Man, where do I start? If you don't know who she is, the Wikipedia page gives a short summary. I mean it's really short. I can give you the super-short version: Temple Grandin is amazing.
On Wednesday, March 16 I went to the Agriplex in Stratford with a friend of mine to hear this incredible woman speak.
Unfortunately I couldn't attend her presentation the next day, "Creating the Best Life For Our Animals." Instead her Wednesday evening presentation was sponsored by Autism Ontario and focused on "My Sensory World."
I am fascinated by the way our brains work, partly because my brain doesn't seem to work like a lot of others do. I don't know many autistic people. I suspect I know a few more autistic and asperger people that I realize. I do know there seems to be more and more autism - is it like ADD or some mental illnesses that had no name hundreds of years ago, or is it really increasing? I wonder regularly how anybody with a different kind of brain would have been treated hundreds of years ago.
(I don't know for sure if I'm using the correct terminology here; my apologies if I accidentally offend anybody by using the wrong wording.)
So I'm interested in brain structure/ chemistry topics. I'm interested in ADD/ADHD (or in our family, Attention Deficit Oh Shiny), Schizophrenia, Bi-polar Disorder, Anxiety disorders, Depression, Autism Spectrum, Synesthesia and all kinds of other things that might make you think you're crazy.
The other reason I admire Temple Grandin so much is the work she's done with animals. You know how I love critters. Years ago I saw an interview with her in which she said she doesn't have a problem with eating meat, but the animal deserves to have an excellent, healthy, enjoyable life, and a humane death. I totally believe that, even though I've gotten some serious flack from a few of my fellow animal lovers. I still stand by that opinion, because I think critters should be respected and treated well.
It makes perfect sense that Autism and animals can be a good fit. Like animals, people in the Autism spectrum don't understand the lies people so often use to get through life. We say things are fine but our body language says we are not fine; it's confusing. Sarcasm makes no sense. Figures of speech mean nothing. I sometimes struggle with sarcasm... but I tend to speak in metaphors and pictures. I often feel like I'm not making sense even to my fellow humans!
I know from training a dog and a few horses that there is no room for revenge or motivating by fear or dishonesty. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we treated each other like that? Maybe autistic people have a special gift that way.
This leads back to another reason why I'm interested: as a riding instructor I believe that horses, and horseback riding, can make a life altering difference in people.
Imagine how I perked up when Temple Grandin mentioned non-verbal autistic children saying their first words while riding a horse. It's about the balance needed to ride and the rhythm of the horse's movement.
Here are other things (or thangs as she would say) that stuck out for me:
-An autistic person cannot understand anything but very specific words. No sarcasm, idioms, metaphors, and sometimes even jokes.
-There are so many different kinds of Autism and it varies extremely from one person to another. What works for one will not work for another. (Or course! Shouldn't we treat every person and critter like that?)
-Senses are so much stronger than in a "normal" person. Many behavioural problems come from extreme discomfort from noises or flickering lights.
-She likes to get an MRI and look at pictures of her brain!
-Don't give out three directions at once. This really got me because I know I'm bad for this. I give my ADOS daughter three steps worth when I know I can't follow more than one direction at a time.
-Children on the autism spectrum have to be given stimulus, experience, opportunities to learn.
-They also need to have boundaries and regulations, even more than other kids. Temple credits her strict 1950s upbringing for teaching her manners, and how to get along in a world she often didn't understand. Wait your turn. Say please and thank you. Learn how to take care of yourself and have good hygiene. "Nobody wants to be near a smelly slob."
-Autistic kids need to be gently pushed to try new things, rather than being allowed to stay in their own little world.
-Video games... oh boy. "If I'd had them when I was growing up, that's all I would have done!" I get the very strong feeling she does not want autistic kids to play video games. It's too hypnotic and addictive... it's too much like crawling into an inside world.
-She has awful short term memory. Hey, me too!
-Medication can be great. She says she's been on an anti-depressant for decades and says it's controlled a debilitating anxiety problem. But don't medicate your young children.
-Also don't fill kids with junk food- any kids.
-Preparation is important, surprises are fear, and fear equals panic.
-All of these different kinds of brains are essential in this world! We all need each other's unique ways of thinking.
-She thought the HBO movie starring Claire Danes was an accurate portrayal of her life. (I must see it!)
She was asked if Autism has increased. She doesn't believe so. Most likely the boy with Asperger's grew up to be the very quiet and maybe slightly odd guy who worked in a factory, content to spend his days assembling things, surrounded by machines and wires. There is so much about the brain that we just don't know yet, but we know more now than we ever did.
I could go on. But I can't because my mind was so thoroughly blown... I keep remembering things and that sparks off a whole new train of thoughts.
I bought one of her books that evening, "Animals Make Us Human" for which I lined up to get signed. I felt like an idiot... what do I say? Nothing? She noted that I must be an animal person because of the book I chose and I babbled about my house cat barn cats three horses pug. Almost forgot to tell her my name.
After the presentation I waited around, hoping for a chance to speak to her. My friend Stephanie thought it was cute that I've been to the Juno awards, I've hugged rock stars, and here I was completely starstruck.
I got my chance to talk to her. People, she looked me in the eye. Not for a long stretch of time, but she did. I felt bad for keeping her there but at the same time, I felt a need to speak to her and hear what she'd say.
Let me tell you, when she met my gaze with her pale blue eyes, I was staring at brilliance. Could be intimidating.
I told her I'm a riding instructor and I was really interested in her comment about non-verbal kids saying their first words on horseback. Balance and rhythm, she repeated. I asked about teaching autistic kids, that they need very specific instructions, and about the idea that surprise equals fear. She said I need to explain things first, but I can't remember how she said it.
"I have a panic disorder," I said, "and people sometimes can't figure out how I can get on a horse and not panic. Well, I know that if I get thrown off it's gonna hurt when I hit the ground, so... no surprises."
She replied by telling me about getting stuck at the airport in a snowstorm, something mentioned several times in her presentation. The first time it happened, she freaked out, but once she understood that this happens she was okay.
So, no unexpected things thrown at the kid. Specific instructions, one at a time. Gentle pushing to try, but not forceful. Can I do that? Yeah, I think I can. Isn't that how we train horses? And I'm gonna say it... isn't that how we teach children?
I took my chances and asked her if I could have a picture with her. Lots of people had gotten a picture taken with her but I was concerned that she must be getting tired and worn down. I mean, I'm not autistic and I was irritated by all the noise in the building.
So here I am, in a picture with Dr Temple Grandin.
That's her Getting A Picture Taken Face. That's my Holy Heck I Can't Believe I'm Standing Next To One Of My Heroes Face.
I think I told her at some point that I really liked her shirt. Because I do. She's not only the operator of one of the most beautiful minds in the world right now, but she's got impeccable taste in cowboy shirts.
Kind of a life-affirming event for me.