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Autism Advocate Temple Grandin speaks at Mount Baker Theatre

She was diagnosed with autism in 1950 and told she should be institutionalized. Instead, she revolutionized the livestock-handling market, became a professor of animal sciences, an author of a best-selling book and was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people of 2010.

“What motivated me? I wanted to prove that I could do it. I wanted to prove that I was not stupid.”

Grandin speaks at the Mount Baker Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 7 // Photo by Harrison Amelang

Temple Grandin, one of the most accomplished adults with autism in the world, spoke at Mount Baker Theatre Tuesday, Feb. 7.

Superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools Greg Baker introduced her at the event.

“[Grandin’s] story is unique and motivating. We’re thrilled to have her here in Bellingham,” Baker said.

Grandin spoke about her struggles growing up autistic, how she became successful in her career and addressed how to meet the needs of today’s differently-abled youth.

“There are different kinds of minds and their skills complement each other,” Grandin said.

“The first step is realizing that we need all different kinds of minds.”

Temple Grandin

Grandin said she is a visual thinker with an associative mind; she thinks in pictures and associates memories with images. She talked about other categories of thinkers, such as verbal thinkers who think in words, and pattern thinkers who specialize in music, math and coding.

In her career of designing livestock-handling equipment, Grandin said her major projects relied heavily on all three types of thinkers. Without the three legs of the tripod, the whole thing would topple over, Grandin said.

Sarah Eisert, a speech-language pathology graduate student, said she identified with the pattern thinker mindset.

“It was interesting for me to get a sense of what different minds look like,” Eisert said. “This is one way of looking at how other people’s minds work, so that was really neat.”

Eisert said she attended the presentation because she is interested in learning about different ways of communicating and applying that knowledge as a speech-language pathologist.

Grandin said she worries educators today aren’t teaching to unique thinkers. She was critical of schools cutting hands-on classes such as cooking, sewing, woodworking and arts, since hands-on learning is more effective for non-verbal thinkers.

During a question and answer session, a woman approached the microphone.

“My 5-year-old grandson was nonverbal until he was 3,” she said. “He is extremely intelligent, one plus one bores him to death.”

Grandin cut her off.

The Mount Baker Theatre before Grandin’s speech // Photo by Harrison Amelang

“[Have him] do harder math then. Do not bore little math geniuses with boring math.” 

Grandin herself was nonverbal until age four.

Grandin said oftentimes a lack of challenging material leads to behavioral problems, and encouraged the woman to challenge her grandson outside of school. Grandin challenged educators to focus on building the strengths of individual students.

Annika Asplund, a student at Ferndale High School, said she was “blown away” by the speech. She had been diagnosed with a form of autism and found Grandin’s work inspirational.

“Being autistic, you have so many questions about it,” Asplund said. “But in the end, it’s all going to work out.”

She plans on pursuing a career in special education when she graduates.

Grandin said some of the most prominent innovators of our time were likely “on the spectrum,” meaning they could be diagnosed within the wide range of autism spectrum disorders, and had an unconventional education. Examples Grandin provided included Jane Goodall, Thomas Edison, Stephen Spielberg, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

“One of the ways to not get ostracized is to get really good at something. I made myself really good at something where I got recognized for that skill,” Grandin said. “I get asked all the time by people on the autism spectrum, ‘How do we get people to accept us?’ Well, people had a different attitude when I showed them the things that I was able to do.”

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