Dr Temple Grandin on how to help kids with autism grow their strengths

For many people, Dr Temple Grandin and autism are synonymous. Listed among her many accomplishments are autism advocate, author, professor and scientist.

She is world-famous for using the insights she gained from her autism to dramatically improve the way animals are treated in the livestock industry, and here she talks about her thoughts on how to parent autistic children.

An interview with Temple Grandin, PhD

Below are some of the insights she shared during an interview with Disability.gov about autism, and what parents can do to help their kids and the importance of learning life skills.
What is important for people to understand about autism?

Temple Grandin: Autism has a big spectrum, which can make it difficult to define. There are people on the high end like Einstein, and others on the low end who are completely non-verbal and unable to care for themselves.

Asperger’s was taken off the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and is now merged into Autism Spectrum Disorder, which I feel is a mistake. For service providers, it makes a lot of sense to have Asperger’s, where there is no speech delay, differentiated from autism with speech delay where early intervention is required.  These two groups need different types of services.

What advice would you give to parents who suspect their child may have autism?

Temple Grandin: If you suspect your child has autism, the most important thing you can do for them is to get them in early intervention.

Get services for your kids right away. This is key. If there are no services in your community, then find volunteers at your local colleges, churches or synagogues to support them. The earlier the intervention, the better the prognosis. You need people to work with these kids one-on-one and to interact with them, teach them words and language and how to socially interact.

Parents should not wait until their kids are three years old and still not talking. I see kids that are going into the first grade who are non-verbal and had no early intervention. This is unacceptable.

Once a child is diagnosed with autism, what can parents do to support them? How can our education system support them?

Temple Grandin: Read my books, The Autistic Brain and The Way I See It. They are a good place to start for information. I also strongly recommend that you join your local [autism] support group.

I have parents tell me they can’t get their kids out of their rooms — that they just play video games all day. This is the worst thing they can do. Video game addiction is becoming a big problem with these kids. Limit video games to one hour per day.

Help your kids to develop their strengths. And they need to start thinking around 12 what they going to do, what profession they are going to pursue. They need to learn work skills. Lack of work skills is one of the biggest problems kids with autism face. This learning needs to begin way before they start college.

Schools are taking out all hands-on classes like art, sewing, woodworking, auto mechanics — and that’s a huge mistake. These classes are the salvation for many kids with autism that could turn into jobs for them later on. There is a huge shortage of skilled trades now.

Academic skills are uneven for kids with autism. They tend to be good at one subject and bad at another. Writing organization also tends to be a problem for them. Even kids on the mild end of the spectrum, who are really smart, are getting a handicapped mentality. There is not enough emphasis on strengths, and too much emphasis on deficits.

How important are soft skills [personality traits, social graces, communication, friendliness, etc] for kids with autism? What purpose do they serve?

Temple Grandin: Kids with autism need to develop their socialization skills. I’m seeing too many kids that lack even the basics. They don’t have table manners, know how to shake hands or order food in restaurants.

I’ve visited a lot of tech companies that are filled with young adults that have undiagnosed Asperger’s, and they are apprenticed into these good jobs. Kids are not being taught these basic social skills, which is a big problem, especially for those with Asperger’s. They are not being taught skills such as shaking hands.

One way for kids with autism to develop socialization skills is through joining groups with shared interests such as robotics, art, 4-H, computer clubs, band or Boy Scouts. Anything a kid can excel in. They need to engage with other kids, which is very important for developing their socialization skills.

When I was a kid, my parents would have parties and my brothers and sisters and I would have to act as hosts. I’d have to get dressed in my best dress and be Miss Party Hostess. I’d had to greet guests and shake hands with every single one and also serve snacks to them. It was so simple, but it taught me the social skills I needed to succeed in my life.

How can young people with autism succeed in not letting autism define who and what they are?  What advice would you give them?

Temple Grandin: Kids come up to me at conferences and all they want to talk about is their autism. This gets reinforced by society. The focus becomes what’s wrong with them and not what’s right.

I would tell them to get a job, starting around 12 years old. This is key. It doesn’t have to be anything difficult, but something that will teach them work skills. It can be anything, as long as it’s outside their home and it’s something they do on a regular basis. Like walking their neighbor’s dog or setting up chairs at church every Sunday.

The point is that they do a job. It will teach them discipline and responsibility. As soon as these kids can go into the real economy, they need to do it.

My autism doesn’t define me. I am more defined by my career. I am what I do.

Anything else you would like to add?

Temple Grandin: We have to help our kids figure out what they can be really good at. My ability in art was always encouraged. Art became the basis for my design work later on. I was pushed to draw different things, not just the same picture over and over. Kids need to find what interests them and then take that interest to the next level and broaden it.

Too many kids are living too sheltered lives. When I was a kid, staying in my room was not an option. Parents need to encourage their kids. There is a tendency to overprotect. In some ways, they love their kids too much.

Parents need to get their kids out and doing all kinds of things. They need to be stretched, and they’re not. Parents have to slowly push their kids just outside of their comfort zone, but with no sudden surprises.

They have to work on expanding their world, otherwise, it will contract and become smaller.

Temple Grandin is a doctor of animal science and a professor at Colorado State University. She is a bestselling author, autism activist and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. She also created the “hug box,” a device to calm children with autism. She is the subject of the award-winning 2010 biographical film, Temple Grandin. Find out more about Dr Grandin by visiting her website at templegrandin.com.

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