CHAMPAIGN — The teacher stood before Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous adult with autism in the world, with a heartfelt question.
How can I be a better teacher to my students who were just diagnosed with autism, she asked, her voice breaking. What can I do to help them succeed?
"You may already be a great teacher," Grandin replied, to applause from the audience. "The first thing is you care. A good teacher is more important than a fancy classroom."
Grandin, a fierce advocate for the 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism, spoke Tuesday at the Autism Society of Illinois/CU Autism Network conference at the I Hotel and headlined a benefit dinner.
Now a professor at Colorado State University, Grandin holds a Ph.D. in animal sciences from the University of Illinois (and an honorary doctorate) and is credited with revolutionizing the way livestock are handled at meat plants. She has also authored several notable books on autism that have won worldwide acclaim, and her story was made into a 2010 HBO movie.
But her early life was a struggle.
Grandin didn't talk until she was 31/2 years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming and humming. She was diagnosed with autism in 1950, when little was known about the condition. Her book, "Emergence: Labeled Autistic," was a milestone, because until then, most parents and professionals assumed a diagnosis of autism meant a productive life wasn't possible.
Grandin was considered "weird" in her early school years, called the "tape recorder" by school bullies because she used the same phrases over and over. But her mother found a mentor who understood that Grandin, a "visual thinker," needed images more than words to understand the world.
She eventually turned her unusual artistic talent into a career designing livestock-handling equipment, with insights gleaned from watching animal behavior while working on a ranch as a teen. She has worked with Cargill, Burger King, Swift and others.
"Pretty good for someone thought to be 'mentally retarded,'" Grandin said Tuesday.
In her talk, Grandin emphasized the importance of early intervention for children with autism. She also said it's crucial for them to learn social skills and work skills, and get out into the world.
"Get them out there, out of their rooms," she said. "This eight hours of video games has got to stop."
She cited her own "'50s education," when manners and social skills were taught as a matter of course. She had to play hostess at her mother's parties, greeting guests when they arrived. She had to join the family for dinner, and be on time. She took odd jobs starting around age 13, doing sewing work and selling candy to neighbors. and her mother let her go to the store to buy things for herself.
Children with autism need to be exposed to life in order to find their passions and develop their skills, she said.
Grandin said rigid academic standards and social expectations can stifle those with autism, who often have skills that are overlooked. Parents and educators need to build up their strengths so they can have productive careers, she said.
A person with autism could be "that quirky guy in the maintenance shop who could design anything," she said, or the person who knows how to repair power lines or fix your car.
"Don't let smart kids end up playing video games in the basement," she said.
Schools should offer practical opportunities in cooking, welding, woodworking or computer repair, Grandin said.
She railed against algebra requirements for college, which screen out students who aren't mathematical thinkers but may be brilliant in other ways. She got into college on probation because her mother "talked the dean into letting me in," she said. Also, algebra wasn't a requirement in 1967.
Grandin said different parts of the brain see, hear, speak and think about a word, and the problems with autism come in the communications between those zones. Her visual learning zone was over-developed, but she was lacking in the speech production area.
"I was not an auditory learner," she said. "My mind works like Google for images. You say words to me and I think pictures."
Her ability in art was obvious by third grade. In grade school she made things out of cardboard in and glue. In high school, she was using wood, and by the time she grew up she had transitioned to steel and concrete.
"We've got to build on the things the kids are good at," she said.
Visual thinkers like her can go into industrial design, graphic arts, auto repair or photography. Those who are "pattern thinkers" excel at data analytics, computer science, mathematics or engineering. Verbal thinkers are good at writing or translating, she said.
"The world needs all different kinds of minds."
In her case, a construction executive recognized her talent. She made portfolios of her drawings and sent them to companies, rather than going through conventional interviews.
"When you're weird you've got to show off your work," she said. "We've got to start going through the back door, rather than breaking our heads on the front door."
Grandin dislikes labels for those with autism, saying it encompasses a spectrum of people with many different abilities, from Einstein down to someone with no language skills.
She cited other brilliant minds who could have been mildly autistic, from Steve Jobs (visual thinker) to Thomas Edison, who was a "hyperactive high school dropout" described as "addled" by his teachers. Grandin said she recently visited Silicon Valley and saw "all the people on the spectrum there."
There's no "black and white" when it comes to autism, she said, no clear line between "normal" and "abnormal."
"When do geeks and nerds become someone with autism?" she asked.
Grandin's visit was eagerly anticipated by many in the audience, including Kristina Castillo-Simons, a special education teacher at Urbana High School who got to speak with her before the keynote address.
"This is a bucket-list item for me," Castillo-Simons said. "It's right up there with my wedding day."
Words of wisdom
Temple Grandin had some advice for educators and parents of children with autism:
— Expose them to the world. Objects are more interesting than facts. Teach them math through cooking, or concepts like "up" and "down" by using the stairs.
— Get them out of the house and interacting with other people. Give them choices: robotics or soccer? theater or band? karate or Cub Scouts?
— Help them make friends by sharing special interests, whether it's model rockets or theater.
— Don't allow kids to be a recluse in their rooms; make them join the family for meals.
— Limit screen time to one hour a day on weekdays and two hours on weekends.
— Teach them how to take turns by playing board games. Have them play games where rules and goals are negotiated.
— Use "teachable moments" when they make a mistake with manners or socially. Don't yell or say "no," just calmly give the right instruction.
— Give them time to digest an instruction or come up with a reply. Like a slow internet connection, they sometimes need to download a word to figure it out.
— To learn work skills, have them take on small jobs, like walking a dog for a neighbor, setting up chairs at church. Or they could sell their artwork, fix computers, or volunteer at a senior center or animal shelter.
— Check online educational options, such as the Khan Academy, Coursera, or artistic software.