized her ability to "think in pictures" allows her to solve problems that others can't.

About Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science and a renowned expert on cattle. She has designed humane handling systems for half the cattle-processing facilities in the U.S. Grandin has also written numerous books about her life with autism and she's a vocal advocate on behalf of understanding better ways to educate kids on the autism spectrum. In 2010, her life story was turned into the award-winning HBO movie, Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, how some people, despite everything that was thrown in front of them, overcame and figured out how to turn what most people think of as limitations into sources of strength, which is exactly what happened to Temple Grandin who was different from the moment she was born.

TEMPLE GRANDIN: Well, at 2-and-a-half, I was taken into the neurologist because I had no speech. And I would sit and rock and dribble sand through my hands and was not behaving like the little girl the same age next-door.

RAZ: And after that trip to the neurologist in 1949, the doctors told her mom that Temple had brain damage, that she would never live a normal life. And it would be another year and a half before she uttered a single word. And even then, she was distractive. She didn't like to be touched. And as she got older, she would fixate obsessively on just three things.

GRANDIN: Model rockets, electronics and riding horses.

RAZ: That was it.

GRANDIN: Model rockets.

RAZ: Pretty much...

GRANDIN: Electronics.

RAZ: ...All she cared about.

GRANDIN: And everything to do with the horse barn.

RAZ: But the most unusual thing about Temple Grandin was something she didn't even realize made her different.

GRANDIN: Well, I sometimes just couldn't figure out why I just didn't fit in. You know, it's been an interesting journey for me as I've learned how not everybody thinks in pictures. I mean, you give me a keyword, I see pictures everywhere I go, everywhere I go.

RAZ: And it's not just random pictures she sees in her mind but very specific pictures. Like when her mom would say, stop, like stop doing something, Temple would see a stop sign in her head, and not just any stop sign, but a very specific stop sign at a specific intersection that she'd seen 10 years earlier.

GRANDIN: You want to find out how it works? Give me a keyword, and I'll tell you how my mind accesses information. And don't give me something boring like house or car or something that I can see in this room where I'm at now.

RAZ: So if I say the word dragon, you think of a, like, specific...

GRANDIN: Dragon? I can tell you, yes. I'm seeing - I went on a wonderful trip one time to Disney Imagineering. And the cute little - he's actually a dinosaur, but he looks like a dragon. And he talks to you. He's really cute. I'm seeing the dragons in "How to Train Your Dragon" movie. I'm now - I'm, you know, seeing Peter, Paul and Mary singing, you know, "Puff the Magic Dragon."

RAZ: Just one after another like a slideshow.

GRANDIN: That's right. They just flash up like pictures. Now little Jackie Paper. Now I've got an association of a ream paper in my office. And now I'm seeing a printer's jammed up, and I'm unjamming it. And then the cartridge ran out. So now I'm taking it out, and I'm furiously shaking it because if I find if I shake HP cartridges, I can get a hundred more copies out of it. Now when I take it out, it tricks the printer into thinking that it's getting changed, and it's not.

RAZ: So this, all of this, from the word dragon. Now remember, this is all coming from a brain that doctors in the 1950s thought was damaged. It would take several more years until they diagnosed her with autism. And Temple would eventually go on to revolutionize the cattle industry in North America because of her brain because the way it worked despite all of the challenges and obstacles that came her way. Temple Grandin picks up the story from the TED stage.


GRANDIN: I think I'll start out and just talk a little bit about what exactly autism is. Autism is a very big continuum that goes from very severe - the child remains nonverbal - all the way up to brilliant scientists and engineers. And I actually feel at home here because there's a lot of autism genetics here. You wouldn't have any...


GRANDIN: It's a continuum of traits. When does a nerd turn into, you know, Asperger, which is just mild autism. I mean, Einstein and Mozart and Tesla would all be probably diagnosed as autistic spectrum today. Now the thing is, the visual thinker's just one kind of mind. You see, the autistic mind tends to be a specialist mind - good at one thing, bad at something else. Here are the types of thinking - photorealistic-visual thinkers like me, pattern thinkers, music and math minds. Some of these oftentimes have problems with reading. You also will see these kind of problems with kids that are dyslexic - you'll see these different kinds of minds.

And then there's a verbal mind. They know every fact about everything. The thing is you can make a mind to be more of a thinking and cognitive mind or a mind can be wired to be more social. And what some of the research now has shown on autism is there may be extra wiring back here in the really brilliant mind, and we lose a few social circuits here. It's kind of a trade-off between thinking and social. And then you can get into the point where it's so severe, you're going to have a person that's going to be nonverbal.

RAZ: OK, so in Temple's case, the extra wiring in her brain, it turned out to be this particular genius for understanding cattle. One time, she was visiting a cattle ranch where the cows would freak out and stampede every time they'd be pushed through these channels on the way to the slaughterhouse.

GRANDIN: And cattle get afraid of a lot of little visual distractions that people tend to not notice - shadows. They don't like to go into a building that's too dark, reflections on water that's moving. And at this particular place, the cattle were afraid of the flag. There was a flag on a flagpole by...

RAZ: The problem was a flapping flag. Cows don't like the combination of rapid movement and high contrast. It makes them freak out. And Temple's autism helped her see that.

GRANDIN: The point is - is that people just don't see things. You see, this is where you need visual thinkers like me. Let's go back to someone like Steve Jobs. He wasn't an engineer. He was an artist, took a calligraphy class. And he designed all those user interfaces for the smartphone. Engineers had to figure out how to make it work, but the artist designed the smartphone interface. You know, we need the different kinds of minds.

RAZ: And with her mind, Temple Grandin revolutionized the cattle industry. She designed a geometric series of channels and pathways that encouraged cows to stay calm on the way to the slaughterhouse. And more than half of all slaughterhouses in North America use her humane invention. And so the way Temple was able to overcome what could have been a limitation - her autism - was with help, help from people who nurtured her obsessions and let her autism become a source of strength.

GRANDIN: I view myself as a cattle-scientist first and autistic second. And I fight to not let autism totally take over my life. And I don't think it's good when 9-year-olds - smart 9-year-olds walk up to me, and they want to tell me about their autism. Why don't you tell me about astronomy? Why don't you tell me that you're learning computer programming, that you're doing art? I'd much rather look at your art than talk about autism.

RAZ: Why do you think that you were able to overcome what, you know, in so many other circumstances would've been debilitating? Like, the odds were against you.

GRANDIN: Well, I had very good - my mother very early on, my science teacher. I had, you know - went to a very good elementary school. The boarding school I went to, Mr. Paty, the headmaster - you know, he was a wise old man. He let me work in that horse barn for two years and not study. But he wouldn't let me become a recluse in my room. He'd pull me out. I had to go to dinner. I had to go to chapel. I couldn't, you know - I couldn't just sit up in my room. And there were some good people in the cattle industry. But I was always encouraged to develop my ability.

Another thing that helped me as an adult was taking antidepressant medication. And 'cause us visual thinkers, even the ones that are not autistic, tend to get a lot of problems with anxiety, a little Prozac in the morning stops the anxiety.

RAZ: Do you think you got lucky, you know, with, like, all those people who encouraged you and supported you?

GRANDIN: Oh, I mean, if I hadn't had those people - I was the kind of kid that in the '50s, since I was totally nonverbal at age 3, they just threw away in an institution. And I just loved making stuff. And that was always encouraged. You know, my mother is very artistic. You know, I was given books on perspective drawing. You got to develop the kid's strengths. And I then I wasn't allowed to just, you know, sit and watch TV all day. That just wasn't allowed.


GRANDIN: You know, all I wanted to do is draw pictures of horses when I was little. My mother said, well, let's do a picture of something else. They've got to learn how to do something else. Let's say the kid's fixated on Legos. Let's get them working on building different things, like if the kid loves race cars, let's use race cars for math. Let's figure out how long it takes a race car to go a certain distance. In other words, use that fixation in order to motivate that kid. That's one of the things we need to do. What can visual thinkers do when they grow up? They can do graphic design, all kinds of stuff with computers, photography, industrial design.

The pattern thinkers, they are the one that are going to be your mathematicians, your software engineers, your computer programmers, all of those kinds of jobs. And then you've got the word minds. They make great journalists, and they also make really, really good stage actors because the thing about being autistic is I had to learn social skills like being in a play. You just kind of just have to learn it. And we need to be working with these students. And this brings up mentors. You know, my science teacher was not an accredited teacher. He was a NASA space scientist. Now some states now are getting it to where if you have a degree in biology or degree in chemistry, you can come into the school and teach, you know, biology or chemistry.

We need to be doing that. Another thing that can be very, very, very successful is there's a lot of people that may have retired from, you know, working in the software industry. And they can teach a kid. And it doesn't matter if what they teach them is old because what you're doing is you're lighting the spark. You're getting that kid turned on. And you get them turned on, then he'll learn all the new stuff. And if you bring them in for internships in your companies - the thing about the autism-Aspergery kind of mind, you got to give them a specific task. Don't just say design new software.

You got to tell them something a lot more specific. Well, we're designing software for a phone, and it has to do some specific thing, and it can only use so much memory. That's the kind of specificity you need. Well, that's the end of my talk. And I just want to thank everybody for coming. It was great to be here.


RAZ: Do you feel like your autism was something that you had to overcome, or was it something that other people had to overcome, you know, in terms of their perception?

GRANDIN: I never even thought about that. I was too hung up on going out and doing stuff with cattle. You know, parents will say to me, well, what can you do for kids for autism? Well, if you got a kid that's 3 years old and not talking, it's tons of early intervention. That's the same. Develop strengths. Build up on what they are good at. See, this is the problem you have on the high end of the spectrum. Some of these kids are getting labeled as gifted. I go over, and I do talks at gifted and talented conferences. They're the same little geeky kids. And I go over to the autistic conference, and the guy's hung up on autism and playing video games all day. You see, people get locked into it verbally. I'm a visual thinker so I don't see the words. I see the kids.

RAZ: Temple Grandin speaks and writes about autism and cattle all over the world. You can see her talk at TED.NPR.org. Our show today is all about overcoming. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.