The Hughes Brothers have expressed our admiration for Temple Grandin elsewhere in the pages. First, for what she taught us a long time ago, about the cattle business. And now, for all she’s teaching us about autism.
Now a professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, she published quite a long time ago (2002) an article for the University of Indiana’s Resource Center for Autism, a straightforward, easily understood set of ideas for dealing with young people along the spectrum.
Her ideas come along in a series of tips, of suggestions, of firm but gentle requirements for success.
“Firm but gentle,” her first description in fact of the manner in which parents, teachers, and other authority figures should deal with children with autism. From the beginning. Gentle. Firm.
Structure, structure, structure. She remembers her early childhood, toddler years in which she was not allowed to freely manifest the impulses of her autism but for one hour after lunch. At all other times, her family or her nanny were suggesting and then controlling the activities that filled the hours of her toddler days.
Families should eat together, with the child with autism engaged through these happy times with parents and siblings, practicing good manners, learning to engage and to enjoy. (As Temple herself wrote, “The combination of the nursery school, speech therapy, play activities, and “miss manners” meals added up to forty hours a week, in every one of which my brain was kept connected to the world.”
Visuals. Visuals. Visuals. Professor Grandin emphasizes that many people with autism think visually. “All my thoughts are like videotapes running in my imagination. Pictures are my first language, and words are my second language,” she writes. As a little girl, she liked nouns, found them the easiest words to learn. Makes sense, since nouns represent people, places, and things — all easily visualized. For more abstract words — she uses “up” as an example — she recommends attachment to a visual object. As in , lifting a toy airplane higher and higher after takeoff from a desktop runway, and repeating the word over and over again. “Up . . . up . . . up.” Sometimes, cards help. A card with the word “up” is attached as the toy plane rises, a card with the word “down” as it descends.
Avoid long verbal instructions. Sequence presents problems for many children with autism. Once the child learns to read, instructions might often be written on a nearby piece of paper. Ms. Grandin tells us she can remember only directions of three steps — how to find the nearest gas station, for instance. “I also have difficulty remembering phone numbers because I cannot make a picture in my mind” too.
As a logical corollary, many children with autism exhibit genuine talent for, and an impulse toward, drawing and other sorts of visual artistic expression. (In this regard, the Hughes Brothers were not at all surprised to learn that many people with autism have become ground-breaking computer programmers.)
Parents and teachers should look every day for emerging interests in the children in their care, and then use those interests in motivating the kids in their lessons. Ms Grandin uses trains as an example: “Formulate a math problem according to those interests, calculate how long it takes for a train to go between New York and Washington.”
We’ll pause now to elaborate on that last bulleted point. Instead of focusing on such inabilities or limitations as the child might exhibit, look the other way. Off toward innate talent, interests that can be turned toward the development of skills. Skills that may then contribute to a long, happy life full of achievement and reward.