Autism and agriculture: Temple Grandin's story and message
By Stuart Estes
To say that Temple Grandin has had a positive effect on livestock agriculture is an understatement. With countless numbers of innovations in livestock handling and pen design to her name, Grandin has played an instrumental role in developing the livestock industry of today.
But at an autism conference in Dodge City, Kan., on July 24, Grandin was anything but prideful about her accomplishments. In fact, she embodied an air of thanksgiving as she spoke to attendees about how agriculture allowed her to live with autism.
“The thing that makes my life worth living is my career,” Grandin said. “I am what I do.”
In addition to her consulting work with feedlots and packing plants across the country, Grandin is also a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.
At a young age Grandin began exhibiting signs of autism in her everyday life.
“I had a speech delay until I was 3 years old,” Grandin said.
Autism and autism spectrum disorder are complex brain development disorders, characterized by social interaction problems and difficulty in verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive disorders. Research shows that around 1 in 88 American children are on the autism spectrum.
“It’s a huge, huge, huge spectrum,” Grandin said in regard to the complexity and breadth of the autistic disorder.
Even from a young age the hands-on aspects of agriculture appealed to Grandin’s way of thinking better than verbal learning opportunities, hence she took refuge in agriculture.
“This is the stuff that saved me—all the hands-on stuff,” Grandin said. “These were refuges away from teaching.”
As a teenager, Grandin visited her aunt’s ranch, which only served to further strengthen her desire to add to the livestock industry.
“If I hadn’t gone out to my aunt’s ranch, I wouldn’t be in the cattle industry,” Grandin said.
The idea of exposing autistic individuals to new experiences is a key concept for caretakers to grasp as they strive to show their autistic loved one the area in which they are truly gifted.
“The thing is you’ve got to push these kids,” Grandin said.
After speaking about her experiences with agriculture, Grandin began to speak about what attendees, many of whom were parents or relatives of autistic children, could do to encourage their autistic loved one to engage in some form of skill or develop an area of expertise.
“I can’t emphasize enough the institution of early educational intervention,” Grandin said.
It is never too early to begin teaching children with autism how to deal with the difficulties they may face or to expose them to areas in which they might succeed.
Grandin stressed the importance of establishing a path for success by teaching them a skill that will eventually develop into a career.
“You’ve got to start teaching these kids work skills,” Grandin said.
Possibly one of the largest challenges individuals with autism face unfortunately may have roots in the curriculum of the public school system, she said.
“I think one of the worst things schools ever did was take out the working classes,” Grandin said. These were opportunities for not only autistic students, but students in general to gain a deeper understanding of valuable trade skills.
Forward thinking is a major piece in the puzzle of allowing autistic individuals to overcome their disabilities.
“We’ve got to start thinking more about what they can do when they grow up,” Grandin said.
By being exposed to new skillsets, autistic children and adolescents can begin to understand where their true interests lie.
“We develop the skill area and broaden the interest,” Grandin said.
Grandin accounted for how her mother had provided opportunities for her to learn skills during her childhood. Once Grandin reached adulthood she continued to hone the skills that would allow her to be successful in the industry which she had the greatest interest.
Throughout the entire event, Grandin stressed the idea of pushing individuals with autism to succeed, which requires putting an end to emphasizing the negative aspects of autism.
“The mistake that is made is too much emphasis on the area of deficit,” Grandin said.
A change in attitude is needed for the caretakers of individuals with autism to start those individuals on the pathway to success.
“We’ve got to start thinking more about what they can do,” Grandin said.
Grandin made the point clear that allowing autistic individuals to remain in their comfort zone often leads to deleterious effects.
“[Being] fixated on video games does not turn into a job,” Grandin said.
There are plenty of opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum to lead successful careers and lives, but, according to Grandin, the list certainly does not include learning to live off the government.
“Then there’s another [individual] who goes to the basement and plays video games, and draws a Social Security check—that drives me insane,” Grandin said.
And just as it served as an outlet for Grandin to be successful, agriculture continues to be a viable option for individuals with autism to find a career.
“These feedyards need the labor,” Grandin said.
As an example, Grandin used the position of a pen rider, or an individual who works with cattle in the pens at a feedlot, to illustrate her point.
“That would be a great job for somebody that’s a little quirky,” Grandin said, noting that the solitary, yet often unsupervised work of a pen rider, would appeal to some autistic individuals.
For Grandin, it boils down to this: Some job is better than no job.
“I’d think it would be better to work in a feedyard than go to school for four years and draw Social Security,” Grandin said.
Truth be told, it’s not that individuals on the autism spectrum would just be warm bodies to fill job positions; they could truly succeed at the jobs offered in the agriculture industry.
“They would really be great at some of these jobs,” Grandin said.
In addition to speaking about autism across the globe, Grandin finds time to personally affect the lives of an individual through mentoring. One such individual is Ruth Woiwode, a doctoral student studying livestock behavior and welfare under Grandin at Colorado State University.
“I have the greatest admiration for what she’s done in the livestock industry,” Woiwode said, also noting her admiration for the barriers Grandin has worked to break down.
Because of her work with Grandin, Woiwode now sees the importance of giving back to the industry.
“I feel like there’s a big responsibility for me to give back,” Woiwode said.
Woiwode also echoed the sentiments of Grandin as far as agriculture’s need for a new pool of workforce members.
“Agriculture is faced with some pretty big challenges in terms of the workforce,” Woiwode said. These are positions that autistic individuals could fill in the industy.
After speaking at the autism conference, Grandin and Woiwode were scheduled to tour a feedlot facility in southwest Kansas. Woiwode commented on Grandin’s excitement at the thought of touring the feedlot.
“She just lit up,” Woiwode said about when Grandin spoke of the feedlot visit during her lecture. “That’s one of her first loves.”
Finding that first love and holding on to it has been the driving factor behind Grandin’s success in the agriculture industry. For Grandin, who has given so much to the agriculture industry, it seems that the passion of her career is its own reward. And striving for not only a career, but also a life like that is a goal that everybody, regardless of situation or disability, can work toward.