Healthy Kids     K-12    

Seeing into the autistic brain

An evening with Temple Grandin

Recently, I unexpectedly met up with some old friends I have not seen in long while. We were all anxious to arrive at the Paramount Theatre in Middletown to listen to Dr. Temple Grandin speak about her new book, “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across The Spectrum.” The evening was made possible by The Autism Society of The Hudson Valley and CUNY Orange.

Who is Dr. Temple Grandin? 

For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Grandin, she is one of the most knowledgeable and memorable people living with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. 

Despite her many difficulties, she has been able to pursue an education and a career. She attributes her success to the persistence of her mother and the mentors who have coached her. 

Over the years she has written several books and has traveled around the country educating her audience about her life as a person with high-functioning autism. 

And she certainly has made an impact. I myself have seen her in person twice since my son was first diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) some 14 years ago. 

The Talk 

About two hours before Grandin’s presentation, I got a text from a friend that people were already lining up outside the theatre. I dropped everything at home and rushed to get to Middletown. To my surprise, I still had to park on what seemed the other side of the moon and walk quite a few desolate and dark blocks to arrive at the theatre, just in time to find the last spot in this lot that holds approximately 1,100 people.

For the record, over the years I have attended various worthwhile performances at the Paramount Theatre and have never seen the place filled to capacity.

Both parents and educators traveled from all over the region for inspiration. Also in attendance were individuals of various ages living with ASD.

Dr. Grandin walked onto the stage to a thunderous applause, as if she was a famous rock star. She spoke before a very enthusiastic crowd for 1.5 hours. She allowed for a question and answer session, and there was an opportunity for book signing afterwards. 

One of the highlights of her presentation was the concept that different kinds of minds contribute to society. Dr. Grandin suggests there is a huge spectrum of autism diagnoses, but regardless of the labels, which are not precise, we need to place more emphasis on the strengths and talents a person with autism may possess than the label itself.

“We are too hung up on labels,” she says. “We concentrate too much on someone’s deficits and need to refocus and work with individual strengths.”

She stresses the importance of early intervention programs for younger children and the need for older children to be redirected, challenged and motivated.

“Go with what you’re good at,” she advised the crowd. “Don’t be afraid to go on a job interview show to people your work.”

The Inspiration

Heather Rajnert is a long-time autism parent friend of mine, had this to say: “You know I took my entire family — Peter (aged 19), Sean (aged 15) and Matt (aged 13). They are all on the spectrum. And my Adeline (11) came as well. All the boys took away the exact same thought I did: It's important to encourage passions and create portfolios of work. Even through struggles, anything is possible with perseverance, the right training, hard work and hope.”

Alison Bimbo, a mother from Middletown, had this to say: “My son is Alex and he is 8 years old. We live in Middletown. I experienced a awesome feeling listening to Temple Grandin. Her stance on enhancing kids’ passions and skills is right on. She is a very positive inspiration for a mom like me. She gives me hope Alex can one day change the world as she did.” 

Dr. Grandin Speaks With Me 

After the lecture and book signing were over, I approached Dr. Grandin with my book in hand, hoping she would give me a moment of her time for this article. 

I spent the weekend before devouring her latest work and there was so much I wanted to learn from that fantastic autistic brain of hers. I showed her a picture of my now 15-year-old boy and asked her what advice she might give a parent like me — someone with a teenager on the lower functioning end of the spectrum, with seemingly unreachable talents and communication skills.

“Put him to work, keep trying … and never give up,” she said as we took a quick picture and she autographed the book for my son. 

I thanked her and as I turned away she said, “Different kinds of minds exist.” 

Everyone had long since gone as I walked the long, cold and lonely way back to my car. There was so much to think about and many thoughts raced through my mind.

Then it hit me fiercely like the biting cold we’ve had this winter — life offers an enormous opportunity for growth and maturity for each of us.

Several years ago, when I heard Grandin speak as an adult with ASD, she needed frequent breaks and an intermission. Fast forward to the Paramount Theater. Grandin was witty, knowledgeable and passionate. This time she spoke non-stop for 1.5 hours. She was engaging and compassionate. There were questions and answers which she handled gracefully. What an unimaginable unexpected inspiration to us all.   

Never give up.