Temple Grandin Reveals Her Advice for Educating Autistic Kids

Dr. Temple Grandin has unique insight into the minds of autistic children. Her approach—stay positive.

Temple Grandin
Dr. Temple Grandin offers tips for special educators and parents with autistic children. (Photo: Rosalie Winard)
Dr. Temple Grandin's achievements are remarkable because she was an autistic child. She was motivated to pursue a career as a scientist and livestock equipment designer. She was honored in Time Magazine's 2010 “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”

The following essay was written by Dr. Temple Grandin exclusively for TakePart.

Special educators need to look at what a child can do instead of what he/she cannot do.

There needs to be more emphasis on building up and expanding the skills a child is good at. Too often people get locked into a label such as dyslexia, ADHD, or autism, and they cannot see beyond the label. Kids that get a label often have uneven skills. They may be talented in one area and have a real deficiency in another.

In my case, I was really good at art, but doing algebra made no sense. It is important to work on areas where a child is weak, but an emphasis on deficits should not get to the point where building the area of strength gets neglected.

Kids with autism often get fixated on one thing, and it is important to expand their fixations.

I heard about sad cases where a teacher forbids an elementary school child to draw pictures. If a teacher had stifled my art ability, I would have never become a designer of livestock equipment. Half the cattle in North America are handled in equipment I have designed for the meat plants. I think that this is a real accomplishment for a child that some people thought was mentally retarded.

Methods to Expand Abilities

When I was in elementary school my teachers and my mother always worked to broaden my art skills. Kids with autism often become fixated with drawing the same thing over and over. I was fixated on drawing horse heads. Drawing the head was easy, but drawing the legs accurately was more difficult. My teacher encouraged me to work on creating the entire horse. I then proceeded to make a horse sculpture from clay that included the entire horse.

I was appalled to learn that some schools are very rigid about forcing a child to only study materials that are designed for his/her grade level.

In the summer we went to the beach, so I was encouraged to paint pictures of the beach. It is important to expand a skill and encourage a child to use their skill to do a variety of different work. When I painted a nice watercolor of the beach, mother rewarded me by having it framed in a professional frame with glass. Only artwork that was really high, adult quality went in glass frames.

Kids with autism often get fixated on one thing, and it is important to expand their fixations. If the child loves race cars, then race cars can be used as subject matter for reading and math. If the child only draws pictures of NASCAR race cars, a teacher could start expanding the fixation by having him draw an Indianapolis-type car or draw sports cars that regular people can buy at car dealerships. The next step of expansion is to draw pictures of places where race tracks are located.

Never Hold a Gifted Child Back

I was appalled to learn that some schools are very rigid about forcing a child to only study materials that are designed for his/her grade level. For example, in the library, a second grader was not allowed to read books above his/her grade level. This is ridiculous. When I was in elementary school, I had difficulty learning to read in third grade, but after I learned, I was reading fifth- and sixth-grade books. 

If a third grader can do more advanced math, he/she should be allowed to bring the higher level book into the classroom and work on it. Otherwise, the student will be bored stiff and become a behavior problem. To help the child with advanced math skills, to develop as a person, he/she should be encouraged to help teach other children who are having trouble with math.

Use Abilities to Do Assignments

When a child becomes an adult he/she needs to be able to use their abilities to do tasks that other people would want. Nobody would want endless identical horse head drawings. I had to learn how to draw other things that interested me a whole lot less. This is one of the reasons mother rewarded my beach painting with a real frame with glass. She knew that my skills had to be expanded.

If a child likes to write, he/she could start doing writing assignments that would interest other people. A middle schooler could be given the job of updating the program on a church website or writing for a neighborhood blog. He has to learn that racing cars is not an appropriate topic for this purpose. Learning how to use abilities to do assigned tasks is essential. I heard a sad story about an art student who got straight A’s in an elite art school, but he lost a job because he did not want to waste his time doing his employer’s stupid bird graphics.

A job requires work, and if the employer wants stupid birds, then he should draw really good stupid birds. Then he should put them in a portfolio and get a better job doing more interesting things.

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