“The kids with the ‘right stuff’ rode the rockets to the moon,” Temple Grandin announced with a shake of her fist in the air in front of the audience in the Red Skelton Performing Arts Center. “But it was the geeks, misfits and kids with labels that built the stuff.”
Grandin, a world renowned animal scientist and perhaps the most well-known person with autism, spoke to a sold-out crowd on Thursday at an event sponsored by Vincennes University.
Her lecture, “Educating All Minds,” is meant to bring understanding about the ways in which human minds process information.
Angie Crabtree, one of the primary event organizers and director of the university's STEP program, which assists VU students with disabilities, said “I love Temple Grandin because she says ‘I am successful because of my disability.’”
“Just because you can’t do A, B, or C, you still have D through Z,” Crabtree said.
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Grandin spoke at length on brain variability, meaning a brain can either be more social or cognitive in nature. Those on the autism spectrum tend to think more cognitively than others, but that does not make them less, she stresses.
Grandin emphasized that all types of thinking and learning styles — visual, auditory, verbal — are valid, and that most people with autism are visual thinkers, which is vital to the success of our society.
“You know that Hard Rock Hotel that fell down?,” she said referring a construction collapse in New Orleans last month. “That should have never happened. That Boeing mess. How could you make that mistake? They didn’t see it. They didn’t visualize it. But I can see it in my mind.
“Visual thinkers see both the risks and solutions to the problems,” she said.
It is visual thinking that has allowed Grandin to better understand animal behavior and construct widely-used curved chute cattle systems and center track restrainers for livestock.
She holds multiple degrees and is currently a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She's authored more than 60 peer-reviewed scientific papers on animal behavior and is a prominent proponent for the humane treatment of livestock for slaughter.
And she was the subject of the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning semi-biographical film “Temple Grandin,” which starred Claire Danes and was produced by HBO in 2010.
Grandin contends that without visual thinkers like her — or those with autism, who are largely misunderstood and underestimated — the world suffers. Today, she argues, many notable scientists and inventors would be labeled as autistic, including Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein.
What concerns Grandin is that many skilled laborers in the U.S., who are often visual thinkers, are retiring and not being replaced.
“In the 1950s, we had all these hands-on classes like shop. But we’ve gotten rid of them,” she said.
For Grandin, removing classes that teach hands-on skills is not only a disservice to students like her, but a disservice to the country as a whole.
“We have a huge shortage of skilled trades that cannot be replaced by computers,” she said. “We have lost the skills to build things.”
Grandin posed a couple of rhetorical questions that point to failures in the American education system.
“What would happen to some of our top innovators if they were in today’s educational system? If they were born today would they be successful?” she asked.
Grandin sees it as a serious problem that courses such as college algebra are often an “academic barrier” for someone who would be immensely successful in another, unrelated field.
She received a rowdy applause from the crowd when she said, in answer to a student's question about struggling with her courses, “you don’t need algebra for journalism.”
Arguably considered one of the brightest minds and inventors in America, Grandin says if she had been forced to take algebra, she would have failed — and possibly not ended up nearly as successful.
“One of the reasons I ended up in the cattle industry is because there was a math barrier of entry that prevented me from designing artificial hips,” she said. “The problem is, we’re screening out our visual thinkers.”
Grandin also argues that there are other barriers that prevent people — with or without autism— from achieving success. A primary issue is a lack of exposure to practical, hands-on experiences, especially at a young age.
“Kids need to do more real stuff and learn problem solving,” she said. “I’ve got kids today who have never used a ruler to measure anything.”
She also urged parents to push their children, crediting her own mother.
“Stretch the kids just outside their comfort zone,” she said. “Expose them to new things, but provide choices.
“I was never allowed to be a recluse in my room.”
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Visitors stood in line for nearly an hour after Grandin's near 90-minute lecture for the chance to meet her.
Nineteen-year-old Bella Ray of Vincennes was pleased to meet her idol for the second time, proudly holding up a picture of her with Grandin taken when she was only 7.
Ray, who has autism, is now 19.
“I thought it was cool, and she’s so funny!” she said. “I obviously have a different kind of mind, but it’s good to get out of the special education bubble.”
VU student Maggie Schutter will be graduating with a degree in education in December. With Grandin's book, “Animals Make Us Human,” tucked under her arm as she made her way out of the performing arts center, she was eager to take away lessons learned Thursday and implement them in her own classroom someday.
“She offers such great insight,” Schutter said. “I just love how she kept saying to focus on what the child can do, not what they can't.
“I will definitely do that.”
Even VU president Chuck Johnson said there were important lessons to be learned.
“She does take us to task,” he said with a sheepish grin. “She challenges and questions some of the things that we do.
“But I would also love to have her come back and talk to her about the things we are doing,” he said. “Because I think we're already working to address some of the issues she raises.
“We can always do better, but we are a school that focuses on trades and providing options for those students who don't succeed on the traditional (college) pathways.”
— Assistant Editor Jenny McNeece contributed to this report