The Vocal Point: Media darling's second act plays to packed house

For years, those of us who toiled in the trenches of food-industry journalism watched the remarkable rise of Temple Grandin and her unique engineering concepts for humane livestock handling.
calendar icon 10 November 2006
clock icon 5 minute read

Once dismissed as an eccentric (at best), then later accepted as an eccentric with some intriguing ideas for handling and stunning livestock and much later accorded all kinds of honors as a revolutionary thinker (including Meatingplace's Knowlton Award), Grandin has emerged as a full-fledged celebrity in the past few years.
Wikipedia describes her as "arguably the most accomplished and well-known adult with high functioning autism in the world."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in awarding her an inventor's honor, labeled her "our nation's most expert designer of humane facilities for livestock animals," and noted that she has the unique ability to "design systems that use behavioral principles, instead of brute force or fear, to handle livestock."
The Western-shirt-and-boots attire she wore to every trade show she attended over the years, coupled with her ultra-focused mission to market her livestock handling designs, were merely the outward signature of someone who didn't break but certainly helped re-invent the mold of society's expectations of the limits on autistic people.
A celebrity sighting
All of that left me totally unprepared for the impact of an appearance by Grandin last week at Edmonds Community College, a sprawling suburban campus about 30 miles north of Seattle. As I approached the normally empty parking lot around 7 pm, it had the bustle and energy of a concert venue, or maybe a big sporting event. Empty spots were scarce, cars were cruising the aisles and swarms of people were wandering vaguely in groups toward the nearest cluster of buildings, with others stopping to scan a big outdoor map to locate the lecture hall.
The only thing missing was a collection of tables with earnest young salespeople pushing t-shirts, CDs and posters.
Inside, more than 3,000 people had jammed into an auditorium designed for half as many, and that didn't count the hundreds more who were crowding the entranceways, flowing down the stairs, through the lobby, out the doors and (literally) around the building.
Let me tell you, I didn't make a lot of friends as I pushed my way through the entire crowd all the way to a spot about 10 feet from the podium.
After all, I'm a journalist.
I was curious to see how the college crowd would react to Grandin's slaughterhouse stories, until I realized that three-quarters of the audience were middle-aged adults, many the parents or caregivers for autistic children, judging from the Q&A that followed her speech. The questions, however, were preceded by a standing ovation that was heartfelt and well-earned.
That's because her presentation had little to do with livestock and much more to do with her passionate commitment to better understanding, developmental training and treatment of autistic people. The cause has turned her into a bona fide celebrity, thanks to her high profile among autism researchers and visibility among advocates and reporters chronicling the growing public awareness of the disease and the medical and educational communities' efforts to deal with the more than 300,000 U.S. children officially diagnosed as autistic.
While most industry people acknowledge Grandin's passion for humane animal handling, her intensity is exponentially focused on a fostering more humane handling — if you will — for people with symptoms of what psychologists now label Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
As Grandin noted, researchers now understand that autism occurs on a continuum, from the profound disorders that leave people unable to function, to milder forms, such as Asberger Syndrome, which is marked by high intelligence but underdeveloped social awareness.
In fact, Grandin drew big laughs when she observed that, "If there weren't for all those people with Asberger's out there, we wouldn't have any computers or software or video games."
Along with a remarkably concise explanation of why many of the behavioral symptoms of autism occur (due mainly to hypersensitivity to light, sounds and the "normal" activities we take for granted), Grandin made a profound statement that certainly applies to more than the treatment of autism:
"Too often, even the best treatment available for autistic people focuses on trying to improve their weaknesses, instead of focusing on building their strengths," she said. "We bang away trying to overcome somebody's difficulties when they might have fantastic strengths that could be applied to a constructive purpose."
Indeed, whether the autistic person is visually oriented, able to observe (and retain) incredible detail, a "pattern thinker," common to many musicians, or one who fixates on patterns, like all those aforementioned computer geeks, ASDs often possess remarkable abilities. The challenge is that most lower functioning autistics lack the ability to cognitively integrate all the sensory input to which they're exposed. As Grandin explained it, they tend to focus intensely on details and miss the big picture.
But the biggest impact of her appearance came not from her presentation, but from the heart-wrenching pleas from audience members, literally begging her to help them better understand the world into which their children often withdrew.
While full of helpful suggestions (replace fluorescent lighting that causes a distracting flickering, avoid noisy, congested places and experimenting with special allergen-free diets), Grandin acknowledged that no definitive treatment exists. No medical intervention can yet "cure" autism.
But that doesn't diminish her passion for trying to help.
"It took me many years to learn how to behave in the world and how to perform all the social interactions most people take for granted," she said. "Unfortunately, people used to consider autistic children to be retarded, especially when they can't communicate very well. But I believe that with training, and patience, they can accomplish much more than we might assume."
In many ways, that applies to all of us, doesn't it?
And thanks in part to Grandin's efforts, the prejudice that often accompanies people's perceptions of autism is rapidly going the way of the electric cattle prod.
Someday, even industry people might agree that her contributions to improving humane conditions for people surpass that which she's already accomplished for animals.
Dan Murphy, former editor of MMT magazine, is Communications Integrator + Principal at Seattle-based Outsource Marketing and author of the forthcoming book, "Meat of the Matter."

Source: Meating Place

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