While autism spectrum disorder appears on many radar screens today, this wasn't the case when Temple Grandin was growing up in the 1950s. Grandin, now 60, didn't utter a word until she was 3 1/2 years old. As a result, she was labeled "autistic," and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. Fortunately, Grandin's story does not end there.
With the help of early education and a caring nanny, Grandin eventually learned to speak and flourish despite Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder marked by severe difficulties in understanding how to interact socially. Today she holds a PhD in animal science, is a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and the author of several books including Emergence: Labeled Autistic and Thinking In Pictures. Grandin is also one of the few livestock-handling equipment designers in the world and has designed the facilities in which half the cattle are handled in the United States.
Although the cause of autism is not known, many researchers believe genetics is responsible for 90% of the risk of a child developing autism. Rare cases may be caused by chemical exposure and other agents that can cause birth defects.
To reduce the risk of having a child with an autistic disorder:
Do not take drugs during pregnancy unless your doctor approves; this is particularly true for some seizure medications.
Do not drink alcoholic beverages of any kind while you are pregnant.
As a result of her experiences, Grandin has a lot to say about how to reach children on the autism spectrum and encourage them to meet their full potential.
How did you learn to communicate?
When I was 3, I looked terrible. I was fully autistic. Early education helped me. I had a nanny who spent all day with me and my sister teaching me how to play games and interact with others.
You were diagnosed with autism in 1950. How have things changed for children diagnosed with autism today?
I think the younger kids have much better services available to them today (including speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy). The most important thing for autistic children is to have 20 hours a week of one-on-one interaction with an effective teacher. Still, some kids are very low-functioning and won't ever have a job and will have to live in a supervised environment, but if they get the right training early, they can do simple things for themselves.
What if parents can't afford or are not eligible for such services?
If you can't afford a nanny or services, go to the local church and get grandmothers or students to play games with the kids and interact with them. The worst thing you can do with a young autistic child is let them sit in a corner and watch TV. You have to expose them to a lot of different things and get them out doing a lot of stuff.
Is there anything that was better in the 1950s than today when it comes to helping children with autism spectrum disorder?
Yes. In the 1950s, manners were taught to everybody. I just got an email from a teacher of a kid with Asperger's. She wrote that this child thinks it's funny to pull his pants down in class. I would have gotten in a lot of trouble for doing that. That's naughty behavior and Asperger's is no excuse. All children need to be taught manners and turn-taking. I was expected to sit at granny's formal Sunday dinner table for 20 minutes and I did.