Temple Grandin is often called the most successful adult with autism in the world. On Wednesday night, April 10, Grandin told a standing-room-only crowd in the Brown Ballroom the key to her success: Not letting her disability define her.
“I am autistic. It’s who I am. But it’s secondary to the livestock industry,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to change! I like the logical way I think. But I see too many kids today becoming their label. I think work is way more constructive.”
Her talk, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds,” was the keynote for Science and Technology Week 2019 organized by the College of Applied Science and Technology. Grandin spoke about the need for thought processes such as hers to be accepted and utilized in modern society.
In Grandin’s case, her highly visual way of thinking made her uniquely suited for designing cattle-handling facilities. Unlike her peers, she could recognize distractions that made cattle more fearful during processing, such as shadows, hanging chains, and slippery floors. Half of the cattle in North America are now processed in systems she designed.
Grandin described getting into this work at a young age. She expressed concerns about trade and arts programs being cut from schools, which she fears will make it more difficult for autistic students to find doorways of their own.
“When I was in school a lot of kids bullied and teased me,” she said. “One of the only places I wasn’t bullied was with friends with shared interests. That is something that has saved a whole lot of kids.”
She also described her writings as another pathway into her role as an autism advocate. Her 1986 book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, helped dispel years of public stigma about the disorder, which was thought of as an overwhelming obstacle to a productive life. Those writings led to her being recognized as one of the most influential people in the world in the 2010 TIME 100 and the subject of the movie Temple Grandin, which won Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
Due to Grandin’s fame, the event drew people from many different backgrounds. Over 1,200 people attended and even more had to be turned away due to the Brown Ballroom reaching its capacity. At the end of her talk, she took questions from agriculture and special education students, as well as individuals with autism and their parents.
“It was a very powerful speech,” said Montana Schlesinger, an Illinois State agriculture major. “Not only was it about the agriculture stuff we hear all the time, but also the perspectives of someone going out in the world with a disability and how trades can help them find jobs.”
Illinois State alumnus John Bierbaum ’05, M.S. ’09, teaches psychology at Normal West High School and often uses Grandin’s work to help students understand autism and the power labeling someone can have on their lives. Bierbaum said her talk lived up to his high expectations.
“Temple Grandin is true to form,” he said. “Her presentation speaks to everybody. She really breaks through all of the different barriers and she is such a great person to challenge all of the stereotypes about autism and what autism is.”