Temple Grandin Thinks This is the Best Way to Help Students with Autism

“Different Kinds of Minds Contribute to Society”

Last night, we had the pleasure of listening to Temple Grandin’s “Different Kinds of Minds Contribute to Society” presentation in Santa Barbara, California as part of UCSB’s Arts and Lectures series. A staunch advocate of neurodiversity, Grandin spoke about her experiences with autism and the problems she has observed in the autistic community.

If you’re unfamiliar with Temple Grandin, now is a perfect time to learn about her and her accomplishments. Grandin was nonverbal until age 3. The only formal diagnosis she received as a child was “brain damage” at the age of 2. In 1950, she was diagnosed with autism and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. However, her mother nurtured her interests, and when Grandin was in high school, she found a mentor who recognized her abilities. Grandin’s talents and exceptional visual memory were put to use on her aunt’s farm where she began her journey as one of the most prolific minds to contribute to the livestock industry.

Temple Grandin is now a prominent author and public speaker, a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” and is credited with revolutionizing the livestock industry through her studies on animal behavior. She was also the subject of the award-winning film Temple Grandin.

Grandin argues that she wouldn’t have been able to accomplish her goals without work skills, and without being exposed to work as a young student. Work experience, she argues, is the difference between a kid with autism becoming addicted to video games and a kid with autism becoming a video game developer.

While she understands autism exists as a spectrum, and functioning levels/deficit levels can vary greatly case-by-case, Grandin argues that there are verbal, autistic students that just aren’t being pushed to their potential.

And the solution? Teach them how to work. Hone their skills and interests into a trade.

Hear it from Grandin herself in her TedTalk “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds:”

“We’ve got to think about all these different kinds of minds, and we’ve got to absolutely work with these kind of minds, because we absolutely are going to need these kind of people in the future. And let’s talk about jobs. OK, my science teacher got me studying because I was a goofball that didn’t want to study. But you know what? I was getting work experience. I’m seeing too many of these smart kids who haven’t learned basic things, like how to be on time. I was taught that when I was eight years old. And when I was 13, I had a job at a dressmaker’s shop sewing clothes. I did internships in college, I was building things, and I also had to learn how to do assignments.

You know, all I wanted to do was draw pictures of horses when I was little. My mother said, “Well let’s do a picture of something else.” They’ve got to learn how to do something else. Let’s say the kid is fixated on Legos. Let’s get him working on building different things. The thing about the autistic mind is it tends to be fixated. Like if a kid loves racecars, let’s use racecars for math. Let’s figure out how long it takes a racecar to go a certain distance. In other words, use that fixation in order to motivate that kid, that’s one of the things we need to do.”

You may know an autistic student or have a child on the spectrum who has a special interest or fixation that manifests in childhood or later. It’s paired with a fascinating ability to absorb nearly everything there is to know about a subject. Grandin believes that instead of socially scolding these fixations as “weird” or “obsessive,” society would benefit from helping the student on the spectrum channel that interest into a career path.

In order to make this work, Grandin suggests helping your child/student find resources, clubs, communities, forums, and organizations so they can connect with others about the special interest they have, practice job skills, and develop work experience. This connection, notes Grandin, works to hone their social skills as well because these students are working with mentors and peers in a safe space, where they’re all interested in the same “weird” stuff.

“But then you get the smart, geeky kids that have a touch of autism, and that’s where you’ve got to get them turned on with doing interesting things. I got social interaction through shared interest. I rode horses with other kids, I made model rockets with other kids, did electronics lab with other kids, and in the ’60s, it was gluing mirrors onto a rubber membrane on a speaker to make a light show. That was like, we considered that super cool.

Another thing that can be very, very, very successful is there is a lot of people that may have retired from working in the software industry, and they can teach your kid. And it doesn’t matter if what they teach them is old, because what you’re doing is you’re lighting the spark. You’re getting that kid turned on. And you get him turned on, then he’ll learn all the new stuff. Mentors are just essential. I cannot emphasize enough what my science teacher did for me. And we’ve got to mentor them, hire them.”

Introducing your students/children to work skills practice early on—say, in middle school—is crucial to their development, and this is true for neurotypical children as well as children with special needs. We believe that providing students on the autism spectrum and other students with special needs with a solid foundation of work skills knowledge is the best way to help students with autism succeed and lead fulfilling lives. We also believe it’s one of the best ways to ensure support for your student/child after they transition out of high school, and, subsequently “fall off the services cliff.

To view our whole library of work skills materials and fun film curriculum, visit our School to Work section of the site. If you’d like to get some more information about our work skills programs & if they’re suitable for your students, feel free to email us at

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