PORTLAND - One of the world’s best-known autistic adults shared her fascinating life story and suggestions for improving the lives of those diagnosed with autism before a sellout crowd Sunday.
Autism advocate Temple Grandin received a standing ovation from the audience, which included parents of autistic children, therapists, teachers and people who have read her books or seen the movie based on her life.
Grandin, 64, is an animal science professor at Colorado State University. She earned national recognition for designing humane cattle chutes that are now being used by stockyards throughout the United States.
Grandin’s life and achievements were the focus of a 2010 HBO movie, “Temple Grandin.” Actress Claire Danes portrayed Grandin in the film, which won seven Emmys.
“Half of the Silicon Valley executives have some degree of autism,” Grandin proclaimed in an interview before her presentation Sunday. “(The autism range of disorders) is a very broad spectrum.”
Grandin’s appearance on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine was sponsored by Northeast Hearing and Speech of Portland.
Officials with Northeast said it took nearly two years to convince Grandin to come to Maine. On Sunday morning, she spoke to members of the Maine Grass Farmers Network at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.
Her visit came amid renewed attention to autism. A recent federal report indicated that autism disorders now affect 1 in 88 children in the United States, a number far greater than researchers previously thought.
Grandin said the spotlight on autism has led to better detection, but some higher-functioning children with the disorder are being held back by the diagnosis.
She said she was unable to speak until she was 4 years old, but now lectures to audiences around the world.
Grandin, who still consults on and designs livestock-handling facilities, has also written several books, including “Animals Make Us Human” and “Thinking in Pictures,” which she sold and autographed Sunday.
Grandin’s presentation was titled “Autism and My Sensory-Based World.” She said early intervention is key to helping young children who have been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.
“Just do things with them, engage them, because doing nothing is the worst thing you can do,” she said.
Grandin talked about different types of sensory-processing disorders that fall on the autism spectrum. The broad range can make it difficult for parents, educators and therapists to interact with autistic children or adults.
Aspergers syndrome and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) are just a couple of the disorders on the spectrum.
“PDD-NOS just means they (a doctor or clinician) don’t know what a person has. The problem is, where do the geeks and nerds end and the autism begins?” Grandin said.
Grandin said there are techniques for lessening some challenges, such as having an autistic person sit and balance himself on a therapy ball, encouraging a nonverbal person to use a tablet – such as an iPad — to communicate, or avoiding fluorescent lighting, which can trigger a negative reaction.
“I’m a totally visual thinker,” Grandin told the audience. “I think in pictures. I don’t think in generalities.”
Grandin’s thought process allowed her to sketch, in great detail, the humane cattle chutes that were featured in the HBO film. The chutes were designed to eliminate the cattle’s fear of entering them.
“I could actually test-run the equipment in my mind. I just thought everyone could do that,” she said.
Grandin worries that not enough is being done to integrate autistic individuals, many of whom are nonverbal, into society.
More could be done, for example, to teach a person how to shake hands, establish eye contact when speaking with another person, or things as simple as how to order food in a restaurant.
Grandin believes that autistic people can continue to learn throughout their lifetime. And they can enter the work force and be successful, she said.
Some of the best jobs for an autistic person include graphic arts, architect, veterinary technician, music teacher, journalist, copy editor, speech therapist, lawn or garden work, factory assembly or librarian.
Grandin said Albert Einstein had many autistic traits.
“What happened to the Albert Einstein in your school system?” she asked. “In many school systems today, he would be labeled autistic. The problem we’re facing in autism is that we’ve got such a broad spectrum.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: