Written by Dr. Cynthia Paulis Friday, 03 February 2012 00:00
Temple Grandin has never let labels define who she is and what she can accomplish. In 1950, at the age of 2 when she couldn’t speak, she was diagnosed with autism and labeled as brain damaged. It was recommended that she be institutionalized.
Today, Dr. Temple Grandin is an international speaker, author of several books on autism and animal welfare and was the focus of an HBO film titled Temple Grandin, which was nominated for 15 Emmy Awards and earned five. She has been listed as Time’s 100 most influential people in the world under the category of heroes. Grandin has a Ph.D in animal science from the University of Illinois and has designed one third of all livestock handling facilities in the United States and many other countries. She is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a frequent lecturer on autism.Recently, 330 people came to Temple Beth-El in Great Neck from all walks of life, teachers, parents, educators as far away as Australia, Texas, and Connecticut to listen to Temple Grandin. The event was sponsored by Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, which is a therapeutic riding program for individuals with disabilities. Owner and founder of Pal-O-Mine, Lisa Gatti invited Dr. Grandin as the speaker. “I thought it would be a really good idea to bring Temple Grandin here because 30 percent of the population we see at Pal-O-Mine is on the autism spectrum, so for teachers it is a wealth of knowledge that we are lucky to have and it would benefit our students,” said Gatti.
As a special education teacher, Gatti grew up with horses in Dix Hills and didn’t think of combining the two until she read Danielle Steel’s book Palomino where the main character, a horse rider becomes a quadriplegic and opens up a ranch in Wyoming for children with disabilities. She thought it was a good way to combine the two and in 1996, Steel gave her an $8,000 grant. Pal-O-Mine operates a full-time program, seven days a week, 12 months a year. It supports 19 program horses on an 8-acre facility serving 300 individuals with disabilities weekly.
Garden City resident Deborah Hussey has been involved with Pal-O-Mine for 10 years as a volunteer and a board member. “It’s the most amazing place I’ve ever come across. I fell in love with it and fell in love with the kids,” she said. Hussey was mesmerized by Grandin who not only spoke for two hours on autism but then spent the next 45 minutes answering questions. The event was followed by lunch where Grandin mingled with guests, listened to problems offering advice for those caring for autistic children, signed books and stayed until the last guest left.
Tall, lean, and wearing her trademark western wear, Grandin shared with me who were the three most important people in her life, “My mother who kept me out of an institution because kids that didn’t talk were put in institutions. My science teacher, who got me interested in school and in studying. I was a goofball student. I didn’t care about studying and he really got me turned around. My aunt, who had a ranch in Arizona and got me interested in animals,” Grandin said.
The visit to her aunt’s ranch was a turning point for Grandin. Socially isolated and bullied, Grandin developed a strong bond with the cows and started studying them. She noted the way cattle were inoculated while confined in a squeeze chute, and how some of the cattle immediately calmed down after pressure was administered. She realized that deep pressure from the chute had a calming effect on the cattle and decided that something similar might help her settle down her own hypersensitivity of being touched. She invented the “hug machine” with the encouragement of her science teacher. Today several therapy programs in the United States use hug machines, effectively achieving calming effects among both children and adults with autism.
Grandin showed photos of her “hug machine” which, “helped reduce my anxiety and panic attacks.” She went on to explain that “fear is the main emotion in autism.” Grandin is now on low-dose tricyclics help her panic attacks. She cautions, “There is a place for medication but carefully. Doctors have a tendency to throw drugs at them (autistic children) without thinking about what they are doing.” Grandin told the audience, “My hugging machine broke and I didn’t bother to fix it. Now I get hugs from real people,” as the room filled with applause.
Grandin shared with the audience her own experience being autistic. “Autism is not a precise diagnosis. The frontal cortex is used less because it has missing circuits,” she said.
She showed a picture of her head Cat scan compared to a normal head CT and went on to explain that she is a visual thinker. “My mind works like Google for images. Everything I think about has to be visual. I can remember the frustration of not being able to communicate. Words didn’t mean anything to me.”
One thing she emphasized was that, “Early education is important. A child has to be pushed to keep learning new skills. Good work skills are important. You have to stretch these kids, teach them how to do things for themselves. Some of these kids are too coddled. They aren’t playing outside making up their own rules. We have to get these kids out in the community.”
On social manners she had this comment: “I am appalled at how many kids are not taught manners. When I made a social mistake my mother didn’t yell at me she just gave me instructions. I was pulling on the dog’s ear so my mom pulled on my ear. It hurt and I didn’t do it again.”
Jackie Humans, whose daughter was bullied and wrote a book about it, asked Grandin how she handled it. “Some of the worst times of my life were in high school. Getting kids involved in school clubs and in shared interests helps. I was not teased when I was involved in horseback riding. I remember being called Buzzard Woman. That stopped when I became involved in a variety show and helped build the sets,” she said.
Grandin gave a comprehensive and inspiring lecture on autism sharing her own personal experiences with thoughtfulness and humor. She credits much of her success to good teachers along the way. “My job is my identity. I will teach until I can’t talk anymore.” Temple Grandin has found her voice.