Born in 1949, Temple Grandin was first diagnosed with brain damage at the age of three and then, at the age of five, labeled Autistic. Today Temple Grandin, self-labeled as a recovered autistic, is a well-respected doctor in animal science, a professor at Colorado State University, a bestselling author, an autism activist, and a leading consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. While it is easily argued that Temple Grandin’s life does not represent the norm for most children with autism, her autobiography, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (1986) offers a powerful picture of the influences and experiences that steered Temple through her journey ’emerging’ from autism.
Considering Temple’s challenging behaviors as a toddler and the norms for the time, it would not have been surprising if Temple’s mother had followed the advice of the doctors and placed Temple into an institution at the age of three or kept her isolated at home. Instead, her mother provided therapy and activities that kept Temple “from tuning out and failing to develop” (p. 20). At the age of three, Temple began regular therapy with a speech teacher who “helped her hear the consonants by stretching out and enunciating the consonants” (p. 17). Although the reader only has a glimpse of the challenge it must have been, it is clear that Temple was included in the daily and special activities of her family’s life with little allowances made for her atypical behavior: “Being a child of the 1950’s was an advantage because of structured Miss Manners meals and lots of turn-taking games kept me tuned in. The family meals and games also taught essential social skills” (p. 20).
As Temple grew older, her mother continued to strive for Temple to have a normal life, enrolling her in kindergarten at the age of five, while also taking a proactive role in preventing problems before they happened. “The school I attended was a small private school for normal children. Mother had discussed my problems extensively with the teachers. On the first day of school I was kept home so that the teachers could explain to the other children that I was different” (p. 32). Temple’s mother was consistently an advocate for her; she did not shy away from providing Temple with experiences that would be challenging for Temple, for herself or for others. The summer after third grade, Temple went to sleep away camp. Even though this experience could be labeled a failure, Temple’s mother did not place the blame on Temple; she believed that the poor outcomes were the result of the adults handling the situation ineffectually. “When Temple is in secure surroundings where she feels love above all, and appreciation, her compulsive behavior dwindles” (p. 52). “The second problem was the camp personnel’s lack of insight” (p.55).
After graduating from her small elementary school, at the advice of her teachers and therapists, Temple was enrolled in a large private school. When it became clear that this setting was not appropriate for Temple, her mother, once again did not blame Temple. “I explained and she listened carefully. As usual, she stood up for me” (p. 68). Temple’s mother then took considerable time (and, in likelihood, spent considerable amount of money) to find a school that would be the best match for Temple. With Temple’s input, Temple’s mother selected the Mountain Country School in Vermont. “The Mountain Country School was started for gifted children like you” (p. 70). The Mountain Country School, as described by Temple, appeared to be an ideal school for children with high-functioning autism even by today’s understanding and standards. The basic philosophy of the school rested upon the principle of permitting students an opportunity to achieve what they could in specific areas, while at the same time both academic and personal allowances were made for areas of emotional handicaps (p. 72). There were four essential areas for both the school and the individual: an understanding of an individual’s personal problems and what to do to correct them; mastery of study skills; developing the social skills essential to everyday association; and the competition of everyday living either in or out of school (p. 72).
Throughout Temple’s ’emergence from autism’, Temple’s mother focused on Temple’s strengths and affirmed Temple’s differences and way of looking at the world. In letters to Temple, Mrs. Grandin wrote, “Be proud you are different. All bright people who have contributed to life have been different and found the path of life lonely. While the joiners and social butterflies flutter about, Temple, you’ll get real things done (p. 124). “You need symbols. You live them. Like a work of art they are a physical expression of what you feel” (p. 125). “Wanting to grow really loves yourself, loving the best part of yourself” (p.148).
Temple’s mother was not her only champion. While at the Mountain Country School, a teacher, Mr. Carlock emerged as an influential mentor for Temple. Like Temple’s mother, Mr. Carlock “didn’t see any labels, just the underlying talents” (p.90). “He didn’t try to draw Temple into his world but came instead into her world” (p. 90). Through Mr. Carlock, Temple learnt many social skills. “He didn’t preach but showed by his own conduct a social perception that I envied and tried to emulate. From him I was learning humanistic values that I lacked because of my autism” (p.91).
Mr. Carlock did not try to force Temple to study material simply because it was the curriculum. Instead he started with where she was and used her interests to connect her to learning. “We start with you, Temple. If you want to prove your theory, then you’ll have to learn math, read scientific articles in the library, do some research” (p. 107). He realized that fighting Temple’s fixations was futile; instead he “channeled her fixations into constructive projects” (p.90). These projects benefited Temple in many ways: she learned through creating; she was motivated to learn academics that might help with her projects; she stayed focused and busy which decreased her anxiety and limited her chances of ‘getting into trouble’; and she was productive, raising her worth both in her own eyes and that of her teachers and peers. Like Temple’s mother, Mr. Carlock affirmed Temple’s worth. “You’re a gifted individual, Temple- much more than any individual with just sex appeal. Your appeal, when you grow up to it, will be not only physical but intellectual, too” (p. 92).
Years later, Mr. Carlock, perhaps unaware of what he is doing, sums up his own successful approach in his preface for Temple’s autobiography, “…there is hope for the autistic child – that deep, constant caring, understanding, acceptance, appropriately high expectations, and support and encouragement for what is best in him will provide a base, from which he can grow to his own potential” (p. 7).
From a very young age, Temple began to dream about “a magical device that would provide intense, pleasant pressure stimulation to her body. In her imagination this wonderful machine would not be a substitute to her mother’s hugs, but would be available at any time to soothe her” (p. 36). Perhaps due to her high intelligence and the acceptance by the adults around her, Temple was able to hypothesis the similarities of experiences that made her feel better. “Since I had no magical, comfort device, I wrapped myself in a blanket or got under sofa cushions to satisfy my desire for tactile stimulation. At night, I tucked in the sheets and blankets tightly and then slid in under them. Sometimes I wore cardboard posters like a sandwich board man because I enjoyed the pressure of the boards against my body” (p. 37).
Through a lucky twist of fate, during a summer visit to her aunt’s ranch, Temple encounters a cattle squeeze machine; a strongly built stall for holding cattle still to minimize the risk of injury to both the animal and the operator whilst work on the animal is performed. Temple was fascinated by the squeeze machine: she observed over and over that when placed in this machine, the nervous animals calmed down. When Temple climbs into the squeeze machine herself, she finds that it has a similar effect on her own nerves: “the effect was both stimulating and relaxing at the same time” (p. 95).
The magic device, ‘the squeeze machine’ came to play a significant role in Temple’s journey. First, it became another project for her to focus constructively on. It also began to give Temple some control over her debilitating anxiety. The device also provided Temple with an incentive as she “wouldn’t allow herself the relaxation/stimulation of the chute until her homework was completed” (p. 100). In college, proving the value of the squeeze machine for herself and other individual’s with autism became a purpose for learning skills and subjects that did not come easily to Temple. Eventually, the squeeze machine became a major reason for Temple’s career choice.
During her time at Mountain Country School, Temple was able to find spiritual strength in visiting The Crow’s Nest. The Crow’s Nest was a small observation room on the roof where Temple could look out and see the mountains. With the characteristically literal thinking of an individual with autism, Temple had latched on to a Bible reading she heard at chapel: “Before each of you there is a door opening into heaven. Open it and be saved” (p. 84). Temple began to search for the door. She finds a little wooden door that opened out onto the roof and to The Crow’s Nest. For Temple, this door, this place became her door to her Heaven where she could feel safe, hopeful and peaceful and was able to explore herself: her past, her present and her future. Temple believed that in going through this little door, in spending time in the Crow’s Nest, she experienced an awakening of her soul and mind (p. 87). The Crow’s Nest became a symbol to Temple that she could move forward, walk through new doors and grow.
While most of Temple’s ’emergence from autism’ took place before research on positive transition outcomes for children with disabilities, it is easy to see that Temple’s experiences demonstrate what research confirms to be true. Positive transition outcomes are more likely when parents or other family are involved; when the student has experienced school and community inclusion; the student has input into the goals; the student has had opportunity for employment experiences prior to graduation from secondary school; the student has an appropriate level of social competence; he student has developed skills and talents that are wanted and needed by the employers; the student has self-determination and self-advocacy skills; and the student has postsecondary education.
Temple was blessed with a mother who provided practical and emotional support as well as sourcing appropriate resources for Temple including therapy, a skilled nanny, schools and other experiences that helped Temple develop. Throughout her life other individuals took a personal interest in Temple, acting as mentors and guiding her academically and socially. The affirmation that Temple received from her mother and her mentors fueled Temple’s will to succeed.
Experience in School and Community Inclusion
From the beginning Temple’s mother facilitated Temple’s inclusion in school and the community. Temple attended schools for typical children, was expected to participate in family activities, was supported in having friends, learned to swim and ride horses and attended summer camp. When a difficulty arrived, her mother advocated strongly for Temple while accepting Temple’s challenges. And when necessary, Temple’s mother sought out another school and community that was a better match for Temple.
Student has Input into Goals
Temple’s teachers and mentors followed Temple’s interests, her fixations, and used these interests to persuade Temple to learn academic skills that did not interest her directly. Her interest in animals leads her to a degree in Animal Science. Temple states in her introduction, “Successful people with Asperger’s that I see … were able to develop their ‘talent’ area into skill that other people appreciate and want” (p. 16).
Self-determination and Self-advocacy Skills
It is probably that Temple was born with a certain amount of determination to do what she wanted. Although often what she wanted was not what others wanted, this determination was refocused by her mentors into productive goals and projects that took into account what Temple wanted.
Temple, with the support from both old and new mentors, attended college and graduate school. The college was carefully selected to meet Temple’s needs. “I will forever bless those who selected a small college for me” (p. 107).
Skills and Talents that are wanted and needed by Employers/Opportunity for Employment Experiences
From early on Temple was encouraged to create things. Later on she had opportunities to build and repair useful things such as a system to open the gate to her aunt’s ranch from the car. Although details are not given in Emergence, the book suggests that she had responsibilities at Mountain Country School to help with the farm and the horses. During her visit to her aunt’s ranch she is encouraged to try out running different equipment. The summer after high school graduation Temple spends the summer working at her Aunt’s ranch. While at college she works with children with disabilities. Temple herself advocates: “Develop their talents into skills that can be used in a job or hobby. The goal is to provide them with skills that can give them satisfaction in life through shared interests. Some of the happiest people in the autism spectrum are the ones who have friends that share their special interest” (p 14).
Through opportunity, experiences, role models and guidance from mentors she respected and felt cared for by, Temple was able to learn sufficient social competence to continue her education and hold jobs.
Temple Grandin’s book, Emergence, offers a real life example of how love, support, experiences and appropriate teaching and guidance can allow an individual to overcome her disability. While Temple stands out as an astonishing story of success, where everything that contributed to her positive outcome came together almost as a miracle, educators and parents of children with difficulties can use her experiences combined with the more recent research to plan deliberately to improve positive outcomes for their children.