MIT and institutions like it should reject the stigma surrounding autism and recognize it as a difference rather than a detriment, autism activist Temple Grandin told an audience on campus Monday.
Grandin, born in Boston and now an animal science professor at Colorado State University, could not speak at all at age two and had many signs of severe autism. In the film “Temple Grandin,” in which Grandin is played by Claire Danes, a doctor recommends that Grandin’s mother put her in an asylum, and her mother refuses, choosing instead to put her in therapy.
In reality, Grandin’s family wanted her to be institutionalized, reflecting the 1950s attitude toward mental differences. These details were left out of the movie to protect her family, but Grandin attributes her successful start in life to her mother and a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital named Dr. Bronson Crothers, who directed Grandin’s mother to a therapy center. Many years later, Grandin has received several honors and awards for her work.
“Half the kids here” at MIT are most likely on the autism spectrum, according to Grandin. “People don’t want to get diagnosed because it makes them feel damaged,” she said in an interview with The Tech.
The reality is that autism is a continuum, Grandin said. She recalled being asked questions about how to solve problems for autistic children in classrooms, and her response was that there isn’t a single solution for all autistic children.
During the question-and-answer portion of Grandin’s talk at the Media Lab titled “Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed,” she refused to answer a question about how to help an autistic student focus on diagrams shown in class until she was given more details about the child’s personality.
Autism and other disorders like anxiety or depression are single variables, she said, but people often focus on a diagnosis so much that “it’s becoming their whole identity.” Grandin identified a “handicap mentality” that parents, mentors, and peers often place on autistic people. This mentality ignores all other facets of their life: “Were they doing badly in school? Maybe they have no friends.”
The opposite reaction, simply ignoring mental differences, is equally problematic, she said. When visiting a large company in Silicon Valley, Grandin recalled that a human resources representative said, “We know they’re on the spectrum; we just don’t talk about it.”
According to Grandin, the point is that “it’s all different ways of thinking,” and because the world is not designed for all of them, ignoring these differences shuts people out.
When asked during Q-and-A if openly addressing a mental difference would make it more difficult for a child to feel comfortable, Grandin said that it would ultimately be beneficial, because diagnosis would be the only way for them to be allowed to perform to the best of their unique abilities.
Grandin found that the optimal balance was in recognizing all different ways of thinking as acceptable and valuable as well as allowing them to complement each other. For example, the fact that autistic people are often exceptionally good at certain things and exceptionally bad at others can be channeled usefully.
For Grandin, this duality is in her exceptionally visual brain, which is crucial to her design work, and the panic attacks that have plagued her for years, which she handles with extremely low doses of Prozac.
Another set of complements that Grandin identified was different types of problem solving and learning. She divided people into mathematical or “pattern” thinkers (which she felt MIT values most), visual thinkers like her, and “word” thinkers.
Giving the example of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Grandin said that putting the electric regulatory equipment underground near the sea stood out to her immediately as hazardous. “There’s no way I would have made that mistake,” said Grandin. “I can visualize how things can break.”
“I used to think it was because people were stupid,” she said. “I’ve now learned there’s different ways of thinking. I can’t design a nuclear reactor.” She added that both types of thinking were imperative.
Grandin also identified the Stata Center as a failure of collaboration — while very beautiful, she said, it “leaks — not very functional.”
Upon entering her interview with The Tech, Grandin voiced her excitement about paper snowflake cut-outs hanging in the Media Lab. They excited her because they were “hands-on,” a project that she did as a child in the 1950s.
During the interview, Grandin also highlighted the need for constructive physical work. “People say I’m an old fogey,” she admitted, “but I’m not seeing good outcomes [from screens].” She suggested that the Media Lab bring in broken computers and defunct technology and see what could be built with it.
Both in blanket diagnoses and in general learning, Grandin defined the problem to be that “people tend to overgeneralize.” She recalled that the provost of Texas A&M told her that brilliant students will join the math program but be terrible at estimating.
According to Grandin, politicians whose experience is in political science education and government internships and not in the issues they are writing policies about are problematic in the same way. “Too many things are becoming abstract theory,” she said, falling squarely on the practical engineering side of STEM.
Along with her talk on Monday, the Media Lab hosted a discussion between her and Media Arts and Sciences professor Rosalind Picard on Tuesday. Her movie, which Grandin considers highly authentic, was screened last Wednesday.