Temple Grandin: Hands-on learning is key to education
February 8, 2011
Temple Grandin says the problem with education today is there is too much focus on socialization skills and not enough on hands-on learning.
Grandin, 63, said she would have never become the woman she is today had it not been for a mother who surrounded her with intervention and a science teacher who mentored her to do more.
Grandin, one of the best-known adults living with autism and the subject of an HBO movie documenting her life, spoke to more than 100 students, faculty and staff of Aims Community College on Monday on sensory-based thinking and how to deal with autism.
“You disconnect a few social circuits, and now you have more geek circuits,” Grandin said about how the autistic brain operates. “I went out to Arizona when I was 15 and got introduced to cattle. If I hadn’t gone out to my aunt’s ranch, I wouldn’t have never gotten involved in cattle.”
In fact, Grandin said, society needs those “quirky, geeky” people to keep it going.
“I’m getting very concerned with schools that are taking out the hands-on classes because those are places where students can get introduced to things that turn into careers,” she said. “Auto shop, art, welding – right now we have a shortage of certified machinists and welders. It’s the quirky, nerdy kids that do those jobs. But if they’re not exposed to them, how are they going to get interested in them?”
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Grandin’s speech was part of a Human-to-Human lecture series that brings speakers to the college in conjunction with the Aims Diversity Council and Aims Associated Students. The program is designed to show diversity.
Grandin was diagnosed with autism as a young child. When she was 2, doctors wanted to institutionalize her, and she showed no verbal communication skills until nearly 4. She said early intensive intervention from her mother helped her move on a path to success.
Today, she is an associate professor in animal sciences at Colorado State University. She has designed livestock-handling equipment for many of the cattle handlers in the United States. Her chutes herd more than half the cattle across the country. She’s consulted for Burger King, McDonald’s, JBS Swift Co. and others, and she travels the country talking to others in the hope of raising awareness that children with autism can lead successful lives if people open their minds to finding alternative ways of thinking and communicating.
She told the crowd that language covers up sensory-based thinking and the normal brain ignores details. She said people with autism are a lot like animals in that they depend on their senses instead of language to collect information.
“There is a lot of information on a local fire hydrant,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “A dog can learn a lot from a fire hydrant.”
She compared a dog’s sense of smell to her ability to define words using pictures of past experiences from her mind.
“All of my thinking is images inside my head,” she said. “I’m like Google images. I realized I was different when I asked others to describe a church steeple. Most have descriptions of a generic church steeple. Mine are more specific. Everything is learned by specific examples.”
Grandin said people with autism fixate on things, so keeping young children engaged is important.
“I was making things all the time as a child,” she said. “Things I got fixated on, I got motivated on. Teachers need to harness that fixation.”