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Photo courtesy The Children's Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus

Temple Grandin Encourages Kids to “Make Things”

The professor and author living with severe autism advocates for valuing different kinds of minds.

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Dr. Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University, holds a Ph.D. in animal science, and has revolutionized livestock handling across the country. She’s the author of 12 books, inductee of the Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. She also has severe autism, couldn’t speak until age four, and was bullied in school. “But I ran the horse barn, and my friends became those [with whom] I had shared interests,” she says. “I was not allowed to become a recluse.”

In May, the Association of Children’s Museums presented Dr. Grandin with the 2019 Great Friend to Kids Award, for her efforts in increasing understanding of autism, and spreading the message about the need for different kinds of minds in problem solving. She focuses on the latter in her newest book, Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor. We talked to Dr. Grandin about her experiences, and what she thinks will help kids growing up today.

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Colorado Parent: What are a couple of things your parents did for you as a child, that helped you begin to think like an inventor?

Temple Grandin: I had extremely good early intervention. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to work with little kids right away if they are not talking when they should be talking.

My ability in art was always encouraged. I was always making things. We did lots of stuff with cardboard and scissors and glue and paint. Another thing my family did was teach turn-taking—the old-fashioned 1950s upbringing.

CP: What suggestions do you have for parents today, to help them teach their kids to think like inventors?

TG: Get them out doing a lot of hands-on stuff. Limit the screen time, unless they are learning something useful like computer coding.

I [used to] spend all day tinkering around with my bird kite and parachutes; figuring out how to make the parachute open better, and figuring out how to make the bird kite fly better. These are some of the projects that are in my book, Calling All Minds—all my childhood things that I actually made. You’ve got kids growing up today that are totally separated from hands-on things. They don’t know how to sew on a button or hold a hammer or use a screwdriver—just basic stuff like that.

The other reason for having kids do these kinds of projects is that it teaches practical problem solving. We’ve got a lot of kids today that don’t ever want to make a mistake.

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CP: When it comes to kids on the autism spectrum working with others in small groups, what should teachers keep in mind, to help ensure those kids are successful?

TG: Autistic kids need specific guidance and clear, defined goals. Often it works better [to give] an autistic kid one clear part of the project. Take something like robotics, for example. When you are working on real projects, you’ve got one person—the visual thinker—working on the mechanical parts of the robot, then you are going to have somebody else working on the computer parts. That is the way real jobs work. One person does the clever mechanical things, and another one does the computer parts.

CP: You’ve been speaking and writing about autism since the 1980s. In that time, do you think that the public’s perception of people with autism has changed?

TG: The best way to change the perception is to make yourself really good at a skill that other people want. When I started out, as a woman in a man’s industry in the 1970s, I had to make myself really good at what I did. I’ve worked with many people in skilled trades, and I know they are on the spectrum.

What I am seeing right now is that we are losing skills. Skilled trades—plumbing, electrical, and mechanics—these jobs will not get replaced by computers.

There is a tendency to stick your nose up at that kind of stuff…but so many [skilled tradesman] I worked with are retiring now, and they are not getting replaced.

I’m not going to say I want to shove this down every kid’s throat—I don’t—but students get interested in things they get exposed to. They find out what they like, but it’s also equally important to find out what they hate. If a kid tries stuff with tools and hates it, fine, it wasn’t for him. But they don’t know until they try it.

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The other thing I am seeing is way too much over-coddling. What you’ve got to do with these kids that are different, that have a label, is stretch them. Stretch them just outside the comfort zone, but give them choices. I’d like to really emphasize that I think kids should learn how to work. I know that paper routes are gone, but how about dog walking? How about church volunteer jobs? [Kids should do] something on a schedule outside the home. I am seeing too many kids whose whole identity is autism. Autism is an important part of who I am, but being in the livestock industry and being a professor, that comes first.

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