Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism in 1950 and didn’t speak until she was about 4 years old.
But Grandin went on to earn a doctoral degree and to transform the livestock industry with her research on animal behavior. Half the cattle in the U.S. and Canada are handled in equipment Grandin designed for meat plants. She became a college professor, a best-selling author and a sought-after speaker on both animal science and autism. An Emmy-winning HBO feature film was made about her life.
In joint speeches next week at the Family is Important autism conference in Pullman, Grandin and her mother, Eustacia Cutler, will talk about the importance of early intervention and the total commitment needed from families and other support networks to make the difference in an autistic child’s life.
“What’s hard for people is facing it,” Cutler said of autism. “Denial is very strong. Every month that you deny it is something taken away from that child. You have to get to it and you have to find your own way.”
Autism is a complex spectrum of neurological disorders frequently characterized by impaired social interaction and communication skills. Autistic children frequently display repetitive behavior.
After Grandin was diagnosed at age 2, Cutler found a doctor she trusted who recommended speech therapy three times per week for three hours each time. Grandin and Cutler advocate that autistic children receive 20 hours per week of one-on-one teaching. Around age 4, Grandin began speaking and was able to join a mainstream country day school for kindergarten, her mother said.
Grandin and Cutler like to speak together because they are able to show both sides of the challenge – how life is for the autistic child and how it is for a family member.
“I always convey the importance of early intervention,” Grandin said. “These kids often have uneven skills, like I was really good at art. You want to build up those skill areas because those are things that can turn into a career.”
Grandin’s mother sent her to her aunt’s Arizona farm one summer even though she was afraid to go. There she discovered what would become her lifelong passion for animal behavioral science. She also attended a farm-oriented high school where that interest further blossomed.
Grandin said the autism spectrum is vast and ranges from people who are nonverbal to NASA scientists and Silicon Valley executives who she believes display characteristics of autism. She believes Albert Einstein, who she said didn’t talk until he was 3 years old, was likely on the autism spectrum.
Grandin said she is concerned about the young people who approach her today and only want to discuss their autism.
“When I was young, I didn’t talk about autism. I talked about cattle chutes, things that interested me,” said Grandin, who is 64. “I don’t think it’s that good when autism becomes the fixation rather than astronomy or cattle or something you could turn into a career.”
In addition to speaking at the autism conference, Grandin will present a public lecture the day before on animal behavioral science. Her visit to Pullman was made possible through a collaboration between Families Together, a nonprofit organization that serves families of children with disabilities, and Washington State University’s veterinary medicine school and college of education.
“The purpose of the conference is to recognize the impact that autism has on all the family members,” said Chris Curry, the volunteer director of Families Together. “It is a passion of Eustacia’s and Temple’s to bring that forward. They feel that not enough impact has been placed on the effect autism has on the family members.”