A Window into Autism and Visual Spatial Thinking: Ponder Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin was in town this past weekend. Unfortunately, I missed her session at the Humanities Festival. If any of you attended, please share your perceptions!

I did get a chance to read Tribune Reporter Nina Metz’ article yesterday. See, Metz, N. (2013, November 11) “Grandin provides prism for seeing facets of autism,” Chicago Tribune. Though the article was brief (much more on Grandin including a book and a biopic), Metz appeared to capture the essence of Grandin. That got me thinking: what would it have been like to advocate for young Temple Grandin? From my readings of the works of many scholars on this topic, plus years working with twice exceptional students (gifted and LD or on the Autism Spectrum), this is the message I’d imagine advocates would send:

1. Step into Temple Grandin’s shoes and try to understand—or at least accept--how she thinks. As Metz suggested, students like Grandin do cut to the point and are very exacting (apparently Grandin cut off rambling questions). And socially, they are different. One boy with whom I worked would jump into my classroom and start singing operettas at the start of class. But, his ability to process a problem in its entirety was remarkable. Gifted expert Linda Silverman aptly describes this type of visual spatial thinking that students on the Autism Spectrum often share:

“Children who exhibit a visual-spatial learning style…learn by visualizing relationships and perceive the gestalt—the whole.” Many parents remark that they just know things; when the children are asked how they arrived at their conclusions, they can’t explain…[students] master complex skills by observing rather than by trial and error.” (Silverman, 2000, p. 88)*

Try explaining this intuitive thinking to a classroom teacher with a fixed mindset who only wants students to “show their work.” Not easy and often very frustrating for parents and advocates. Progress—understanding of the child’s unique abilities-- can be made through education on Autism and other learning disabilities.

2. Use care when labeling (whether talking about students on the Autism Spectrum or those who are identified as twice-exceptional). Don’t know whether I’d imply that half of Silicon Valley is on the Autism Spectrum like Grandin did during her talk. I’d focus on her strengths and weaknesses, and encourage educators to devote as much time—or even more—to teaching to her strengths.  Focus on the big ideas. Use books on tape for children who have strong reasoning abilities but may struggle in other areas, like reading or writing. Computers (though don’t overuse) are a godsend. Collaborate with the special education teacher as well as the gifted teacher. That’s what the law requires.

3. Review the evidence. It’s hard to identify a student with a learning issue as gifted because this type of student often uses his talents to compensate for his deficits. One clue: good questioners are good thinkers. Most likely, advocates for Grandin brought evidence of an IQ/achievement discrepancy (the WISC IV is not the only test that need be used; the point is to measure intellect so that you can compare it to achievement and identify reasons for underachievement). Try to convince the school to write a GEP (Gifted Education Plan) along with the IEP. Goals and agreements should be set forth in writing.

4. Temple Grandin (and like minded peers) has feelings, too: value her and value her differences. School should be a haven for students and sadly, many are not. Learning should be not limited to the academic front, but teachers should work towards building a classroom community where differences are valued and social skills are practiced. My operetta-singing student became viewed as a leader in his own right; students valued his ability to run a robotics course and that transferred into patience when he sang. Metz indicated that the biggest takeaway of Grandin’s talk was “how essential these differences can be to our communal well-being.”

5. Monitor, Monitor, Monitor—Parents need to stay on top of the situation to make sure that their child is being challenged. Temple’s mother did. So parents, brace yourselves for a constant role of advocacy. These students are often very misunderstood, but can contribute so much! Along that thread, eager to read Temple’s new book: Different…Not Less.

We will be discussing these issues at a Parent Academy at Da Vinci Academy in Elgin this Saturday. Come join us! For more information, see the Upcoming Events section on the IAGC website, www.iagcgifted.org.

Also, take a look at my recent article on Navigating the Challenges of Raising and Schooling a Gifted Child at http://expertbeacon.com/navigating-challenges-raising-and-schooling-gifted-child.


*Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented.


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  • I wish I knew she was speaking in town. I would have enjoyed to see her.

  • Hi Rhonda and "Yoga Mom,"

    I work for the Chicago Humanities Festival and had the pleasure to attend the Temple Grandin program on Saturday.

    We actually did a LIVE broadcast of her talk. You can find the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYVdZLf3MH4&t=11m26s

    We are working on getting a more polished version up on our YouTube site (youtube.com/chicagohumanities), but in the meantime, I thought you might want access to the video. Enjoy!

  • Woops! That was the link to the LIVE broadcast of Tammy Baldwin.

    Here is the one for Temple Grandin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88fN4bXtNs4&t=3m15s

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