Temple Grandin gave a lecture May 15 at the Academy of Natural Sciences about the thought processes of people and animals at an event co-sponsored by the Academy and the Goodwin College of Professional Studies.
Grandin is a doctor of animal science, a professional consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, and a professor at Colorado State University. She was diagnosed with autism at an early age and is considered to be a leader in both the animal welfare and autism communities. Grandin was listed in 2010 as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and was portrayed in an HBO biopic film by Claire Danes.
Grandin highlighted the similarities between animals and people with autism. She said that in their cognitive processes, both groups cluster sensory experiences into categories. Categorizing specific events in the mind allows them to focus on the specific task at hand and not become befuddled by other stimuli.
She then offered examples of cows that refused to move across streaks of light in their pens or became overtly afraid of a flag waving in the breeze.
“Normal people tend to ignore details,” Grandin said, adding that “in order to understand animals, you have to train yourself to attend to the most obvious.”
Both animals and autistic people are bottom-up, not top-down, learners. Therefore, both groups need visual examples before a concept can be grasped.
Grandin then segued into the topic of the U.S. educational system.
“Students are going nowhere because there are no mentors to channel them into challenging careers. Schools are failing to stimulate the visual thinker, and we need more hands-on classes. Think of all the fractions you can teach in cooking class,” she said.
Grandin even commented on the lecture hall where the event took place.
“I see your lovely dinosaur exhibit outside,” she said, referring to the exhibit in the lobby. “I just know it must have been completed by someone with Asperger’s.”
The lecture was brought to a close with a question-and-answer session. One pertinent question raised was how to convince schools to invest more into hands-on classes without an increase in funding.
Grandin pointed out that schools, like the government, invest heavily in short-term thinking.
“They only consider test scores rather than the well-being of the child as a whole,” she said.
A young mother then brought up the question of how to take care of a child with autism. Grandin replied: “The worst thing you can do is do nothing. Work with the child, play games, sing to him, do anything, just keep him active. Don’t ignore him.”
Students who are interested in researching more about this subject may want to become involved with Drexel’s new institute dedicated solely to autism research. The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is part of Drexel’s School of Public Health, and questions can be directed to [email protected].