116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — When prominent animal behavior scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin stands before a Coe College crowd today evening, she plans to pose a question meant to inspire individual, community and national reflection — and incite change.
“What would have happened to Einstein in today’s educational system, since he had no speech until he was 3?” Grandin told The Gazette on Wednesday.
“I’m afraid he would have been put in an autism class and maybe become addicted to video games. That’s what I’m afraid would happen to him today.”
Grandin, 74, was diagnosed with autism at age 5 or 6. She didn’t talk for years, having originally been checked for deafness and thought to have brain damage.
Despite her challenges and social anxieties — she was often teased and bullied for being “weird” — Grandin went on to a successful decadeslong career studying animal behavior at Colorado State University.
She’s also considered a trailblazer in autism advocacy, writing books and speaking nationally in hopes of de-stigmatizing the diagnoses and recalibrating societal thinking about the autism label.
“One of the things that I think is good is a lot of entertainers are coming out as being on the spectrum,” she said, noting Elon Musk recently revealed he has Asperger’s syndrome. “There's a lot of famous people that are probably on the spectrum.”
Grandin’s autism advocacy has become more relevant as autism diagnoses increase in the United States. But she suspects that’s due to awareness, and not increased prevalence, as more and more adults are receiving the diagnoses.
And while an autism diagnoses at a young age — in today’s society — can be a hindrance, pushing a child into a class that potentially holds them back, it can be a comfort for adults.
“With people that get diagnosed later in life, it can be really helpful,” Grandin said, noting they finally understand why relationships have been a struggle, for example. “That's very, very helpful.”
So while she supports autism diagnosis and assessment, she also wants society to think differently about what it means — starting with the reality that different minds have different skills, and the world needs all of them.
“The main thing I’m going to talk about is the different ways that people think,” she said. “I am a visual. I think completely in pictures.”
Others think mathematically. And still others think in words, or a combination.
“And you need to have all different kinds of thinkers,” she said.
That message is important not just for people with autism or for allies or family members of individuals with autism, said Bob Benson, assistant director of admissions at Coe and a former member of The Marquis Series sponsoring the lecture.
Grandin’s advocacy and revelations aiming to breakdown stigmas and stereotypes are relevant for everyone, he said.
“I think now, more than ever, we really do need that,” said Benson, who suggested Grandin’s visit a year after his young son was diagnosed with autism.
“The more that we can change things on the local level, and start small, that type of idea will spread and hopefully it can eventually change the world in a positive way,” he said.
While Grandin is at Coe, she plans to visit Professor Randy Christensen’s first-year seminar on “reading the human brain.” As part of his curriculum, the class is reading Grandin’s work.
“The overarching theme of the class is to help students understand their own biases, biology and thought processes, and allow them to gain the mental skills and habits to become successful college students and conscientious global citizens,” Christensen told The Gazette.
“One of the benefits of attending a small private college like Coe in a small city like Cedar Rapids is the chance for one-on-one interactions with your professors, guests (like Dr. Grandin), and the community,” he said, adding one of his students is volunteering at Balance Autism in Cedar Rapids.
“Dr. Grandin's visit is only going to strengthen those types of community connections and enrich our students' college experience as she answers their individual questions in a small classroom setting.”
What: Temple Grandin speaking on autism
When: 7 to 9 p.m. today, Sept. 23
Where: Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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