When I was in college, I heard Temple Grandin speak at The Autism SuperConference when it was in New Orleans. I remember being completely awestruck by her spunky personality and unrivaled perspective into the world of Autism. At the time, I had been working as a shadow of a boy with autism at his New Orleans school and was gearing up to start LSU’s Occupational Therapy program. Her talk lit me on fire with passion. Hearing about her childhood, her personal and professional innovation, and her opinions on how to best help those with Autism find their strengths inspired me as I sat in my seat, more excited than ever to start my journey towards being an OT.
When I heard that she would be speaking in the area again on June 3rd, I couldn’t resist attending her presentation. As I walked up to the Ponchartrain center entrance, I saw Temple wearing her signature cowgirl shirt and talking to attendees by the book line.
That fire ignited again, except this time I was a professional with a completely different outlook. Instead of rushing up to her, I stood back and observed various parents and professionals approach her with questions and stories about their own loved ones with Autism. With almost every person, after hearing they had a loved one with Autism over the age of 10, her follow up question was always the same; “what are they doing this summer? Do they have a job?”
One of Temple’s biggest points that she makes in her talks is to expose children with autism to activities and experiences that will help them learn skills that can be used later in life for employment. Temple describes the importance of understanding a child’s interests, learning styles and practical strengths in order to guide them to learn vocational skills. Some examples she gave included enrolling a technically minded child in a coding class, or teaching a child to use hand tools so they can use their strengths in math and geometry to do carpentry. Of course, she’s the first one to tell you that children may need support in doing these activities; however she has the opinion that children will often exceed your expectations.
I left that conference excited to have this new perspective on the importance of pre-vocational training. The very next week at work, a patient’s mother told me a story about her son with Autism that solidified the importance of what I learned from Temple. This mother had worked hard on teaching my patient, who is mostly nonverbal, how to follow the picture diagrams that came with Lego sets so he and his dad could build Lego sets together. They started small, and gradually got more complex kits as his skills improved. When his mother opened their new unassembled entertainment center, she thought her son could help hand her the tools. Turns out, after showing him the various pieces the diagram referred to, he built their whole entertainment center with help only for the final touches. His practice with building Legos was practically applied to building furniture from a diagram. THIS is exactly what Temple Grandin was talking about! Pre-vocational training can work, and can provide children with invaluable skills as they move towards independence.
Temple describes that she had people in her life that gave her what she calls The Loving Push (also a title of one of her books). They empowered her to never hide behind her difficulties, rather to learn how to use her strengths. Temple attributes her success as a professor, animal scientist, livestock industry consultant, and Autism spokesperson to these mentors and loved ones who expected nothing less than her success. I am a better occupational therapist from hearing Temple Grandin speak, and look forward to always giving my patients their loving push.
If you haven’t heard of Temple Grandin, her story is amazing and I highly recommend her books, as well as the HBO documentary that was made about her life.