Autism expert Grandin speaks at SUNY Oneonta

Temple Grandin speaks in the Alumni Field House Dewar Arena at SUNY Oneonta on Wednesday evening.Julie Lewis | The Daily Star

More than 2,000 people gathered at SUNY Oneonta’s Alumni Field House on Wednesday, Nov. 20, to hear the thoughts of world-renowned autism speaker and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin.

The talk was made possible by a partnership between SUNY Oneonta, SUNY Delhi, SUNY Cobleskill and Hartwick College. Grandin spoke to students and faculty at SUNY Delhi, SUNY Cobleskill and Hartwick and publicly at SUNY Oneonta because it had the appropriate venue for the anticipated crowd, according to Jenny Bagby, accessibility resources coordinator at SUNY Oneonta.

Despite having given three other lectures the same day, Grandin was full of enthusiasm. A huge NASA fan, Grandin talked about how astronauts may have ridden rockets to the moon, but how none of the operations would be possible without the “geeks, misfits and kids with labels who built the stuff.” 

She asked the crowd if some of the world’s top thinkers would be less successful if they were born today, under today’s strict educational standards that may suppress visual thinkers. Though Steve Jobs was known for his tech company, he loved calligraphy, Grandin said. Part of why iPhones are so easy to use, she said, is because he designed the interface from an artist’s perspective. During visits to Silicon Valley, she noted how many programmers seem to be on the autism spectrum. 

Some common denominators of success for people with unique minds that she noted are growing up with lots of books and learning, early exposure to career interests with hands-on projects, learning to work hard at an early age and mentors to help start a career path.

Giving structure in the form of checklists, not overworking and stretching people slightly out of their comfort zones were other tips she had for differently minded people. 

“Education is a pathway to a goal,” Grandin said. “I didn’t start studying until it became the pathway to a goal. There had to be a reason for doing it.”

Grandin has a Ph.D in animal science from the University of Illinois. Among other accomplishments, she has designed systems for humane livestock handling that have significantly reduced the amount of pain, anxiety and fear that cattle and pigs go through in the factory farming system, according to her website, www.templegrandin.com. She has also created a therapeutic device designed to calm children on the autism spectrum through deep-pressure stimulation, according to her website.

She is perhaps best known for increasing the world’s understanding of autism through books she’s penned about her life and talks. According to www.ted.com/speakers/temple_grandin, she is deeply respected by animal rights groups and members of the autistic community, “perhaps because in both regards she is a voice for those who are sometimes challenged to make themselves heard.” 

Jill Champagne and Rachel Burtner, both speech pathologists at Springbrook, said they came partly to get a better perspective of the minds of some of the students they work with. Burtner said Springbrook has the famous “hug machine” that Grandin invented. 

“This is a nice window into the world of individuals who have autism,” Champagne said.

Some people attended because they saw a bit of themselves in Grandin. Amethyst Gardner is a freshman early childhood education major at SUNY Oneonta who has ADHD, autism and Asperger syndrome, she said. Like Grandin, Gardner said she faced bullying growing up. She now speaks openly about her disabilities in hopes of inspiring others, just as Grandin inspired her, she said.

“I think the thing that speaks to me the most about Temple is that she never gave up and accepted her uniqueness and ran with it,” Gardner said. “That’s something I ran with in my life, accepting who I am.”

Gardner, who said she’s been inspired by Grandin since her senior year of high school, said she hoped to chat with Grandin after the lecture.

“I think what I would want to say to Temple the most is how inspirational she’s been to me and how much of a role model, for someone who has autism,” Gardner said.

Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at skarikehalli@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.

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