April 28, 2014

Temple Grandin talks about autism, livestock, life

Holding cellphones for photos and books to be signed, 20 people waited to meet the woman in the black and white Western shirt.

They waited because Temple Grandin, who spoke about autism, livestock and life at a Ventura conference, is a hero in their eyes.

She couldn’t speak when she was 2½ years old. She was diagnosed with autism, a disorder that sometimes blocks goals and achievement.

But she found art and animals. Her mother made her stretch to try new things. Mr. Carlock, her science teacher, helped too.

Those and other forces led to dizzying heights: a doctorate in animal science; a hugely successful career designing animal handling facilities around the world; and what some call an unrivaled role as an advocate for people with autism. She’s an author and the inspiration behind an Emmy-winning movie that bears her name.

On Friday, she flew to Southern California for a conference at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach on autism and Asperger’s syndrome. After 90 minutes of talking and more time signing books, she left to fly to Colorado for a 4-H and FFA event on Saturday.

She’s a workaholic. She attributes the 25 Western shirts in her wardrobe not to autism, rather to being a bit quirky.

“I say it’s OK to be eccentric,” she said, turning evasive when asked her age. “I’m a child of the ’50s and ’60s.”

She’s proud of her role in making slaughter facilities more humane. She’s proud, too, of the moments when parents tell her she’s part of the reason their autistic children went to college.

“I want to see more kids like me succeed,” she said.

On Friday, she spoke of the vast spectrum that is autism, ranging from socially awkward computer programmers in the Silicon Valley to people who face extreme challenges and may have trouble dressing themselves.

The disorder, she said, means her brain works differently.

“When you put a keyword in, I see pictures,” she said. “It’s kind of like Google Images.”

She urged parents and teachers to help kids stretch. She said people too often focus on someone’s weaknesses instead of their strengths.

She showed images and drawings of her brain, explaining how autism can slow her ability to shift attention. She said auditory details can be lost, too.

“I used to think the grown-ups had their own special grown-up language,” she said.

Aiming much of her talk at teenagers, Grandin hammered the importance of after-school jobs and being exposed to new things. Her childhood jobs included cleaning eight horse stalls every day.

She talked about medication, panic attacks and the importance of hands-on classes like auto shop.

Her role models include Albert Einstein. Unable to speak until he was 3, he would be diagnosed with autism today, she said.

When she finished, 300 people stood and applauded. And then many of them hurried to a nearby room for her to sign a book.

Karla Galleguillos, of Los Angeles, met Grandin for a nervous moment before the conference put on by a group called Future Horizons. She came to the event because her son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. For her, Grandin represents something huge.

“Hope,” she explained.

2014, Ventura County Star