Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA
Keys to Successful Independent Living, Employment and a Good Social Life for Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s by Temple Grandin
The autism spectrum in 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 50’s, 60’s and 70’s taught them social rules that have helped them to fit in. There people did computer programming, design, engineering, equipment maintenance and accounting. During my many interview, I have met radio engineers, television camera operators and journalists for both print and radio who were Asperger’s. There 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 ruled 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 is very distressing to the individual. When I was a child the ringing school bell hurt my ears like a dentist drill. Scratchy cloths 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. On Most Sundays I behaved because my mother expected it.
- Learn Manners: 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 is to be neat. On som 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.
- Good Grooming: When I started living on my own I was a slob. My new boss at the feed lot 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 50’s 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: 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 on next door neighbor where there were almost no rules. I got inot 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 my 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 in 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 Excellent journalists.
- Expand Obsessive Interests Into Skills and Service Other Peoples Needs: In my case, ranchers want custom designed cattle handling facilities, but they are not interested in constant obsessive talking about them. If an individual likes airplanes, then use the motivation of that fixation to teach other skills. Learning reading and improving writing skills can be motivated by using books about airplanes. Airplanes can also be used to motivate learning math and science. Mr. Carlock, my science teacher channeled my obsessions into learning science. I started to study because I now had a goal of becoming a scientist. There were many interesting science projects in Mr. Carlock’s lab.
- Find Mentors: Some of the most successful people with Asperger’s Syndrome were apprenticed into the computer field by their parents. The parents taught their child computer programming at a young age. In my case, I did not become motivated to study until I was sixteen. Mr. Carlock, my science teacher, became interested in me because he recognized that I had abilities. Talent attracts mentors. One of the ways to find a mentor or a job is to make a portfolio of your work. I sold design jobs to major meat companies and ranchers by showing them portfolios of pictures and drawings of my designs. I sold my work not by personality. Even though I was weird, my work was respected.
- Develop Good Work Skills: This tip applies to individuals on both the high and low ends of the spectrum The most basic skill is getting to work on time. When I was little I was taught this skill because I was expected to be ready at 7:30 so I would not be late for school. When I was 13 I had a sewing job two afternoons a week. In college I interned during the summer at a research lab and at a school for children with autism. I learned valuable work skills. I also had to learn that much of the work was Interesting, but there was also boring work that had to be done. When I was starting my design business, it took three years to learn cattle handling and facility design. Even though I had the innate ability of visual thinking, I had to work hard to develop my ability into a design business.
Below are some tips to help you keep your job.
- Never tell other people that they are stupid even if they are stupid. Do not Tell dirty jokes or express your opinions on politics or religion at work.
- You have to do things that your boss tells you to do.
- Do not go over your boss’ head unless a major project is going to fail or Your job is at risk.
- Freelance work is often easier because office politics is avoided.
- Ask for directions in writing so you do not have to remember long strings of verbal information. A good way to do this is to tell your boss that e-mail is a preferred method of communication.
- Avoid jobs that require multi-tasking such as cashier in a busy restaurant or a receptionist that has to answer phones and work at a computer at the same time.
- Ask for instructions that are not vague. Some examples of vague instructions are: develop some new software or clean-up the store. Some examples of clear instructions that are easy to understand with a clear goal and endpoint are: “Revise our computer program for handling client contacts so it will be easier to read on a small mobile telephone screen” or “Restock the cosmetic section shelves and pick-up the trash in the parking lot”.
- Do not be a pest. When I was six, I was taught not to “wear out my welcome” by going over to a next door neighbor’s house too often. At work, do not send 10 e-mails or leave 10 telephone messages to the same person in one day. Do not pester your boss throughout the day. Schedule a time each day to receive directions.
- Socialize Through Shared Interests: When I was in high school teasing made my life miserable. My only refuge away from teasing was Mr. Carlock’s science lab and horseback riding. The students who were interested in these activities were not the ones who did the teasing. Adults on the spectrum who have successful marriages are often married to a spouse who has a shared interest. I strongly encourage both children and adults on the spectrum to engage in activities where they can share in interests with somebody else. Most of my friends are either interested in livestock, animal behavior, autism or design work. Kids that are getting teased in high school should join school clubs in computer, robotics, journalism, math, poetry, drama, music or some other interest.
- Try New Things: When I was 16, I was afraid to go on my first visit to my aunt’s ranch. Going to a new place scared me. Fortunately, my mother made me go and she told me that I could come home after two weeks if I did not like it. It turned out that I loved it and the experiences there got me headed into my career of design of cattle facilities. Today, I am thankful that I was urged to try new things. Parents and teachers working with individuals on the spectrum need to be gently insistent about experiencing new things. There must be no surprises. A sudden unexpected change in a schedule can cause panic. Plans for visiting the ranch were made many weeks in advance. I also had to be urged to do simpler new things such as shopping for building materials all by myself. I was good at remodeling the house, but I was afraid to go shopping at the lumber yard on my own. Mother made me go, and even though I was upset, I did it. Mother knew just how hard to push. Too many things thrown at me all at once would have caused panic, but I had to be exposed to new experiences in order to develop.
- Control Aggression and Anger: In my teenage years, I responded to teasing by throwing a book or with fists. I got kicked out of a large girl’s school for throwing a book at a girl who called me a “retard”. After that, I was sent to a special boarding school. I lost my horseback riding privilege after I got in a fight in the cafeteria. To regain horseback riding, I turned off aggression and switched to crying. Teasing still upset me but I responded with crying instead of fighting. This saved my career. My career would have been ruined if I had hit somebody or thrown something at work. Modulating emotion is usually impossible. Since emotion is sometimes extreme I had to know how to switch off aggression and replace it with crying. Often I cried at work, but I concealed it by finding a hidden spot in the cattle yard or basement.
- Some Teenagers and Adults will need medication, special diets, or some other When I hit puberty, the anxiety and panic attacks were tearing me aprt. Throughout my twenties, the panic attacks got worse and worse. A low dose of an anti- depressant stopped the constant anxiety. The big mistake made with anti-depressants is giving too high a dose. Often ½ to 1/3 of the starter dose is all that is needed. Autism and Aspergers is very variable. Some individuals absolutely do not need medications and there are others who respond well to the casein and gluten free diet. Other individuals will need Irlen lenses, prism glasses or auditory training to help reduce sensory problems. A laptop computer screen is often best for people with visual processing problems because it has less flicker. I have observed that some of the adults who are the most miserable and cannot keep a jog have either very severe sensory over-sensitivities or constant anxiety. In many cases no treatment is being done to alleviate these problems. I have observed several great successes in reducing very severe sensory over-sensititivity problems. A combination of a special diet, a low dose of conventional medication and Irlen lenses enabled these people to tolerate a normal office. Previously, a normal office environment with florescent lights caused sensory overload. Another thing that really helped me was lots of exercise. Exercise calmed me down
and helped me sleep.
- Remember, the autism/Asperger continuum is very variable. One person will have mild sensory problems and another will have severe sensory over-sensititivity. A treatment that works for one person may not work for another.
- Limit Television Watching, Idle Web-Surfing and Video Games: I was allowed to watch one hour of television a day. If computers had been available in the 50’s, playing video games would have been limited to one hour a day. These activities are highly addictive and the children and adults need to be doing activities which can lead to a career. Learning how to PROGRAM a video game should be encouraged, but playing them all day should be stopped. People on the spectrum have the intense concentration required to get really good at tasks that can turn into careers. Spending hours a day writing beautiful computer code, music or creating art work should be encouraged. Some of the most successful people on the spectrum are obsessed with their careers and they lead a happy productive life. Teachers and parents need to train the individual that he/she should get good at tasks that others want and appreciate. They will get self esteem by being rewarded and recognized for their abilities. They can write code that will be successful in the marketplace or create art that other people will buy. It makes me happy when other people like my work. My parents actively developed my interest in drawing and art. When I painted really good painting of a beach, my mother had it put in a professional frame with real glass. This made me really proud. A professional frame communicated to me that the picture was professional quality and that motivated me. Pictures of lower quality were put on the refrigerator door.
NEVER, NEVER punish a child by taking away career related activities. When I was naughty, television was taken away for one night. Talents have to be nurtured. I have seen drawing skills crushed and never developed because art supplies were taken away. Computer use for video game playing can be taken away but NEVER take away computer use for career related activities such as learning programming or journalism
- Social Relatedness Versus Learning Social Skills: Individuals on the spectrum can learn many complex social rules and become really good at learning how to act on the stage of daily life. However, they may never be really emotionally related. Brain scans done on me and several other people on the spectrum by Nancy Minshew indicate that things are usually more interesting than people. We need people in this world who are interested in things. Back in the days of the caveman, the really social people did not make the first stone spear. All the electronic gadgets such as mobile telephones are made by people who have mild to moderate Asperger traits. I have read profiles of many leaders in high tech fields in the business magazines, and many Asperger traits are described. Several books are available which profile famous scientists, musicians, and artists who were either Aspergers or high-functioning autism. Einstein would have been diagnosed with autism if he had been born more recently. He had no speech until age 3. Simon Baren Cohen has done much work on the link between autism traits and creativity and genius. The happiest people on the spectrum socialize with others who have some shared interests.