Traverse City National Writers Series: With her ground-breaking book Emergence: Labled Autistic, published in 1986, Grandin gained national prominence as a leading autism expert. In her new book, The Autistic Brain, Grandin shares remarkable new discoveries and introduces readers to innovative new theories about how we diagnose and treat autism.
Temple Grandin will be in Traverse City on June 24 to participate in the National Writers Series. She will appear on stage with guest host Laura Hohnhold, executive editor at Byliner. Laura Hohnhold caught up with Temple Grandin via phone earlier this week for quick Q&A before they both head off for Northern Michigan.
Q. Two of your best-know books are about animals. What prompted you to turn back to humans with The Autistic Brain?
A. Looking at my own exploits with brain scans got me onto it, seeing that my brain was really different. In those scans I found reinforcement for my own research—autistic people really are wired differently.
Q. You write, in the very first line of the book, that you were lucky to be born in 1947. What do you mean by that?
A. In 1947, no one knew what autism was, so I was just called brain damaged. I was given intensive speech therapy, and my mom knew how to work with me, to keep at it with me. Then about ten years later, people started blaming mothers for autism, saying that it was bad mothering that caused it. That continued all through the sixties. Now we know better, that it’s a biological disorder.
Q. You credit a lot of your early success to good old-fashioned 1950s manners that were drilled into you.
A. That’s right. We have to tell kids no, we have to give them instruction. You can’t have them in the supermarket throwing spaghetti all over the place. My mother worked hard with me. She also knew I had an interest in art and science and encouraged it.
Q. You had jobs when you were quite young, too, right?
A. When I was a teenager, I worked in horse stalls and I had a job sewing. Today, there is less of that structured kind of work, which is hard for kids with autism. It’s important for them to learn work skills, to have the responsibility of a job. With a job, you have to get up and do it.
Q. Are parents of autistic children today perhaps more hesitant than your parents were to impose that kind of structure?
A. Today’s world is a lot more relaxed in general. The thing is to give these kids a sense of self-esteem; they need to feel like they can accomplish things. I’m a big believer in exposing kids to activities that encourage shared interests—art clubs, chess clubs, math clubs. You need to get kids into activities that they like and can do with other people. That’s what all the people in Silicon Valley did. Most of my friends are people I have things in common with—animal behavior, autism, science.
Q. You’ve said that there wouldn’t be a Silicon Valley without autistics, that we might all still be sitting around campfires as cave people.
A. That’s right. The world would be a very different place.
Q. You often say that you think in pictures, that you’re a visual person. And yet you’ve written a number of books.
A, On this book, I worked with Richard Panek, who’s a superb science author. We worked from a strict outline and had lots of talks on the phone. And he helped me organize the book’s structure. It’s a different kind of writing from the more technical writing I do, which is at templegrandin.com.
Q. What do you do when you’re not working?
A. I like to go to movies. I’ve seen Life of Pi and Lincoln and really enjoyed those. And of course, I had to go right out to see the new Star Trek movie.
Q. You love animals. Do you have any pets?
A. I can’t have pets—I travel too much. I get my animal fix by visiting cow facilities. But I’ve been so busy, I’m not getting as much of that as I’d like.
Q. Do you ever take vacations?
A. No, I’m not into that.