Temple Grandin, PhD during a 2015 interview with ARI
The autism spectrum is extremely variable ranging from a person who remains non-verbal to a brilliant scientist. In my work as an equipment designer for the meat industry, I have seen many undiagnosed, highly successful people with Asperger’s Syndrome. The more structured upbringing of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s taught them social rules that have helped them to fit in. These people did computer programming, design, engineering, equipment maintenance, and accounting. During my many interviews, I have met radio engineers, television camera operators, and journalists for both print and radio who were Asperger’s. These successful journalists had the benefit of the same structured upbringing that I had.
When I was growing up all the parents in my neighborhood had similar rules for behavior. The rules were the same at home, at the neighbor’s house, and at school. Unfortunately, there are some much younger talented individuals with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism who have lost jobs because their upbringing was less structured. They were rude and would not obey the boss. I was taught at a young age that rude comments about other people’s appearance are not acceptable, and there were certain activities that I had to do because the whole family did them together. Going to church was boring to me, but most of the time I behaved in church because I was expected to. I learned that sometimes I had to do things that the grown-ups wanted me to do. This is an important skill to know. I could not have my way all the time. Providing structure and rules will be beneficial to all individuals in the autism spectrum, ranging from a brilliant individual with Asperger’s to an individual who remains non-verbal. My mother had good instincts on when to enforce the rules and when to make exceptions.
Below are some tips for success.
Differentiate Between Bad Behavior and Tantrums or Outbursts Caused By Sensory Overload
If an individual on the spectrum has tantrums or becomes aggressive in a large supermarket or a noisy restaurant the cause is likely to be sensory overload.
Sensory overload and over-sensitivity to noise, fluorescent lights or strong odors are very distressing to the individual. When I was a child the ringing school bell hurt my ears like a dentist drill. Scratchy clothes felt like sandpaper in my underwear.
Problems with sensory over-sensitivity often become worse with fatigue. Some sensory problems will need to be accommodated and others may be able to be treated. In my case, if our church had had loud amplified music I would not have been able to tolerate it. A reasonable accommodation would have been to find a different church or wear earplugs during the service.
Forcing a person who is experiencing sensory overload to stay in the situation that is causing the overload is painful, frightening and totally disorienting. Accommodations need to be made for sensory problems, but autism or Asperger’s is no excuse for bad behavior.
There were expectations for good behavior. Our church had a beautiful antique organ which I liked, and I was expected to sit quietly through the boring non-musical parts of the service. Most Sundays I behaved because my mother expected it.
I was taught to say “please” and “thank-you”.
This was constantly drilled into me, until it became automatic. Good table manners were expected and I had to learn to eat with my mouth closed. Since I have slight motor control problems, I was allowed to use a different grip on my fork while cutting meat. The important thing was to be neat. On some Sundays, the family had a formal Sunday dinner at Granny’s. All aspects of good manners were taught, like coaching an actor in a play.
When I started living on my own I was a slob.
My new boss at the feedlot construction company made it very plain to me that my grooming had to improve. I greatly resented it when he presented me with a container of deodorant and told me that my “pits stank”. It is perfectly fine to be a little eccentric but dirty or ragged is not acceptable.
Sensory problems often contribute to the tendency to get slobby, because old worn clothes are less scratchy. Some simple ways to reduce this problem is to wash all new clothes that touch the skin before wearing them. Old soft underwear can be worn under a new shirt.
Learn Turn-Taking and Sharing
When I was a child, my mother, nanny and teachers played many games that required turn-taking.
In the ’50s most fun activities like board games and table hockey required turn-taking. I also had to learn to share. An easy way to teach the concept of sharing is to divide up a bottle of juice between two or three individuals.
Learning Limits on Behavior and Consistent Discipline Between Home and School
For me, the rules were the same at home and school.
I knew that if I had a tantrum at school the teacher would call my mother and there would be no TV that night.
When I was very little my mother allowed me to make a mess in my own room, but I was not allowed to wreck the rest of the house. I was allowed to go in the living room, but my parents made it very clear that this was a grown-up room and I knew I might get a whack on the rear if I wrecked it.
I was always testing the limits. In our neighborhood, the rules were the same in other people’s homes. I behaved well in the places where the rules were enforced. However, there was a next-door neighbor where there were almost no rules. I got into lots of mischief with their son and we did some really destructive stuff such as gluing a door shut with epoxy and melting plastic chess pieces with a soldering iron.
I would have never done that at home. Even non-verbal individuals test the limits. They know who will let them get away with things such as not doing chores and who will insist that they be done.
Develop Areas of Strengths
I was really good at drawing and things where I could use my visual thinking skills and was terrible at algebra.
One of the things that made me successful in my design business was developing my ability with drawing. Too often there is too much emphasis on the person’s deficit and not enough emphasis on building on the strengths. People on the spectrum often have uneven skills and are good at one thing and bad at something else. I have observed that there are three basic types of specialized minds on the Autism/Asperger Spectrum. Some people are combinations of these three types.
A photo-realistic visual thinker is good at drawing and poor at algebra. Some visual thinkers are good at geometry and trigonometry. My parents worked hard to encourage and nurture my art ability. Talents are like fragile flowers, they must be nurtured and cultivated.
A music and math mind thinks in patterns instead of photo-realistic pictures, They often excel in engineering and computer programming. English may be their weak subject.
A verbal facts mind knows all the sports statistics and often likes history. These individuals are not visual thinkers. Some of these people make exc