Different minds: Temple Grandin on nurturing autistic workers

NEW YORK (Reuters) - During the past five decades, Temple Grandin’s visually indexed mind, a key feature of her autism, helped make her a leading animal researcher.

FILE PHOTO: Temple Grandin, the subject of the Emmy-winning made for television movie "Temple Grandin", poses backstage at the 62nd annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California August 29, 2010. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Diagnosed with “brain damage” at the age of 2, Grandin, now 72, holds a Ph.D. in animal science, teaches at Colorado State University and has written over a dozen books. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017, which recognized her innovations in humane livestock handling and breakthroughs in understanding cattle behavior.

For many people on the spectrum, a career like Grandin’s seems unlikely. Despite competence in various fields, as many as 90 percent of adults with autism are left out of the workforce. A major obstacle is the demand for soft skills.

Reuters spoke with Grandin about nurturing the strengths of those on the spectrum and the labor market’s need for different kinds of minds.

Q: What challenges do people on the spectrum face when they start their first jobs?

A: Work skills and academic skills are different. This is one of the reasons why I recommend kids, starting at 11, do volunteer jobs. They’ve got to learn how to do a task outside the home, on a schedule.

Yes, academics are important, but you also have show up on time. You’ve got to do what the boss tells you to do. Early in my career, I had to photocopy and assemble sales manuals, which was not something I liked doing.

Q: You’re an advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace —the need for different kinds of minds. What are those different kinds of minds?

A: You’ve got the photo-realistic visual thinker like me. Everything I think about is a picture. Then you have the pattern mathematical thinker and the verbal thinker.  And the thing that’s different about the autistic mind is that people can be good at one kind of thinking and really awful at another. We need to be building on the strengths. 

Q: Are schools nurturing the strengths of children with autism?

A: I’m seeing 16-year-olds playing with Legos. Nobody thinks to introduce tools. We have a gigantic shortage of high-end skilled trades: jobs such as electricians, plumbers, welders. These are great jobs for visual thinkers.

Some schools have taken out all the hands-on learning. We need to put cooking, sewing, theater, music, woodworking and auto shop back into the schools. Then a child gets to try on different careers and see what they might like to do. 

Q: What industries need visual thinkers the most?

A: Some good careers for visual thinkers include graphic design, art, industrial design as well as high-end skilled trades like fixing cars and trucks, electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, welding.

Q: What about mathematical minds? What careers do they tend to thrive in?

A: Our universities are educating them. The mathematical mind might go to Silicon Valley and work for Microsoft or Google. 

Q: And word thinkers?

A: What they’re good at is lots and lots and lots of verbal memory. This is a child who often loves history, loves facts. They can be good in a job like banking. They can excel at specialized sales where they’re recognized for their memory.

Q: How can supervisors turn missed social cues into teachable moments?

A: At my very first job, I criticized some welding. I said it looked like a pigeon doo-dooed on it. And the plant engineer brought me quietly into his office and told me I had to apologize. He quietly told me what I should do. He was the perfect job coach.

Q: What is the best way for neuro-typical people to support their co-workers who are on the spectrum? 

A: Don’t be vague. People on the spectrum need specific guidance. Don’t say to the person with autism: “Develop new software.” Say: “I want you to design an app for a phone. It does a very specific thing. It has to operate on a certain platform.” In other words, give them a very specific outcome of the job. And a reasonable deadline.

Editing by Lauren Young and Sandra Maler