Lessons From a Life Lived With Autism: A Q&A With Temple Grandin, PhD

August 22, 2017

Helping Young People With Autism Succeed in the Workforce

Diagnosed with autism as a child, Temple Grandin, PhD, went on to a successful career as a bestselling author, speaker, and consultant on both autism and animal behavior. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, MD, described her 1986 book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, as “unprecedented because there had never before been an inside narrative of autism.” Dr. Grandin’s other books include Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism (1996), The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger's (2008), and Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2006). She is the subject of the 2010 Emmy Award-winning movie, Temple Grandin, which stars Claire Danes as Dr. Grandin.

UPDATE: Watch a portion of Dr. Grandin's presentation

Her 2016 book, The Loving Push: How Parents and Professionals Can Help Spectrum Kids Become Successful Adults, advocates high but reasonable expectations for young people with autism. During her featured session at Psych Congress, Dr. Grandin will address the problem of joblessness in young adults with autism and share reflections on her personal and professional journey to where she is today.

Here, Dr. Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, discusses her thoughts on employment for young people with autism and gives a preview of the session.

Q: You’ve said that as a person with autism, you are what you do more than what you feel, and that your life satisfaction comes with accomplishment. Can you talk about that?

A: My identity is tied up in what I do. I am a professor. I am a scientist. That comes first. Autism is an important part of who I am, but the scientist and the professor come first. My identity is my career.

Q: So it seems like that would be an important reason to get high-functioning teenagers with autism into the workforce?

A: That's right.

Q: Rather than lowering expectations for children with autism, how can mental health clinicians and families prepare these children and teens for future employment?

A: To solve the problem of joblessness, kids with autism need to learn how to work before they graduate from high school. They also have to learn social skills and how to do a task on a schedule for people outside the family.

The thing with autism is that it covers such a big spectrum. I’m talking about kids who are fully verbal and can read and write at a sixth-grade level or higher. When they’re in middle school, parents should set up some dog-walking jobs in the neighborhood. Have the kids run yard sales, be a party hostess, or volunteer as an usher in the church. And then, the instant they are legally allowed, put them in the workforce. By the time I graduated from high school, I had tons of work skills. I had been cleaning horse stalls every day. I had a sewing job my mother had set up.