Hugh MacDonald

THE voice crackles over the line from Colorado. The vibrato owes everything to the fragility of the line. Temple Grandin, the Elvis of her specialist subject, the self-styled anthropologist on Mars, is strong, certain, convincing.

“I have built a fulfilling life,” she says. “But I see too many kids left in the basement. I want to see kids being successful, not locked into their problems.”

Grandin is speaking in a break between meetings at Colorado State University where she is a professor in animal science. She is an expert on animal behaviour and advises the livestock industry. She is 71. She is also autistic. Greta Thunburg, the 16-year-old Swedish girl, has become the unwitting face of autism as she has become the centre of a media maelstrom over her comments on climate change but Grandin has been innovator, influencer and inspiration for decades.

“If I could snap my fingers and be non-autistic, I would not – because then I would not be me,’ she once said.

So who is Temple Mary Grandin and why does she matter in the world of autism?

The answer is complex, perhaps even profound. It is most simply told by Grandin herself in a series of books and by those who have observed her and listened to her. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote Awakenings, profiled her in the eponymous An Anthropologist on Mars. Grandin told Sachs that she was baffled by complex emotions, adding: “Much of the time I feel an anthropologist on Mars.” She is also an evangelist on Earth. She takes her lessons, experience and views on autism to conferences all over the world, coming to Glasgow on May 15.

“Is she the innovator or the populariser of a way of approaching autism?” says Jim Taylor, an experienced practitioner in the field. “Is she the Elvis in terms of bringing a message to the masses? Her books changed our thinking. She is immensely influential.”

It is oddly moving to study Grandin before beginning to appreciate her importance in a world where certainty remains elusive, where the severity of the condition fluctuates wildly. “No two autistic people are the same,” she says. She is particularly singular.

The scion of a wealthy family, she was viewed as having problems at an early age. “I had no speech until I was four,” she says. “I had early intervention speech therapy when I was two and a half. The autism diagnosis came much later because you have to remember this was 1949/1950. It was a long time ago and the diagnosis was not there but I had all the symptoms.”

She could not talk at a young age, but was not silent. She hummed, muttered, screamed. The speech therapy was spectacularly successful. But many of the behavioural aspects remained. She could be disruptive in class, even violent with those who labelled her “weird” and who taunted and bullied her. She was taught by her mother that her actions would have consequences, with sanctions on her watching television when she was particular naughty. When she was older in further education, she realised her peers became friendly towards her when they appreciated her talents.

“For me, I see too many autistic people with that as their primary identity. I am visual thinker,” she says. And what is that? “When I was young I thought everyone thought in pictures,” she says. “My brain processes everything in pictures.”

She thus sees problems. This is most stark when presented with plans for, say, a processing plant. She can envisage what might go wrong by viewing the reality of the project in her head rather than on a planning board. In The Way I See It, her personal look at autism, Grandin recounts how he she “test ran” a piece of proposed equipment in her head. She found severe flaws and argued with the engineer. She was proved right. “Now I realise his problem was not stupidity: it was a lack of visual thinking.”

A major turning point for her was a visit when she was a teenager to her aunt’s farm. Grandin had endured panic attacks at the thought of going. But she went and found a link to the world that has continued, indeed, strengthened day by day.

“It was all about getting exposed to something,” she says. “You get interested in in things you are exposed to. It’s simple. I was exposed to cattle on my aunt’s farm and I became interested in them.”

This interest is commonly conflated with obsession. But a more productive way to view it is that some autistic people have extraordinary levels of concentration and of enthusiasm for subjects.

“I came from a non-agricultural background. If I had not gone to my aunt’s ranch then I would never have got into cattle,” she says.

She views her work as a vocation. “My life would be horrible if I didn’t have my challenging career,” she told Sachs.

THIS stunning, sobering statement points to the importance of Grandin as both educator and example. “When I first started out in serious learning, one of things that was the big motivators was that I wanted to prove I wasn’t stupid. A big motivator,” she emphasises. She, of course, gained a doctorate and a rewarding career in both academia and business but Grandin also learned that the spectrum of autism was wide and little understood.

“There are a lot of people running businesses who are autistic. I think Steve Jobs was on the spectrum,” she says. She has previously said that Albert Einstein displayed symptoms. “One of the huge problems with autism,” she says, “is the broad spectrum that encompasses a wide degree of abilities.”

She adds: “There is a gigantic, huge spectrum. It goes from someone who is capable of being an artist, to someone who is capable of doing a skilled trade to someone who cannot dress themselves. And that’s the problem, especially for service providers.”

She also points out that many people may, unwittingly, be on that spectrum. “I am finding grandparents are coming up to me at my talks and they are realising they are on the autism spectrum when the grandkids get diagnosed,” she says.

According to the National Health Service website, the definition is: “Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how people communicate and interact with others. Autism affects people in different ways. But most autistic people see, hear and experience the world differently from people without autism. Autistic people may be given a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder or Asperger syndrome.”

This is the broadest of brushes but Grandin has the most precise strokes in both describing her autism and using her experience to help others. “I can do things,” she says. “I sewed dresses when I was 13. I cleaned stalls at my aunt’s farm, I studied and I learned about animals.” She talks about finding a child’s specific area of strength, pointing out that most have an area of expertise and interest.” Focusing on their deficits does nothing to prepare them for the real world,” she says.

HE crouches close to diminish the effects of a cacophonous coffee machine in a motorway service station. It is not quite the crackly Colorado line but the message is similarly clear. “Temple was one of the first autistic people to write a book about her life,” says Jim Taylor, who has been a practitioner in the condition for 40 years. “She changed our thinking.”

He edits her significance briskly into three areas. “Temple has credibility. It’s like who is better between Messi and Pele. Messi can do everything Pele can do but when Pele did it nobody had thought of it,” he says. “There are things that I would attribute to Temple that have changed our practice. Temple was probably the first person who said: ‘I think in pictures’. If you walk into school with autistic children, you learn the truth of that immediately. Show them a picture, it works.”

“Second, she was probably the first person who told of the sensory impact of autism. She talks about strange gait. Her mother would dress her in a taffeta dress in the fifties and she would walk funny because she was constantly aware of it so affecting her walk.”

“Thirdly, she upped the game. She increased the ambition. Autism is not an impairment. JP Morgan are not taking on people with autism because of charity but because they see the talent.”

Taylor, who will chair the Glasgow conference, adds: “We want to talk to her about raising ambition in unemployment. Most people believe kids with autism have behavioural problems and what Temple taught us is with the right circumstances, the right opportunities, the right communication and, in her case with a special interest, you can take off. You can fly.”

There are limitations on the most profoundly affected but Grandin has lessons she believes apply to many.

“Too many kids are getting addicted to video games and going nowhere,” she says. She is fascinated by technology but believes recreational use has to be restricted for those autistic children.

“But the first thing to do is to teach kids how to work,” she says. “I want them to look at career options. This work needs to start when they are 10-years-old. They don’t have paper routes in the USA any more so it could start with something like dog walking. They need to learn to do a task, on a schedule, outside the family.

“The second thing is that the kid’s strengths have to be developed. Find out what he or she can do. I know there is a spectrum and 20% per cent of the kids are very severe, will never talk and have difficulty dressing themselves. But others can do mathematics, work computers, think visually and be artists or scientists.

“I see too many kids getting babied and they don’t learn basic skill such as shopping, bank accounting, hygiene.

“They can do a lot more than you think they can do. There is an attitude of: ‘Tommy has autism so we will order food in the restaurant for him’. Little Tommy needs to do that.”

She also believes autistic children must be taught how to interact with others. “You teach social skills like teaching someone how to behave in a foreign country,” she says.

All this is said without any hunt of superiority. In books, lectures and interviews, Grandin points out that her life has presented her with problems. But she has overcome the most vexing with her capacity to achieve in the face of what would seem insurmountable odds.

Asked when the turning point came in her life with the condition, Grandin replies: “The person with autism always keeps learning. There is no magic turning point. I had mentors – my mother was wonderful and I was helped from an early age by her and my elementary school teachers – but no turning points.”

If this seems gloomy, the voice is strong from Colorado. “I have had a good life,” she says. “So I know it is possible for others, too. Autistic kids can have good lives. I have.

She told Sachs: “Aware autistic adults and their parents are often angry about autism. They ask why nature or God created such horrible conditions as autism, manic depression and schizophrenia. However, if the genes that caused these conditions were to be eliminated there might be a terrible price to pay. It is possible that persons with bits of those traits are more creative, or possibly even geniuses…If science eliminated these genes, maybe the world would be taken over by accountants.”

This statement mixes the sly humour and the serious business of Temple Grandin, academic, writer, inspiration, autistic person, animal scientist, probable genius. And accountancy agnostic.