This past week I had the opportunity to hear Temple Grandin speak. She is a woman with autism who has written extensively about autism and what it is like from the "inside". She has her doctorate in animal sciences and has designed many of the animal holding facilities used in the US today. While she is autistic, she has learned ways to cope and, probably more importantly, has developed an understanding of the ways that her autism has enriched (not really sure if that's the right way to express this, but she talks in one of her books about how if she had the chance to be nonautistic she would turn it down because she would miss out on some real positives in her life that stem from her autism) her life.
She believes that her autism, and the very visual way she organizes information (in fact, one of her books is titled Thinking in Pictures), enable her to excel in her field in a way that would be difficult for someone without her particular strengths. She talks about her ability to see things from an animal's perspective because animals are very visual, sensory creatures rather than language-based, as we are. I saw her at an event where she was promoting her most recent book, Animals in Translation, which made for a funny intersection between my work life (teaching children with disabilities; this year, in fact, I had 3 students with autism-spectrum diagnoses) and my home life (trying to figure out how to deal with my behaviorally-challenged dog).
It was so interesting to hear Temple speak. She was much funnier than I had expected, riffing on Cingular wireless, which was particularly funny to me because I'm a Cingular customer and have had serious phone issues...which may be more related to my LG phone rather than the carrier, but still! She talked about ways that she has had to learn to accommodate for her autism, things like creating a deep pressure machine, taking anti-depressants to deal with her panic attacks, translating words into pictures in her head, creating and modifying scripts for interaction with others.
The audience was very interesting, as well. I'd say it was at least 2/3 people who are involved with people with disabilities and 1/3 people who were involved with pets with "issues". During a Q&A session, she remarked several times to questioners that she needed them to be more specific/detailed so that she could get a picture in her head...which makes sense for everybody, really--if you say your dog is acting like a maniac (something I've said a time or two about mine!), what does that mean? Biting, barking, running around in circles? I guess for her, though, it was even more important to get specifics.
Possibly most interesting of all to me was ways in which, despite her great successes, she is still working to deal with the effects of her autism. Her voice and appearance were somewhat "different"--nothing huge--and she seemed to have some difficulty during the Q&A "hearing" the question. That is, she could physically hear it, but she a few times answered a different question than the one that the person was asking, and once interrupted a woman several times in answering what I think Temple THOUGHT was the question when the woman hadn't quite gotten to her question yet.
I really had just wanted to go home that evening, even though I was the one who'd mentioned to some people at work about the event and gotten the ball rolling. I had been away from Jacob all weekend and worked all day...really just wanted to be home with my family. I'm so glad that I went. Not only did I get to meet someone HUGE in my field, but I really came away with a new dedication to really looking for the strengths in my students and working even harder to try to see things as they do.