TEMPLE GRANDIN: My name's Temple Grandin, from Colorado State University. And it's really wonderful to be here today via Cornell on CyberTower. And I want to talk about my life with autism. When I was 2 and 1/2 years old, I had no speech, had no social contact. I had all of the full-blown autistic symptoms. Today I work in animal behavior and I'm a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of early educational intervention. My mother hired a nanny who spent hours playing turn-taking games with me and my sister. I had a speech therapist that did a lot of intensive one-to-one. Young autistic children need to have at least 20 hours a week of intensive one-to-one instruction with a really good teacher.
The worst thing you can do with a young autistic child is nothing. Autism is a continuum, going from a brilliant scientist like Einstein or a musician like Mozart to somebody that remains non-verbal. Asperger's is merely the milder variant of autism where there's no speech delay. Many computer programmers, all kinds of technical people, artists and other people that make this our world a richer place are on the Asperger spectrum.
If we didn't have any autism genes, you wouldn't even have this equipment for recording this talk. A little bit of the genetics gives an advantage, too much and you have very severe handicap.
When I was a little kid, loud noises hurt my ears. This is a picture that came from the little Rain Man book. It shows a picture that a young autistic boy drew to show how sound hurts his ears, putting his hands over his ears. Many people on the spectrum have problems, even some of the milder Asperger's people, with sound sensitivity. Things like smoke alarms, fire alarms, those are often the worst things.
Now the thing is you go out and you test the kid's hearing, the threshold is going to be normal, but they have problems with hearing auditory detail. You've got to stretch out and enunciate the consonants. My speech teacher would hold up a cup and you say "cup-a," "cup-a." Speak slowly. Some kids are echolalic, where they repeat back whole TV commercials.
Now the problem with echolalic kids is they often think the tone of the voice is the speech rather than the words. They're going to pick up language by just paring flashcards with words on them to the words that they're hearing. They've got to learn that language means something. If they say "juice," they're going to get juice.
This picture is from Ami Klin's. Research on looking at eye contact. And yellow line shows the eye movements of a normal person watching a movie, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.? Red line shows the autistic person. And look at how many times the normal person switches attention back and forth. People on the autism spectrum, also some of the ADHD and dyslexic people, are much slower at switching back and forth and switching attention.
Also notice that the autistic looks at the mouth. Remember, they do not hear auditory detail well. There's more to this than just the social aspect of this picture. In fact, I didn't know that people had all these little secret eye signals. I didn't even know about them until I was 50 years old and I read about them and Simon Baron-Cohen's book, Mindblindness.
Now some people on the spectrum have problems with visual distortions. This is a slide from Oliver Sacks' migraine book, and the image is breaking up into a mosaic. I don't have this problem. Sensory problems in autism are tremendously, tremendously variable. One person will have this problem, another person will not have this kind of a problem.
Let's just explain some of the signs of visual processing problems. If you have a child that flicks around the eyes like this, tilts his head like this, it's a sign of a visual processing problem. He may be afraid of escalators. He may have problems with fluorescent lights. You take him into the big supermarket and he's screaming and yelling because it's flashing on and off like a discotheque and he feels like he's inside speaker at the rock concert.
He also may have difficulty catching a ball, and eye exams are going to be normal, but there may be problems in the brain with visual processing. Fortunately, I did not have the problems.
Some people, when they go to read, the print will jiggle on the page, especially when it's white paper with black writing. It can make reading extremely difficult. And these problems can be treated. There needs to be research done on sensory problems in autism. A lot of people have neglected it. They've gotten very much into theory of mind, eye contact, but the sensory difficulties can be extremely debilitating.
Some of them are so bad that the person cannot tolerate a normal office or work environment. Here are some simple things that can be done to help a person with visual processing problems. If the fluorescent lights are bothering them, put an incandescent lamp on their desk. Now how about these new energy-saver bulbs? Some of those may flicker, some may not. They're coming out now with new electronic 3000 hertz fluorescent lights that don't flicker. But the old-fashioned kind, it's like a discotheque.
A laptop computer often works because a laptop screen is the one kind of screen that does not flicker. Try printing the work on gray, tan, or pastel paper to reduce the contrast. Some are really helped by the Irlen colored lenses.
Basically what the Irlen colored lenses are is you try on lots of different-colored sunglasses, especially real pale ones, because you can't read with dark glasses. Try on the pale pinks, the pale purples and tan ones until you get it to where the print no longer jiggles. Play balancing games, sitting on a ball.
Another thing that can be helpful is prism glasses. That has to be done by a professional, by a developmental optometrist, but the other things like the colored paper and the laptop computer and trying on some different pale-colored glasses, those are things that you can just do for yourself.
Scientists have learned a lot about autism. I get kind of frustrated when people say, oh, we don't know anything about it. That's simply not true. Sensory problems are now being studied. They are real. There's immature development and abnormal development in the emotion circuits. But one of the big things scientists have found is the abnormal connections between the different departments in the brain.
The brain is like a big office building, and then you've got all the internet and phone connections between the different offices. Where you have the problem in autism is one office may get extra circuits and another office gets none. And it tends to be like the social guys over there in sales and human resources. We just give them really lousy, poor circuits. And things like mathematics or graphic design gets a whole lot of extra, big internet lines.
Nancy Minshew, at the University of Pittsburgh, and her colleagues, have found that word-based tasks tend to be processed in the visual parts of the brain. Like if you ask a question, like adding and subtracting are both math, that would be considered more word-based. But in the autistic person, it's processed in the visual part of the brain.
Now when I read that in her journal article, I saw my third-grade classroom. And another basic principle is the frontal cortex, up here in the front of the brain, like the brain's chief executive officer, that's used a whole lot less. People with autism tend to rely on the more sensory-based parts of the brain.
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Join Dr. Temple Grandin as she offers new insights on life with autism and how this unique perspective has helped her to develop award-winning techniques for handling livestock.
This video is part 1 of 8 in the Autism & Animal Behaviors series.