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Role Models in Science and Mathematics Series: Temple Grandin, Animal Scientist with Autism

Posted on May 20, 2019 by Ann

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“I want to be exceptional,” 14-year old Tammy said about her goals in life.

“I don’t want to be a strawberry. I want to be a durian,” said 13-year old Gil, after he learnt the meaning of the phrase “strawberry generation”.

Tammy did not let the challenges she faces in communication and social interaction stop her from believing in herself. She plans to be a researcher in the future.

Gil hasn’t decided on his career path yet but he prefers the sciences and does not intend to let the challenges he faces in learning stop him from showing grit.

Role Models in Science and Mathematics

For children like Tammy and Gil, learning that there are famous individuals who had conquered their own disabilities and had blazed a trail in the scientific fields for others to follow can be a motivating experience. They should know that they can do what they might have been told can’t be done, and how others have done it.

This is why we have put together a series focusing on inspiring role models in science and mathematics. Today, we are putting our spotlight on Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science.

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour. She was also one of the first adults to publicly share the fact that she is autistic and had written many books on autism.

She was also known for inventing livestock handling devices. Today half the cattle in the United States are handled in facilities she has designed. She also invented the Hug Machine, a device that uses deep pressure to calm hypersensitive persons when she was 18 years old.

Grandin shared that when she was young, her classmates found her weird  and made fun of her by calling her a “tape recorder” because of her habit of repetitive speech. When she retaliated by throwing a book at a schoolmate who taunted her, the school expelled her.

Her mother got her a place in another school for children with behavioural problems. There, she met William Carlock, a science teacher who had previously worked for NASA, and who became an important mentor. Carlock encouraged her interest in science. For example, he helped her build the Hug Machine. Once she decided on the goal of becoming a scientist, she became motivated to study. Her determination resulted in a bachelor’s degree in human psychology in 1970, a master’s degree in animal science in 1975, and a doctoral degree in animal science in 1989.

Grandin has the following advice for parents of children with autism:

1. Be more flexible about education.

“Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job,” said Grandin. “These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things.”

2. Have high but reasonable expectations.

“It hurts because they don’t have enough expectations for the kids. I see too many kids who are smart and did well in school, but they’re not getting a job because when they were young, they didn’t learn any work skills […]

They’ve got no life skills.  The parents thinks, ‘Oh, poor Tommy. He has autism so he doesn’t have to learn things like shopping. [..] It hurts the autistic much more than it does the normal kids to not have these skills formally taught.”

3. Encourage volunteer work.

“Younger children can do volunteer jobs outside the home such as being an usher at a house of worship or community center.  This will teach both discipline and responsibility.”

Finally, here is a message from Grandin about neurodiversity:

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