One of the most interesting presentations at the Geneva Center For Autism International Symposium, was: “Autism A Part of Who I Am” by Temple Grandin.

A large crowd of people attended her presentation, yet there were very little distractions sitting at the very front.  In fact, the crowd was unusually quiet, which seemed to indicate that they were all very intrigued.

Temple spoke of her life as a child and growing up, and her mother was there to offer her own perspective and feelings during those times.  

Temple is a speaker that captivated the attention because had seen some interesting books written by her previously at the book tables.  Most specifically, wanted to learn more about her “thinking in pictures” ideas, since believe that the way this brain is organized, is like a filing system of various pictures to represent words.  Did not get books though, and she didn’t really speak about that topic.

Another reason for the interest in her presentation was that she was the only autistic speaker (identified as autistic) there, outside of the luncheon presentation for autistic people. Temple’s speech was more informative because she spoke not only of her life experiences, but also about things that worked well for her, and things that didn’t work well for her. That kind of a presentation is useful for those of us on autism spectrum because we actually can learn something, unlike the presentation in which a person merely speaks of their life, and how they grew up, what “autistic” things they did as a child… those presentations already live within us.

What was great about her presentation was the audience participation. After speaking about her life, she opened up the discussion to revolve around questions in the audience. So, most of what will report on here, are topics that she addressed as a result of audience questions.  Will not write about her reflections on her childhood (unless she refers to it, in her responses) because that information apparently is well available in books elsewhere.

Anxiety and medications:
Temple Grandin talked about problems with anxiety.  She indicated that puberty is when there are often increased anxiety attacks.  This led her to talk about medication. She said she started taking some medications
in her late 20s to early 30s.  She indicated that with high functioning autistics, fully verbal, the anxiety gets worse with age, pointing out that many HFA couldn’t go to work because of high anxiety.  Temple revealed that she wouldn’t be able to go to work without meds. Temple Grandin went on to offer some basic information about medications used for autism.  Anti-depressants-SSRI’s are often given to autistics. The typical doses are for treating depression, and these are too high in these types of drugs for autistics.  In her book Thinking in Pictures she speaks in detail about the dosing. This advice does not include Respiradal, and other atypical antipsychotics, when being used to reducing rage attacks.  Apparently there is a doctor in Canada, Joe Hodgins, who works with the worst behaviors in low functioning persons, and apparently the 3 drugs Respiradal, beta-blockers, and Depakote (an epilepsy drug)  are what he uses.

Someone asked about her 6yr old boy, for which a psychiatric. doctor recommends a drug because he has screaming sessions where he screams for about 20 seconds.

Temple’s response was: 
There is no medication for autism.  So, you need to look at the behaviours. There are various medications for symptoms. A good rule of thumb for any medication is that it should have an obvious dramatic effect. If you don’t get a “wow, this stuff really works”, the medication is not the right thing.  She suggested to the parents that they need to look at the screaming, and see what it is about. Sometimes it is seizures. Keep a log of everything that happens, and if it is absolutely random, there is no reason, they are not tired, nothing distressing is happening, then maybe it is seizures, and you can look at seizure medications. So basically it is important to use a log to see if it is behavioural.

Most autistic have problems with multitasking and sensory overload. The extent of this depends on the person. She said she was attracted to visual stimulating things, but had sound sensitivity. Some autistics have touch, or a combination of sensitivities, and these problems are exceedingly variable. For example for some people, their Insides feel like a speaker at a rock concert, when a toilet is flushed. One kid might like it and wants to flush it all the time, another might run away screaming.

One thing to do about sound sensitivity is to put the sound that is bothersome on a tape recorder. And let the autistic individual play it, according to their preferred volume. This might help to desensitize them. 

Earphones, or plugs are sometimes used in situations where a person is unable to get away from excessive sounds they are sensitive to.  But the earphones have to be off for at least half of the day, otherwise you might become more sensitive because you get used to the quieter sound.  

Some autistics are afraid of dogs and cats.  Temple said the problem with dogs and cats is they make a noise that might hurt the ears, and you never know when it might go off. Yet, some might be especially attracted to animals.  If your thinking is basically visual, auditory, touch, smell oriented, you can understand animals better then verbally oriented people. An autistic person can relate to an animal that also doesn’t talk quite well. Unlike a verbal person who might be unable to understand an animal because they are caught up in whether it can think, feel etc. an autistic person can just accept the animal as it is.

A parent discussed his son who is sensitive to trucks going by, but he plays the drums. Temple indicated that the sound sensitivity tends to be in certain frequencies, and not in others. It is inside the brain and not in the ear. A suggestion was to put the tucks on a tape recorder and let him control it.  It is easier for the kid to tolerate it if he initiates the sounds. After all they are not sensitive to their own screams.

A parent spoke of her 4th grader who was reading at JK level. They wonder if they should take emphasis out of reading. Temple indicated that it is important to figure out why is he having trouble with reading. She had problem at age 8. Some learn whole language-memorize by sight, some with phonics. Maybe the thing to do is get a child’s book on his special interest, to motivate him. 

It is also important to look into his visual processing.  It might be that the eyeball is fine, but the visual processing is not. The print may be wiggling on the page. If he hates escalators, squinting out of the corner of his eyes, problems with fluorescent lights, splitting of visual field, he probably has visual processing difficulties.  Get rid of white paper. Use gray, or light blue, to reduce the contrast. Coloured glasses might help also; get tested for Irlen glasses.

Videotape stimming is something you don’t want to let a child do for long. This is completely shutting out the world. When she was a kid she liked to play with the supermarket automatic doors. It is ok to do it for a little while. But not for long. The video games are the same thing. It is ok to let a child have an hour a day. But the rest of the day you need to keep the brain tuned IN to the world rather then tuned OUT of it.  Another bad thing about them, is the ones where the graphic movement is fast moving, this has a bad hypnotic tuning-out effect.  There needs to be some other interaction other then just taking turns playing video games.  This is a useless skill unless he is becoming a fighter pilot.  Playing card games, board games, is good because while you play you talk. There is more social interaction.

She did offer praise for the SIMS computer games. This game moves slowly, it is intellectually engaging, and it could be a tool because it involves so much more planning and it can be used to engage dialogue, and talk about why you make certain choices in it.  It also simulates real life. In that game, if you don’t go to work you get fired.

Stimming also has a purpose.  For example, when an autistic person comes home from a long day away, they have “held it together” throughout the day.  When they arrive home they might want to stim out on rocks, reflection of water or other pleasant stimuli.  It is ok to let a period of an hour a day to calm down. When she did the sand thing, she studied each little particle like a scientist through a microscope.  It is ok to have a little bit of down time when you just do your stims.  From a brain development standpoint, the brain is not doing anything during stimming, so this is not beneficial for long term.

Mainstream classroom placements:
Temple Grandin says that you need to look at it on a case-by-case basis. It also depends on a particular school. Ask yourself is he improving? It means the placement is doing something right. If he is getting worse, try a different approach.  In her opinion, mainstreaming often works well with elementary kids but in high school it can be horrible. This is because of the teasing, and social stuff. Teenagers are weird social beasts- they are totally social. Often a high school kid needs to be taken to a community college, to take a course they are interested in, to help them with their self esteem.  This is because often the autistic teen is very knowledgeable about something, but because of the highly social school environment, they feel very badly about themselves.

She was asked, if someone can snap his fingers and she would not be autistic, what would she do. Temple said she can't imagine not having very detailed thinking, and wouldn’t want to give that up. One of the things that happen with autism is that different departments of the brain tend to work separately. They are not well interconnected. What tends to happen is that one part of the brain specializes and sort of shines, and the rest gets a reduced workload.

Special Interests:
A parent indicated that her 6 yr old son is very visual, he draws pictures all day, but she is not sure if he is using the drawing as his way of understanding or as a way of shutting out the world.   

Temple’s response:
Drawing is a talent you want to develop. It can become a useful skill later on.  He needs to get into interacting with others.  Asking questions about his drawings, and encouraging him to be drawing about various different things accomplish this. It is very important for autistics to learn to ask questions.  Drawing is a useful skill, but running a video back and forth is not a useful skill.  Encourage him to expand his drawing themes and use them to teach other things. Always broaden out the interest. Read a book on the history of drawing, art, read a book on a famous artist for example.

There are some autistics that are deeply depressed in puberty. This is why you need to put emphasis in developing a skill. She said autistics have a tendency to think, “I am what I do” and so they need to have something to do, this will help them feel better about themselves. 

Temple spoke of there being a need for specialized art programs, for visual learners. She doesn’t see them getting the recognition that they deserve because of their social problems. They need someone to market their ideas. Apparently the person who came up with the palm pilot has aspergers. A lady helped him market it. You need to get things out into the market someone has to go out there and “pound the pavement”. You can sell it outside of the autism world. And someone has to be the marketing agent. Because there are lots of autistics that have fantastic talent, but need someone to make appointments and someone to make sure that others don’t rip them off.  Someone has to go in there and do the final sale. The autistic person needs someone to handle all the business part of it. You need to start finding the people who can open the doors, because we are inside the special ed. box.  What someone has to do is be the business head to sell their stuff. The autistic person can’t do the selling. You got to find the people who can open the door, and you don’t ever know where you can find them. Make a print of your work and carry it around. Show it to people show it to people in an airplane as you are traveling. Carry around a portfolio of your pictures, even if it is small to fit your purse. Sell the talent, not the personality. 

Independence: What made you ready for it? 
Temple indicated that it is a gradual transition. From the world of school to the world of work. Preparation must start early, a gradual transition from one thin into the next.  At 14 yrs old she worked in a little sewing job, which was good work training.

Temple Grandin spoke of the importance of a mentor. A mentor might be a good teacher. She learned social survival rules, like you cant tell your boss he is stupid, from having a mentor.  She had a science teacher, and her aunt who were like mentors for her. Temple’s aunt was her “getting along in life” mentor. They would just talk about why people do things they do. But for a skills mentor you got to have someone interested in helping, and a person who can recognize talent.

What is your biggest advantage and disadvantage?
Temple's response:
Visual thinking for design is the advantage. For others it might be a language thing, music or math. She is a believer in developing talents. These are more likely to be seen in ages 7 and up. Well there is whole lot of social stuff that she doesn’t have. She makes herself so busy that she doesn’t worry about it. There are many people with aspergers and autism who are very worried about the social stuff. You can join a computer club or a model rocket club and you can get some social stuff out of that. Most of her social life is through shared interests. She is a big believer in getting the kids into special interest clubs.  Temple indicated that the Internet is good for connecting with others who share your special interest. There was a lady who had interest in fancy chickens. She got on the Internet and found out there is a whole world out there of people who are interested in fancy chickens.

Those were basically the topics that Temple Grandin addressed in her session at the Geneva Center for Autism International Symposium.