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Noted animal expert and author recalls her own battle with autism

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Temple Grandin signs a book  for Marjorie Birch Tuesday.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Temple Grandin signs a book for Marjorie Birch Tuesday. Photo Store

Imagine being packed in a room with 700 people, the lights are turned off, someone dumps a bunch of cobras and rattlesnakes on the floor and the doors are all locked.

That is the kind of anxiety world-renowned autism and animal-science expert Temple Grandin remembers.

"How would you feel?" Grandin asked Tuesday at an Autism Society of Manitoba conference at the University of Manitoba.

"Fear is the main emotion in autism," said the animal scientist, who transformed the way livestock are handled in North America and lifted the veil on autism, a neurological disorder that was a mystery to so many.

Born in 1947, she didn't speak until she was three and was labelled as brain damaged. With the encouragement of her family, teachers and mentors, she overcame that fear and obtained a PhD in animal science and became a champion of people with autism.

She was named among Time magazine's 100 most influential people. Clair Danes won an Emmy for portraying her in the HBO movie Temple Grandin.

"They did a fabulous job," Grandin said of the movie between bites of a sandwich, shaking hands and signing books during a lunch break at the conference in Winnipeg.

The straight-talking author of several books on autism and animal behaviour made no apologies for her no-nonsense approach to helping kids with autism reach their potential. Getting them away from computer games and into real-life activities is vital, she said.

"That's just what they need," said the 66-year-old American in her trademark western shirt. Kids with autism need more experiences to "fill up their databases," said Grandin. Find out what they're good at and get them doing it with others who are good at it, too, she said.

"The only place I was not bullied and teased was in model rocket club, electronics and 4-H Club," said Grandin.

She credits those "shared interests" and the 1950s code of behaviour to her success. People who don't think abstractly need well-defined rules, and that era was full of them, she said.

Taking turns, being on time, following a schedule and occasionally having to do things that aren't necessarily enjoyable, such as sitting still in church, are important to develop self-discipline and avoiding a "social mistake," she said.

Kristian Hooker said he was diagnosed with autism at age two but didn't know it. The young man who volunteered as the conference's media co-ordinator has his own business, HALE Autism, helping others with autism find opportunities and live independent lives.

He credits much of his success to his parents encouraging him to pursue hobbies, new experiences and to build on his strengths.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2013 A7

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