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Animal Scientist and Autism Advocate Dr. Temple Grandin Worries College Algebra Requirements will Hinder the ‘Next Temple Grandin’


By Brenna Eller


HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Dr. Temple Grandin, well-renowned Animal Scientist and Autism Advocate spoke at the Ray & Stella Dillon Lecture Series on Oct. 31 at the Sports Arena in Hutchinson.

Dr. Grandin has had a long career designing equipment for meat packing plants and has designed cattle handling facilities for every cargo plant in North America. Grandin has worked on a lot of things for the meat industry developing systems for auditing and animal welfare. She is also a Professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University.

Grandin has accumulated multiple awards over the years, written more than 60 scientific papers on animal behavior and has written many books of which Animals in Translation, Animals Make Us Human, The Autistic Brain, Thinking in Pictures, and Visual Thinking have all been on the New York Times bestsellers list.

There is also a semi-biographical HBO film about Grandin titled Temple Grandin. Grandin advocates for people with autism and is passionate about getting them into the workforce.

“I was a severely autistic child,” Grandin said. “No speech until age four. One of the big things I want to work on right now, I want to see the students that think differently get good jobs, get good careers.”

Grandin believes there is a skill-loss-situation right now in schools, especially in high-end skill trades. She recommends classes such as woodworking or welding. Anything that teaches students life skills and helps prepare them for their future career.

In her latest book Visual Thinking, Grandin lists different kinds of thinkers. There are those who think in pictures, some think in patterns and others who think in abstractions. Grandin identifies as a visual thinker. 

“Everything I think about is a picture. My kind of mind is good at art, skilled trades, all kinds of mechanical things, photography and working with animals because animals don’t think in words,” Grandin said. “But the thing my mind is terrible at is algebra.”

Grandin said she knows a guy who builds beef plants currently who also can’t do algebra but took one welding class.

“That’s my kind of thinker, and you need us if you want to have the infrastructure to keep working. You need us, not mathematicians,” Grandin said. “Then when you go back to the food processing plant, my kind of mind makes all the mechanical equipment, but we need the mathematicians for the boilers and refrigeration.”

With mathematical pattern thinkers, Grandin explained that music and math go together. For visual thinking, art and mechanics go together. Verbal thinkers are people who think in words. A lot of people are a mixture of different types of thinking.

According to Grandin, those with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and other disorders tend to be an extreme type of one of the thinkers.

“Being an extreme object visualizer really helped me with animals. Animals are sensory beings. They don’t think in words,” Grandin said. “When I first started out working in cattle back in my twenties, I didn’t know that other people didn’t think in pictures. I thought everybody thought in pictures.”

It wasn’t until her late thirties when Grandin realized many people actually thought in words. 

“The autistic people I work with have patents,” Grandin said. “I think they have a much better life than a kid playing games in the basement. They are building equipment that people want that does useful things.”

Grandin gave her co-author credit for helping write the story because Grandin’s visual thoughts jump around a lot and her co-author is a very verbal thinker, which means she thinks chronologically. 

Grandin said that it means the most to her when someone comes up to her and tells her that their child or grandchild is in college or bought a house because of her book.

“That makes my day,” Grandin said. “I want to help the kids that are different get out and be constructive members of society and get into careers they’re going to like.” 

If a parent is trying to work with a child who isn’t speaking, Grandin said it is crucial to get the child help very early on. Rule out deafness and something physically wrong first and then get help from speech therapists, have family members help out, and make sure the child has a lot of one-one-one time as well.

“Some teachers have the ability to work with these kids and some don’t,” Grandin said. 

In elementary school, Grandin’s 3rd grade teacher helped her with bullies through peer-mediated intervention. She told Grandin’s classmates that she had a disability that wasn’t visible like a wheelchair or a leg brace and explained it to the other kids so they would help and not bully.

“High school was a nightmare of bullying, just a nightmare. Worst part of my life,” Grandin said. “The only places I was not bullied was with friends through shared interest. Horseback riding, model rockets and electronics were my favorites. That’s where I had friends.”

One piece of advice Grandin gave for parents raising autistic kids is that they can often be overprotective to the point that the child doesn’t learn how to be independent when the time comes that they need to be on their own.

“Where I see a real problem is smart kids on the autism spectrum not making the successful transfer into the world of work,” Grandin said. “This is the big stumbling block and this needs to be done gradually.”

Grandin said this could start as simple as having the child at the age of 11 or 12 doing a job such as walking a neighbor’s dog or volunteering at a church, so they have a scheduled task and someone outside the family is their boss.

Grandin’s mother got her a sewing job with a seamstress at the age of 13.

She said so they aren’t overwhelmed with a job where they have to multitask, they could do a job where they have a specialized task, something they are really knowledgeable at, which she calls Quiet Specialized Retail, such as selling new cars, selling office supplies, or working for specialized business insurance, etc.  

“Selling sporting goods is another one that’s been very successful,” Grandin said. 

Grandin’s hope is that students can continue to learn necessary life skills that they will need for their future career they can keep for a long time. She used examples like welding, nursing and being a chef, all jobs that Artificial Intelligence shouldn’t be able to replace. 

“What worries me is the next Temple Grandin is getting screened out by the algebra requirement,” Grandin said.

Hutchinson Community College President Dr. Carter File agreed with Grandin and said, “College Algebra should not be a gateway class for all subjects.”

The two also agreed that there are many subjects where algebra might make sense for certain occupations, but not for all of them. 

“I’m very concerned we’re screening out my kind of thinker and you need us,” Grandin said.

For more information about Grandin and her work, visit her website.

Dr. Temple Grandin giving lecture at Dillon Lecture Series in Hutchinson Sports Arena on Oct. 31.