Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed at a young age with Asperger’s an autism spectrum disorder, has a lot of frank advice.

Through her books, inventions, teachings and a movie based on her life, Grandin, 67, has helped interpret the range of the autism spectrum so people understand it is not one size fits all—stretching from the socially awkward “geeks” who built Silicon Valley to those who are non-verbal and need other ways to coax out their strengths.

“Those on the autistic spectrum are certainly different, but not less,” says Grandin. “Einstein, Mozart and Tesla probably would have been diagnosed as autistic,” she adds.

Thinking in pictures

“The right mentor can make all the difference. If a kid likes cars, teach them math with cars. Use their fixation to motivate them.”

Although she didn’t speak until age four and struggled with subjects in school such as algebra, she was able to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology and both masters and doctoral degrees in animal science. Grandin has served as an esteemed professor at Colorado State University for decades. 

Grandin is a visual thinker, a trait that allowed her to conceptualize and design innovative livestock handling facilities that are currently in use throughout the Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and several countries throughout Europe. Her designs are also being utilized in almost half of all cattle processing facilities throughout the U.S.

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“My brain is like Google Images,” she says, adding that she was shocked when first learning everyone doesn’t think that way. “There are those who see patterns and they are good in math and get hired in Silicon Valley, or people who see words and can make good journalists.”

When seeking employment, those on the autism spectrum might do better to show portfolios of their work. “I wasn’t social, I had to sell my work, not myself, so I showed off my drawings,” she explains.

A passion for change

She’s direct in her advice to parents, calling for early intervention (as early as ages two or three) with a dose of old-fashioned manners and a nudge to learn work skills. “Parents get so worried about labels and deficits that they don’t build upon their kids’ strengths,” she says. “Too many kids haven’t learned skills. They don’t know how to shake hands or to say thank you.”

“There are those who see patterns and they are good in math and get hired in Silicon Valley, or people who see words and can make good journalists.” 

She is especially disappointed with schools where curriculums including music, arts, cooking and auto shop have been dropped. “Schools have taken out the skills that some kids [on the autism spectrum] like doing, like auto-mechanics and metal working. If I could change one thing it would be the educational system,” she adds. 

Sewing the seeds

Growing up, her family encouraged her to take on odd jobs ranging from cleaning horse stalls to sewing. “The right mentor can make all the difference," Grandin says, noting it was a science teacher who helped her unlock her potential. “If a kid likes cars, teach them math with cars,” she suggests, “use their fixation to motivate them.”

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Addressing the jump in autism diagnoses, Grandin feels that the new findings can be attributed to the increased amount of research conducted in recent years. Although, she says if a cure was discovered; she’d choose to be the way she is. "I like the really logical way that I think. If you totally got rid of autism, you'd have nobody to fix your computer in the future.”

As the go-to expert on autism, Grandin hopes to bring about change. “I am passionate about the things I can do to make this a better place for kids. I love when a kid says I went to college because of your book or movie. That’s real change in the real world.”