Temple Grandin: 'We need different kinds of minds working together'

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Fifth annual STEM Showcase draws 350 students

Fifth annual STEM showcase

More than 1,100 students have participated in the STEM Career Showcase over the past five years. Photo by Cassondra Wilson, SAS Photography

Temple Grandin, a prominent author and speaker on autism and animal behavior, and professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, was shocked this past August to see how many students on her college campus seemed oblivious to the solar eclipse – despite efforts to get them interested, including handing out more than 30,000 pairs of glasses.

Grandin, on the other hand, was fascinated. “There were these strange shadows created on the sidewalk of the eclipse through the trees. I didn’t know that would happen, but I watched a bunch of students walk right over these shadows and not even see them.”

Grandin has a visual-thinking, “bottom-up” mind – something she explained as the keynote speaker at the fifth annual STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities, held Nov. 14 at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC.

This year’s eclipse wasn’t a first for Grandin. She experienced one on the job as a 16-year-old roofer. “Roofing at 16 is probably illegal now, but it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot,” she said, recalling the fun of shingle-throwing contests as well.

Working or volunteering outside the home – though not necessarily as a roofer – is one of Grandin’s non-negotiables when it comes to those on the autism scale.

She began working as early as eight, walking dogs for other families to learn responsibility and develop a desire to earn money. It’s an approach and a mindset she learned from her mother, who “stretched her without throwing her in the deep end of the pool.”

Other common denominators of success Grandin recommends:

  • Exposure to career interests with hands-on projects (museum visits).
  • Lots of books.
  • An education that is not overspecialized.
  • Mentors to help inspire and start a career path.
  • Career entry with internships.

As a visual thinker, she also believes in the importance of art, music and craft hobbies, noting that Nobel Peace prize winners have been 50 percent more likely to have an arts-and-crafts hobby compared with other scientists.

“[Artificial Intelligence] is not going to be doing live theater,” she said.

She told students that Albert Einstein didn’t speak until age three but played the violin, and that calligraphy was a hobby of inventor Steve Jobs. Grandin believes both types of minds were required to make the Apple iPhone a success: a visual thinker like Jobs for beautiful design, and the mathematical mind to make it function.

Her own art ability was nurtured as a child, learning to make kites and helicopters with cardboard and paper. That hobby for designing models became a foundation she would build upon throughout her career. “You mathematicians need us!” she said.

Grandin is best known for her work as a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, success she credits to her unique ability to see simple things others miss: a cow’s preference for wide and curved pathways over narrow lanes, the reflection from piece of metal, a stray paper towel, a chain hanging down.

“Why after 40 years do I still have to keep talking about chains hanging down? Because people aren’t removing them,” she said. Fan blades that catch the breeze and turn ever so slowly can bring an entire herd to a standstill. “The animal will show you what’s troubling him. He’ll look right at it.”

But what’s obvious to Grandin isn’t always apparent to those in the business. “I guess I have job security,” she said. Nearly half the cattle in North America are now handled in equipment she designed.

Students were intrigued by her story of a big, shiny, black helicopter landing in a field next to a beef plant a few years ago, casting a disturbing reflection through small holes in the wood of the chute and preventing the cattle from moving through the chute. Grandin’s fix was surprisingly simple. “Six pieces of duct tape fixed it,” she said. “Then I got on that big black helicopter and rode away!”

Grandin believes we’re overthinking more than just chute fixes. She believes we often overthink our approach to those on the autism spectrum. “The real world doesn’t always come out perfectly. Kids need to know that. We’re overprotecting. We’re over-labeling. Kids are more likely to allow themselves to be defined by a label,” she said.

One of the most significant changes she recommends: a reduction of video and screen time. “Kids get interested in stuff they get exposed to,” Grandin said. “There’s a big world out there.”

Setting the example

This year’s STEM Career Showcase, sponsored by SAS, JMP and other organizations, brought more than 350 students in grades 6-12, chaperones and guests together for Grandin’s keynote. The event also introduced them to local role models who shared insights on their careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Students heard from four panelists and moderator Ed Summers, SAS Distinguished Technical Leader:

  • Amy Bower, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
  • Mike Claes, Cisco.
  • Patrick Williams, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
  • Ryan Benson, Centers for Disease Control.

“I was given a computer in the first grade, and I figured out how to use it pretty quickly,” said Benson. “By fourth grade, I was teaching the teacher assistant. By eighth grade we were already talking about jobs. I found out I could get paid for this, and here I am!”

Bower said frequent visits to the Boston Museum of Science inspired her to become an oceanographer. “Keep exploring the world around you, everything that looks even a tad interesting,” she said.

Getting down to business

Fifth annual STEM showcase

Back at SAS, Grandin tells business leaders and diversity and inclusion specialists that it's important to be very clear about what autistic employees should do. Photo by Steve Muir, SAS Photography

Students weren’t the only ones who benefitted from Grandin’s visit. Later in the day, she met with area business leaders from SAS, Red Hat, Northwestern Mutual, Blue Cross Blue Shield and others to talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

From the hiring process to bringing out the best in current employees, Grandin had plenty to share about neurodiversity.

“We need different kinds of minds working together,” she said. But she readily admitted that it’s hard for those on the autism spectrum to land the positions they’re ideal for, because they can’t make it through the hiring process. Grandin recommended employers invite these candidates to show them their work portfolio early in the process.

As for the accommodations employers and managers must make to provide the right environment for these workers, Grandin encouraged business leaders to focus on the aspects that truly add to or distract from a successful outcome.

“These people tend to be very project-loyal. Every role on the team needs to be very well defined. Clear goals and guidelines are needed,” she said. “But who cares if someone looks at the floor the whole time during meetings? It doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with the outcome. The real question is: Is he getting his work done?”

If engagement is necessary to the outcome, she suggests calling on the individual directly and asking a specific question. “Otherwise, tell team members who are bothered that he won’t make eye contact that he likes to look at the floor and he’s one of our best programmers,” Grandin said. “He’s not harming anything. Maybe that’s his way of taking it all in.”

‘Are you seeing progress?’

The message didn’t veer much when Grandin met with a group of SAS employees – parents whose children are on the autism spectrum. But her level of intimacy increased as they shared unique challenges and a desire to do the right thing.

Grandin continued to encourage work and volunteerism, suggesting parents help “short-circuit” the interview process by using their connections. She also stressed the importance of helping them with a portfolio of work (code or writing samples, photographs of landscaping work, references from previous pet sitting jobs). Even young children, she said, can hand out bulletins in a place of worship or greet people as they enter.

“Give children choices on what they would like to do, but make those choices very specific tasks, on a schedule, outside the home,” she said.

She also talked to parents about their approach to academics, which she believes should focus on serving a goal, not being the goal. “Education is a pathway to a job,” she said. “We are doing a better job with little kids [on the autism spectrum]but are falling down on getting these people into employment.” Good grades and degrees are not the goal, she said; a sustainable job is.

With so many questions and different options to consider, Grandin advised not overthinking it. “Are you seeing progress in your child? If you are, that’s good.”

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About Author

Becky Graebe

Director, Communications

In addition to traditional employee communication efforts at SAS, Becky Graebe oversees an award-winning global intranet and a variety of enterprise social media channels. Her goal is to create a working environment where SAS employees around the world feel connected and inspired to share fresh ideas, solutions and expertise with colleagues and customers.

Having studied at Southern Methodist University and earned her degree from Stetson University, she now serves on the Employee Communications Section board for the National Public Relations Society of America, is an active member of Triangle Women in Communications, and volunteers with Citizen Schools and the Wake County Support Circle Program.

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