I had my first telephone conversation with Dr. Temple Grandin two years ago. In exploring names for keynote speakers for a local autism event, and she was my obvious first choice. She has been lecturing to autism parents for decades, providing lessons that parents might find valuable, and this parent had heard her speak in the 1990s. Many know Temple from the HBO movie that depicts her remarkable life. To those of us personally touched by autism, she literally wrote the book; diagnosed with “infant schizophrenia” in the 1940s, today she is a PhD in Animal Science, professor at Colorado State University, inventor, New York Times best-selling author, and one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Yet despite this distinguished resume, in our phone time she was most talkative and probing: What had my son’s path through autism been like? Had he finished school? And most importantly- did he have a job? SHE called ME several times afterward to firm up dates, venues, and agendas. In each conversation, Temple was completely gracious with her time, so down-to-earth, and fully accommodating. I had to remind myself that, unlike like other geniuses I have met, there is no “E” (for ego) in autism. All awhile, I sensed that the very animated personality I was interacting with was somehow different from the autistic person I had heard speak twenty years earlier. Chalking it up to the artificial barrier that a telephone creates for those on the autism spectrum, I went on preparing for my duties as emcee for “An Evening With Dr. Temple Grandin: Different Kinds of Minds.”
As the event date approached, my research led to me to a factoid that caught my interest. In a recent interview, Temple’s mother, Eustacia Cutler, was quoted as saying that her daughter “seems far less autistic than she did even a decade ago.” Mind you, Dr. Grandin has recently turned 69 years old…
To a sold-out crowd of 1,000, Dr. Temple Grandin captivated her audience with insights on the value of out-of-the-box thinkers in society. “The world needs all kinds of minds.” When the visual thinker can communicate with the pattern thinker, who then works in tandem with the word thinker, society fully reaps the rewards. By working “across the silos” we ALL bring something of integral value to the world. But beyond the message was the speaker. Temple has become the most engaging, fluid (ad-libs on a dime and then gets right back to topic), and FUNNY lecturer I have ever heard! However, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the subtext of this presentation.
- Age is Irrelevant
That evening it was obvious. At 69, Temple is just now hitting her stride. Though she continues to teach at Colorado State University, lectures across the country and world to everyone from parents, to Silicon Valley companies, to cattle experts, and publishes award-winning books yearly (including her very first, Emergence Labeled Autistic), she is now more than ever a driven and tireless advocate for those living on or with the spectrum. Her unique perspective and gifts allow her to dissect potential strengths and weaknesses of our community. She is a powerhouse with seemingly unlimited energy. Even as she approaches 70, her “emergence” continues.
2. Plasticity of the Nervous System is Real
Once thought limited to the first seven years of life, pathways, adaptations, and modifications to our hard wiring can be a lifelong phenomenon. Temple is a perfect example, but only because she forced herself to do number 3…
Yes, stretch beyond your comfort zone. If you have seen the HBO biography based on her early life, you know that Temple was plagued with anxieties that inhibited her development. Only by forcing herself to “go through doors” and doing the hard and sustained work it takes for personal growth was she able to command the lecture circuit the way she has. She encourages individuals (especially middle-school children) on the autism spectrum to dig deep, find their true passions, and go for it full force. She shuns the handicapped label . So, then, we too must accept the challenge. Our new family motto is if Temple can do it, we can do it.
If I might take us back one more time to HBO’s Temple Grandin, it depeicts a breakthrough which occurs when she witnesses her first cattle slaughter. As quoted in the movie:
“I became aware of how precious life was. I thought about death and I felt close to God. I don’t want my thoughts to die with me. I want to have done something.”
I think it is safe to say that Temple Grandin will join the ranks of DaVinci, Einstein, Jobs, and Gates. She’s done something that few others have. And she’s just getting started.
You might want to follow my family’s autism story and my son’s path to the U.S. Capitol:
My Family’s April Awareness (World Autism Awareness Day)
THINK (My son’s video for National Anti-Bullying Month!!)
Defining Myself (My son’s post on the Autism Speaks Blog | In My Own Words)