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Temple Grandin celebrates special learners in speech for the Frederick Speaker Series

Frederick News-Post - 1/19/2018

Jan. 19--There was a burst of applause midway through Temple Grandin's first speech Thursday at the Weinberg Center, where she spoke about children with special needs and the challenges they often face.

"I'm seeing too many kids become their label," she said. "I get a lot of kids who come up to me and say, 'I have autism like you.' Well, I'd rather them tell me that they're building a telescope, or that they train dogs."

If anyone understands the danger of pigeonholing young learners, it's Grandin. The native Bostonian didn't speak until she was 3 1/2 years old, a textbook symptom of severe autism. Her mother refused to institutionalize her and instead turned to learning specialists, who put Grandin through speech therapy and supported her unique educational needs.

The result for Grandin has been a successful career as an advocate for people with autism and advocate for animal welfare. She received her doctorate in animal science from the University of Illinois and went to work reforming the meat industry, designing tools to improve the quality of life for livestock.

Half the cattle in America are handled in equipment she designed for processing plants, she said in her speech. Those include a center-track restraint system to keep cattle calm during the handling process, and improved restraint systems to keep animals calm and reduce the rate of injuries. She also developed easy-to-follow checklists that make it easier to audit animal welfare in slaughter plants, beef feedlots and dairies.

Rather than succeeding despite her unique learning abilities, Grandin succeeded because of them, she said. As a strongly visual thinker -- someone who tends to think in pictures instead of words -- she was able to consider what cows were seeing as they were being handled. That perspective helped guide her toward seemingly simple breakthroughs.

"I thought about things like tying up loose chain ends that were scaring the animals," Grandin said. "I've been in the industry for about 40 years, so why am I still talking about this? Because people are still leaving them loose. If you want to understand animal behavior, you have to get away from words."

Just as important to Grandin are developments in the world of autism and learning disabilities. Some of them haven't been a step in the right direction, she said. Most concerning to her was the 2013 decision to eliminate Asperger syndrome -- formerly considered a minor form of autism -- from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

As a result, most children with autism are now lumped into the same category, regardless of their real-world functioning, she said. A more recent fixation on diagnosing and labeling children based on their learning abilities has also led more children -- and their parents -- to think of themselves as limited.

"I have seen older children -- adolescents, even -- who have never gone shopping by themselves," Grandin said. "And we need to stretch these kids. We've got to make sure we're not screening these kids out, because we need them."

That message of empowerment was especially resonant with audience members at the Weinberg, many of whom traveled for miles for the show. Rebecca Healy traveled to Frederick from New Jersey to see Grandin after one of the advocate's closer speeches in Pennsylvania was sold out.

Healy, a math teacher who works with special education children, cried when she discussed the impact that Grandin had on her work.

"She was able to do things that no one thought she could," Healy said. "And if she can do it, so can my kids."

Grandin was also a role model for 16-year-old Phoenix Okeefe, who attended the speaker series with her father, Tommy. Phoenix is mildly autistic and, like Grandin, identifies as a visual learner.

While Phoenix is a student at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, she hopes to be an artist or work in animation when she gets older. But she also identified with some of Grandin's struggles with being labeled or categorized despite her considerable abilities.

"She's someone I look up to because she's good proof that people with autism can do big things instead of what a lot of people think, which is that we're weird or that we can't function in life," Phoenix said.

"People with autism have the same desires as anyone else, and those can be squashed if the doors aren't open to them," Tommy added. "Sometimes it's a constant battle. And it's much better than it was years ago, but people still categorize."

Follow Kate Masters on Twitter: @kamamasters.

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(c)2018 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

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