Academic, author urges more, better therapies for children with autism



Temple Grandin speaks passionately about her mission to maximize the potential of children with autism.

It’s a message that has become increasingly urgent, with autism affecting one in 50 children, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March.

“My mother had a really good sense of just how hard to push me and how to stretch me,” says Grandin, an author and professor who was named toTime’s list of most influential people in 2010 — and who was diagnosed as having autism when she was 5.

“Some kids have very severe cases of autism and won’t be able to work a regular job,” she says. “But I’m seeing too many kids with cases much milder than mine not going anywhere. I want to see more people on the autism spectrum succeed.”

Grandin, 65, has written a new book,”The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum”(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). The book, co-written with Richard Panek, was released April 30.

Her earlier books, particularly the best-selling”Thinking in Pictures”and”Animals in Translation,” gave insights into her way of visual thinking that opened a window for others to understand what it might be like for someone on the autism spectrum. An HBO movie of her life, starring Claire Danes, won seven Emmy Awards in 2010.

“The Autistic Brain”gives an update and overview of the condition, based on the latest neuro imaging of the brain and genetic studies. It also includes Grandin’s own research, which results in a correction to one earlier key hypothesis.

“When I wrote’Thinking in Pictures’in 1995, I mistakenly thought that everybody on the autism spectrum was a photorealistic visual thinker like me,” she writes in”The Autistic Brain.” “I realized I was wrong. I theorized that there are three types of specialized thinking, and I was ecstatic when I found several research studies that verified my concept. Understanding what kind of thinker you are can help you understand … your strengths and just as importantly to respect your limitations.”

Speaking by phone from Tennessee, where the Colorado State professor of animal science was attending a veterinary conference, Grandin says that while physiological understanding of autism is growing, it is still at a primitive stage. Given the wide variations among children with autism, she urges adults to resist locking into imprecise labels and to instead treat symptoms while trying to identify their child’s talents.

“I think in pictures,” she says. “Other kids think mathematically, and others are writers. Autism is a very big spectrum, and what is important is to build on each child’s area of strength. They need to learn work skills and think in terms of what kind of jobs they will get.”

Grandin points to sensory issues as one of the most debilitating aspects of autism and says that it demands immediate attention.

“There are some areas where we need support,” she says of people with autism, noting that children with autism too often find themselves unable to participate in activities because they recoil from too much noise, too much light or expectations to multitask.

She advises improved treatment for sensory problems and accommodations when that treatment reaches its limits. She also believes that all kids would benefit from more outdoor exercise, a healthier diet that’s lower in sugar and instruction in social skills, which she says can be akin to studying a foreign language for kids with autism.

Grandin speculates that part of the reason more kids are being diagnosed with autism may be increased recognition. A generation ago, some kids with autism may have passed as quirky or eccentric, but neurotypical because of a greater mastery of social skills, she says. She brings up Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs as people who may have had the condition.

“Half of Silicon Valley has it, but they avoid the label like the plague,” she says.

Non- or less-verbal children on the other end of the spectrum may not be as successful, but they deserve help to reach their potential, she says.

She expresses admiration for Annie Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller, as a role model. When Keller’s family indulged her because they felt sorry for the blind and deaf child, Sullivan kept her expectations for her student high and taught her discipline as well as how to communicate.

“You can’t shove kids into something they can’t handle. But you can teach them to shop, to go up to the counter to order their own food and to shake hands. I’m seeing too many kids going nowhere, and it’s just terrible. We’ve got to work hard and stretch kids.”