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Grandin extols value of 'geeks,' 'misfits' in ISU talk

Pantagraph - 4/11/2019

April 11-- Apr. 11--NORMAL -- We need the "weird" people, the people who "think differently," noted animal behaviorist, author and woman with autism Temple Grandin told a standing-room-only crowd Wednesday at Illinois State University.

"The geeks and the misfits build stuff," said Grandin, delivering the keynote address for Science and Technology Week, "The World Needs All Kinds of Minds."

Pointing to innovators such as Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and the Wright Brothers, she questioned whether those tagged with labels today could succeed as they did.

Grandin, author of "Emergence: Labeled Autistic" and "Animals Make Us Human," is often considered to be the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world.

A professor of animal science at Colorado State University with a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois, she has designed cattle handling facilities for Cargill and others.

"Autism is an important part of who I am, but it's secondary to the livestock industry," Grandin told her audience in the Brown Ballroom at Bone Student Center, Normal.

Describing herself as a visual thinker, one who "thinks in pictures," Grandin said that even if she could "wave a magic wand" to erase her autism, she wouldn't.

"I like the logical way I think. ... I loved Mr. Spock in 'Star Trek,'" she said.

"When I was a kid in high school, a lot of kids bullied and teased me," she said. What saved her was having shared interests with others, such as horses and building model rockets.

"People often ask me, what helped me?" said Grandin. "First of all, it was my mother. She knew how to stretch me beyond my comfort zone."

Grandin is concerned that "too many kids with labels get babied today." Instead, they should be eased out of their comfort zone, as her mother did with her, and should take on jobs, whether it's walking dogs or mowing lawns, until they are old enough for other jobs.

"The common denominators in successful minds" include learning how to work, being surrounded by books and having mentors, she said.

Her advice for working with people who think differently was:


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* Do not overload working memory.

* Provide choices of activities.

* Limit screen time.

* Stretch them slightly out of their comfort zone.

The best way to change perceptions about autism is to "get out there and prove the things you can do," she said.

Schools also need to retain -- or bring back -- hands-on classes such as art, sewing, woodworking and welding, she said.

Grandin also said children need to be exposed to more career options, including skilled trades such as plumbing and electrical work, to find what they like.

"High-end skilled trades aren't going to be replaced by artificial intelligence," she said.

Grandin spoke for nearly an hour on topics ranging from autism and different kinds of thinking to the agriculture industry and animal handling. She then answered questions for about 20 minutes and signed books afterward.

People were turned away after the ballroom filled to its 1,000-person capacity. Some listened in the hallway.

The crowd, which gave her a standing ovation at the end, applauded numerous times. The loudest applause came when she said, "Putting computers in the schools doesn't make schools wonderful. Good teachers make the schools wonderful."

Speaking of agriculture, Grandin said, "The hardest thing for me was being a woman in a man's industry, not having autism."

Her own visual thinking enabled her to see that cattle were scared by things like sunbeams, loose chains hanging down or even a misplaced paper towel. It helped her to design cattle-handling facilities used across the world.

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota


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