Helping Your Autistic Child Soar — An Exclusive Interview with Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin warmly recalls her days spent as a young girl growing up the youngest of three children. As she affectionately describes the countless hours she spent outside experimenting with balsa wood toy gliders and reconfiguring kites for test runs behind her bicycle, Grandin paints a charming picture of life during simpler times.
“I used the same kind of winglets just like they put on jets. I was allowed to do all these experiments and projects – my creativity was always encouraged,” Grandin said. While she had the freedom to discover and learn through independent play — Grandin points out there were tight family rules that balanced her freedom. Life was a bit different back in the 1950s, she explains, when rules and manners were at the forefront.
Grandin, a prominent animal expert and advocate for autistic populations, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Instead of sending their nonverbal daughter to an institution as was common for the time, parents Richard Grandin and Eustacia Cutler chose to enrich their daughter’s life at home with one-on-one speech therapy and the extra help of a caregiver. Not able to speak until she was four years old, Grandin now possesses a degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College, a master’s in animal science from Arizona State University and a doctoral degree in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She attributes her success to her family for always encouraging creativity and a no nonsense approach toward parenting.
Grandin said she has seen a distinct change in parental expectations over the past few years with children on the spectrum which concerns her. Too many young people, she said, are not getting the training and structure to gain a sense of independence.
Basic life skills are vital to development
One of Grandin’s major concerns is the number of autistic children who aren’t learning basic life skills. She was quick to point out that when she talks about building life skills, she is referring to high functioning children on the spectrum.
“This really concerns me. I am seeing too many kids being coddled and babied and not learning basic skills. When they come to meetings, their mothers are talking for them. The kids don’t know how to greet people. If I went to a book signing with my mother and wanted an autograph, Mother would tell me to walk up there and ask myself — she wouldn’t have done it for me,” Grandin said adamantly.
Grandin recalls when she attended a dinner party at the home of a prominent college president and spent time with his 10-year-old autistic son. “He was fully verbal but he did not know how to shake hands. This kid didn’t want to eat the food so they had take out chicken brought in instead having him eat the roast beef brisket, green beans and mashed potatoes. Then the kid picked up the sliced chicken with his hands. I told him this was a formal dinner and to use the utensils and he did. Dad high-fived me and the mother turned green,” Grandin said.
Temple believes teaching basic life skills is essential to continued growth. “I am seeing too many smart kids playing video games on Social Security…it is making me crazy,” she said.
Another concern Grandin has is that young people with autism are not gaining the marketable skills they need.
“I am seeing too many kids are not learning work skills. They go through high school and college and never have a job,” Grandin said. “Mother got me a little sewing job in the neighborhood when I was 13 and I took dresses apart in a woman’s home and she paid in cash. When I was 15 I was cleaning horse stalls. While I wasn’t doing much studying at the time, I was learning work skills,” Grandin said.
Children, she said, have to learn how to work to secure a future. “They need to know how to show up on time, learn discipline and responsibility. I am hearing too often about 21-year-olds playing video games all day in their bedrooms. I am not suggesting banning video games, but limiting them. The rule when I was growing up was one hour of TV during the week and two hours on Saturday and Sunday,” Grandin said.
Allowing children and young teens to spend countless hours alone in their room is not healthy, Grandin said. “I had a tendency to become a recluse in my room and that wasn’t allowed. If I wanted to play outside for hours experimenting on my kite designs then that was fine. I was not allowed to stay in my room,” she said.
Eventually these young adults graduate from college and have never held a job, making the transition to the working world that much more difficult, Grandin said. “By the time I graduated from college I had a ton of work skills. I had run a horse barn, I had a sewing job, I painted signs, I worked in a research lab as a volunteer, I worked as a camp counselor at a camp for children with autism. Mother set up these jobs,” she added.
Help your child grow
“If they were getting jobs in the video game industry, I wouldn’t be saying this. We have got to learn job skills. One thing that was learned in Autism Project Search is if you want to train someone, you need to start their last year of high school,” Grandin said. “They need to learn work skills before they graduate from high school and college. Volunteering counts – it doesn’t have to be paid work – it just has to be outside the home.”
Grandin said she tells parents these jobs can be simple, such as a paper route or walking dogs for the neighbors. “I had a mom tell me there wasn’t a program for walking dogs. I told her you just talk to the neighbors,” she said with a laugh. Additional suggestions include working as the usher at the church and greeting people, setting up chairs for the church social, or running the church website. There is so much early training that can be happen in the neighborhood, she added. And when children are younger, they need to have chores.
Broaden your child’s interests
It’s also important to use a child’s interest as an opportunity to teach. “Let’s say your child likes airplanes or trains, well then let’s read about them and where you can go in them…then learn about those places. Some kids like fans so let’s learn about how they work – that’s physics. Where are fans made? China, so let’s learn about China now,” Grandin said. “I am making that associated link and broadening the interest and linking back to the fixation. This will keep them wanting to learn.”
Use teachable moments
Grandin is a firm believer that children need to learn to shake hands. “This was done at Mother’s parties and I had to shake hands with each of the guests. Another thing is using teachable moments. If I stuck my finger in the mashed potatoes, Mother didn’t scream ‘no,’ she said, ‘use the fork.’ She gave the instruction instead of screaming ‘no.’
Mother wanted me to be successful. I think today we worry too much about making the child happy. You have to stretch your kid. When I was 15, I didn’t want to go to my aunt’s ranch and Mother gave me a choice: I could go for a week and come back or stay for the summer. Not going was not an option. I think today there is too much emphasis on wanting the child to be happy instead of wanting them be successful at something,” Grandin said.
There are so many opportunities for a parent to help his/her child grow, from instilling table manners, shopping skills and the ability to greet people. Another important skill, Grandin added, is turn taking.
“My favorite game when I was six years old was a table hockey game, but I had to get a kid over to play with me. Our next door neighbors had a pool table and we had to play together and take turns,” she said. This not only instilled turn taking, but enhanced social skills.
“Same with when we were talking at the dinner table, we had to take turns. I would tell my story about school and then my Dad would talk about his day and trips we were planning,” Grandin added.
Teach your child about money
Another important skill young people should acquire is the meaning of money, Grandin said. “They aren’t learning basic things I knew in elementary school. There is a tendency to overprotect. ‘Tommy has autism so he can’t order at McDonalds.’ I say Tommy can order,” she said adamantly. “I got 50 cents a week for allowance and back then it bought ten candy bars, five comics, kite with string and a little plane you could throw. If I wanted the one with the windup propeller, I needed two weeks allowance. Mother didn’t buy any of these kind of things, I had to buy them myself. I knew I needed to save if I wanted the 69 cent windup plane,” Grandin said.
Take one step at a time…
Some parents can feel a bit overwhelmed at times when taking care of a child on the spectrum. It’s easy to feel that way if you focus on the full picture all at once. Grandin instead recommends parents take on parenthood one step at a time, just as she does with everyday life. In fact, Grandin built her own home many years ago, an extraordinary undertaking.
“I built a house about 75 percent of it myself — one window one board at time. If I looked at it that way, I didn’t feel overwhelmed,” Grandin said. “It’s one teachable moment at a time.”
Amy KD Tobik, Editor-in-Chief of Autism Parenting Magazine, has more than 25 years experience as a published writer and editor. A graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Amy’s background includes magazine and newspaper publishing as well as working as a government-contracted technical editor/analyst. She has also ghostwritten and edited several books. Amy lives in the Carolinas with her husband and two children.
This article was featured in Issue 32 – Striving for Independence