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Argus Leader: Autism View — Fear is the Enemy

Noted speaker who has disorder shares her insight at conference

by Argus Leader's Jon Walker

Autism traps a child inside a maze of thoughts and fears, one who's been inside the trap told educators Friday in Sioux Falls.

"Fear is the main emotion in autism," Temple Grandin told a conference audience at Augustana College.

Grandin, 61, an author and associate professor at Colorado State University, explained her own difficulties with autism since childhood as she spoke to 370 people.

Autism is a disorder that displays itself in difficulties in seeing, hearing, repetitive behavior or relating to others. An autistic person can be brilliant in science, art, music and other disciplines, and that's an opening to help.

"The autistic mind is into detail. Build an area of strength," she said.

But mundane matters can be overwhelming. She told her listeners that if someone released several cobras inside the auditorium, they'd all be constantly looking around for snakes as she spoke. Running water, loud noises and scratchy clothing all can set off similar alarm bells for the autistic.

Movie upcoming

Grandin will be the subject of an HBO movie next year. Jeff Iverson, director of alternative education for Andes Central School District, said he wanted to hear her because "autism is more prevalent and is being diagnosed more" in children. "It's not often we get to listen to someone with the disability who is as articulate as she is," said Melanie Paulson, a teacher from Rapid City.

Paulson appreciated Grandin comparing the brain to a map of U.S. airline routes. The autistic mind lacks many lines of communication in the network, a deficiency that plays out in daily interaction. "People with autism don't get drawn into relationships," Paulson said.

Grandin thinks the autistic can compensate, in part. "Social skills can be taught, but social-emotion relatedness may remain absent or weak," she said.

Thinking visually

Grandin described herself as a visual thinker and a "goofball student" in school until a science teacher helped her learn to study. She regrets that algebra was required before higher math and continues to argue with educators who are fixed on that curriculum sequence.

"I absolutely cannot do algebra, was never allowed to try geometry and trigonometry. For certain kinds of minds, algebra is not the prerequisite," she said. The autistic, she said, can be "advanced in one subject, special education in another subject."

For her, vision outweighs all else. She was drilled on the Lord's Prayer as a child but learned none of it except the line "power and glory," because she had an image in her mind of power lines and a rainbow. "No picture, no thought," she said.

All manner of implied communications go unnoticed, she said. She learned through rote memory that the rhetorical "just a minute" doesn't mean a literal 60 seconds. But other nuances of eye contact escaped her. "I didn't know people had all these signals until I read it in a book when I was 50 years old."

School had its unpleasant side. Students called her "Tape Recorder" because she repeated herself. School also exposed her anger. "I got kicked out of school for throwing a book at a girl who teased me. I couldn't control the emotion, so I switched emotions," she said.

Time for tears

It was not a happy switch. She went from anger to tears. "I went off and cried," she said in a later interview. She still goes off to cry instead of expressing anger "a couple times a year," she said.

But school helped. She learned valuable work skills and did building projects that others appreciated. In that setting, she said, a teacher has power to draw out the best in a child.

"A good teacher is gently insistent," she said.

Reach reporter Jon Walker at 605.331.2206 or 800.530.6397.
Photo by Emily Spartz / Argus Leader.