Temple Grandin brings inspiring messages, stories, to UTRGV

Dr. Temple Grandin signed her books for fans on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, at the UTRGV Performing Arts Complex on the Edinburg Campus. (UTRGV photo by Paul Chouy)

By Gail Fagan

EDINBURG, TEXASOCT. 26, 2015 – Clad in her trademark authentic Western wear, Dr. Temple Grandin spent the day at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley telling a rapt audience to “look at what people can do, not at what they can’t.”

Celebrated in the world of autism and a renowned expert on cattle handling, Grandin signed her many books for a long line of admirers, before and after a 90-minute talk about her life with autism and how to encourage the skills of those on the autism disorder spectrum (ASD) to achieve a productive life.  
“I want these kids to be successful, I want them to be everything they can be,” said Grandin, who has a Ph.D. and is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

Diagnosed with autism at age 3, Grandin began her life communicating her frustration with only screams, peeps and hums. Considered “weird” as a youngster, a mentor helped her develop a successful career as a livestock-handling equipment designer.

Today, she is one of the world’s most accomplished and well-known adults with autism, and has written a number of best-selling books on that topic, as well as on animal behavior. Her life was featured in the 2010 Emmy award-winning HBO movie “Temple Grandin,” starring Claire Danes.

Grandin said her mother encouraged her artistic talents and set her on a path of learning important work and social skills. Grandin had a sewing job at age 13 and at 15 was cleaning out eight horse stalls and a horse barn daily. In college, she did career-relevant internships. And a trip to her aunt’s ranch, when she didn’t want to go, changed her life, she said.

“You’ve got to stretch these kids. I’m seeing kids getting babied, they are not doing everything they can do. You’ve got to learn how to work … it creates discipline,” she said. “One geeky kid is going to Silicon Valley to work for Google and another geeky kid is playing video games while on social security, and they are the same geek.”

She described the autism spectrum as huge and stressed the importance of early intervention, exposing children to many different experiences and broadening as much as possible the interests autistic children do have, especially as they enter high school.

Grandin said there are opportunities for people with autism at places like NASA and Google, but also in positions as welders, mechanics and other skilled trade jobs.

“There are a ton of good jobs out there. Kids who are good at LEGOS and like to build things, take things apart – those kids are those who would be good at fixing engines,” she said.

Using her own brain scans as illustrations, Grandin described how her brain operates differently from a non-autistic person. She discourages overmedication, but says that, in her case, a daily dose of Zoloft helps her cope with anxiety. During her talk, which included a question and answer session, and gave tips on helping more socially awkward and lower functioning autistic children, including the use of checklists to replace a long list of verbal instructions.

“Even pilots use check lists,” she said.

During two book signings, Grandin took time to talk with each person in line, asking about their interest in autism and who the book was for.

Rebecca Muniga, a second-grade teacher at Bryan Elementary in Mission and mother of an 8-year-old on the autism spectrum, walked away with several of Grandin’s books.

“When my son was first diagnosed, I read her books to understand what he is going through, how he sees things. And it has helped me out tremendously,” said Muniga, who said her son has come a long way using information she gained from Grandin’s book “The Way I See It.”

“He was nonverbal, now he is starting to speak in sentences,” she said. “It is wonderful to see how much he has grown.”
Dr. Patricia McHatton, dean of UTRGV’s College of Education and P-16 Integration, said Grandin disrupts traditional thinking about individuals who learn differently.

“Often, we view children from a deficit perspective or from things they can’t do, instead of the things they can do. Dr. Grandin epitomizes what it is that can happen when you view individuals from the strengths they possess,” she said.

McHatton said students and faculty from both the Edinburg and Brownsville campuses attended the presentation and would visit with Grandin in a special trip to the college later in the day. Students in UTRGV’s Student Council for Exceptional Children, a student organization with 100 members, served as ushers at the presentation. UTRGV’s Department of Human Development and School Services helped arrange Grandin’s first visit to the campus.

“Her appearance here gives our students the opportunity to meet the person they have read about. That is exciting for students,” McHatton said.

Grandin’s message brought hope to many community members, especially parents, said Lisa Becerra, a speech pathologist and alumna of UT Pan American (a UTRGV legacy institution), as well as program director for Team Mario, a local nonprofit autism awareness organization that supported Grandin’s appearance.

“Parents were amazed and in tears and extremely excited that she was here,” Becerra said. “Her message of including that child, stretching that child, having expectations of that child, goes hand in hand with Team Mario’s message.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 27, Grandin spoke to members of the Valley’s cattle industry and to hundreds of members of the Future Farmers of America and 4-H students, said Carlos Guerra, owner of La Muñeca Cattle Co., who with the RGV Brahman and F1 Association helped support and organize her visit.

Grandin’s visual thinking – “thinking in pictures” – led to her more humane designs of slaughterhouses.

“She has rewritten the book on how cattle are handled. Over half of the major feedlots in America today have changed their working facilities to adhere to her principles, which are working very well,” Guerra said.


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