Temple Grandin speaks to a large audience.
Disability advocate and animal science expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., speaks to a large audience during her visit to VCU on Nov. 5. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

‘Different thinking exists:’ Temple Grandin talks labels, video games and education

At VCU, the disability rights advocate weighs in on the need for more diversity of thought, and why she wants children to learn by building things.

Share this story

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a disability advocate and author whose life was chronicled in an HBO movie, learned to tinker with things at an early age. She made model rockets and invented a device to help her stay calm.

“When I was young, I was a massive geek,” Grandin said.

Grandin, who has been diagnosed with autism, spent a large part of her teenage years at her aunt’s ranch in Arizona and became interested in animal science. She eventually earned a doctorate in the field and broke down barriers for people with disabilities. On Nov. 5, the 72-year-old Colorado State University professor shared her story — and her thoughts on labels, video games, education and the need for diversity of thought — at “Creating a Culture of Access,” an event presented by the Virginia Commonwealth University Transforming Accessibility Initiative. 

The event at the Altria Theater, which also included a book signing, a panel discussion where VCU community members spoke about their experiences with disabilities and an accessibility awards ceremony, drew attendees from throughout the region. Mary Jeanette Fraser traveled with a group from Galloping Acres’ Therapeutic Riding Program in Henrico County to hear Grandin speak. Galloping Acres works with people who have autism, and Grandin, Fraser said, is a great example to follow. 

“People saw that she was willing to put in the work,” Fraser said. “She didn’t get anything for free.”

Diversity of thought

Grandin has written multiple books on her experiences and speaks out for the rights of people with disabilities. She is concerned that some of the most innovative minds in the country are being held back, because they have been pigeonholed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia or being on the autism spectrum. Many of the greatest inventors in American history — Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs for example — probably had one of these conditions but were never formally diagnosed, Grandin said.

Temple Grandin speaking to an audience.
Grandin feels that attaching labels to people can limit them from realizing their full potential. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

“What would happen to some of our innovators if they were children today?” Grandin asked. “This is something that worries me. Would they be less successful today? I’m worried about too many people getting labeled.” 

Grandin visited NASA a few years ago and learned that the person who headed the team that built a launch pad was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. The person who built the flight control system for the lunar lander was reclusive and probably would have been diagnosed with a condition today. It is these types of people who have historically built things, Grandin said.

“The geeks and the misfits in the special-ed department built the stuff,” she said.

More and more people are being pushed out of engineering and the building trades, because they have been diagnosed with a particular condition, Grandin said. That is limiting the diversity of thought and reducing the number of perspectives. She believes incidents like the recent collapse of a hotel in New Orleans, and the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max occurred because the teams lacked diversity of thought. 

“Why did they make the mistake — the problem is they didn’t see it,” Grandin said.

2019 Champions of Accessibility

The event on Nov. 5 included award presentations to students, faculty and staff who have made outstanding contributions to creating equal access for all at VCU.

Casey Gagliardi, Undergraduate Student

Lynne Fetter, Graduate Student

Margaret Kelland, Facilities Management, Departmental Partner

Rams in Recovery, Outstanding Program or Organization

Bethany (bee) Coston, College of Humanities and Sciences, Faculty — Excellence in Access, Course Content and Instruction

Kevin Wade, Residential Life and Housing, Student Support

Stephanie Lau, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Faculty — Research

Jennifer Elswick, College of Humanities and Sciences, Digital Access — Individual/Small-Group

Tristana Trani, Division of University Relations, Digital Access — Social Media

Office of Alumni Relations, Digital Access Award (Large Site), Most Accessible

Web Standards & Guidelines, Digital Access Award (Small Site), Most Accessible

Department of History, Digital Access Award (Large Site), Most Improved

University Controller’s Office, Digital Access Award (Small Site), Most Improved

More tinkering needs to be done 

Grandin expressed concern about video games and their ability to take creativity away from young people. Children with autism, she argued, can easily be sucked into the world of video games and not be encouraged to think independently. Grandin argued that parents often do not challenge children to think for themselves. She wants to see children with structured activities away from the home to learn independence and life skills. 

“We have kids today that have never hooked up a garden hose,” she said. “They are totally separated from the world. They have no sense of the practical.”

Children need to be encouraged to build things as a way to learn problem-solving skills. She recently visited a classroom where the students were building robots. Those are the types of skills that she wants to see encouraged. 

“One of the worst things we did was take out the hands-on classes [out of schools] — shop, auto mechanics, theater, all of that kind of good stuff,” Grandin said. “We need to put that stuff back in.”

A seated audience at a theater.
A large crowd, including first lady of Virginia Pamela Northam (front row, center), gathers at the Altria Theater for the "Creating a Culture of Access" event. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Loss of trades

The trend has led to a loss of qualified people in the building trades. Germany, Grandin said, has done a better job of encouraging people to learn skilled trades, knowing that not everyone needs to attend a four-year university. As a result, elevators, ski lifts and other specialized equipment are no longer built in the U.S. Grandin recently toured a meat processing plant and said none of the equipment was built in the U.S.

The country, she said, needs to do a better job of encouraging people to enter the skilled trades. The U.S. has a shortage of welders and other skilled trades, and from her experience, many of the people who have historically been talented at these professions would have been given a label today. From her experience, people with autism, ADHD and dyslexia excel in these professions.

“What is the ultimate goal of education?” Grandin said. “I think we are looking at where is the kid going to end up 10 years after high school graduation. That is where I think we ought to be looking. I want to see them in a good job. I want to see them be a lifelong learner.”

Temple Grandin signing a book for an attendee.
Grandin, who has written several books on autism as well as animals, signs a copy of "The Autistic Brains." (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Different ways to think 

Grandin said part of the challenge with the skilled trades is realizing that people process information differently. Overall, four types of thinkers exist — photorealistic visual thinker, pattern thinker, verbal thinker and auditory thinker. Each brings different skills to the table. Grandin said she is a photo thinker, someone who sees everything in pictures. 

“When I was young, I thought everybody thought like me,” Grandin said. “I am learning more and more that minds can be different, and how they solve problems.” 

Grandin believes that when people get labeled, these tendencies can be exacerbated. The person focuses on the diagnosis, and the one single skill it represents. 

“There are different ways of approaching problems, and when you get a label, the skills tend to be more uneven, where you are really good at one thing and terrible at something else,” Grandin said. 

She wants people to realize that different forms of thought exist and one form of thinking is not better than another. The construction and building process will be better when a diverse number of approaches are brought to the table.

“The first thing is realizing different thinking exists,” she said, adding, “Different kinds of minds can work together.”

Eight people seated on a stage for a panel discussion. "Transforming Accessibility Initiative" and the V C U logo are displayed on the screen behind the panel participants.
Members of the VCU community participate in a panel discussion on their personal experiences with disabilities and accessibility efforts at the university. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Accessibility issues

After Grandin’s keynote, members of the VCU community discussed accessibility and their experiences with having a disability. Ian Kunkes, director of Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity at VCU and co-chair of the Transforming Accessibility Initiative, moderated the forum.

“It’s baked into VCU’s mission,” Kunkes said of accessibility and inclusion. “That is highlighted by [Grandin visiting campus], and the important work being done in accessibility and disability. The panel was an opportunity to discuss people’s experiences.” 

The panel discussion included Majesta-Dore' Legnini, a VCU alum; VCU students Casey Gagliardi, Tristen Taggart and Antoine Craig; Angela West, multicultural specialist at the VCU Center for Family Involvement; and Meriah Crawford, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry.

They spoke about their range of experiences as someone with a disability and also touched on the positive way they have been treated at VCU. The university is working to make physical infrastructure more accessible and provides opportunities for people with a disability to excel.

“It’s about being a place for all people,” Kunkes said. “It’s about making sure people who come to VCU see it as a welcoming environment.” 

Gagliardi, who helped organize the event, said people traveled from all over the region to hear Grandin speak. 

“I think it was amazing,” she said. “I think it was great to have a discussion about people who have a chronic condition or a disability.”