Eager to learn about the experiences that have shaped one of the world’s leading authorities on autism, more than 1,250 students, faculty and administrators filled Carnesecca Arena to hear Temple Grandin, Ph.D., speak as part of Founder’s Week 2013 at St. John’s University.
Grandin delivered her lecture, “The Autistic Brain,” on Wednesday, September 25. She spoke about the need to embrace the interests and abilities of children and young adults who are on the autism spectrum. “Autism should not define us,” she said, “but it can be used to our advantage.” She explained how visionaries like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs were, in all likelihood, on the autism spectrum.
“Dr. Grandin exemplifies St. Vincent de Paul’s insistence that we must convert our charitable thoughts and talents into service to others,” said Sr. Margaret John Kelly, D.C., Executive Director of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society. “She serves as an exemplar of our Founder’s Week theme of Be Vincentian: Scholar and Servant and has excelled in both tasks of learning and serving.” Now in its 19th year, Founder’s Week 2013 took place from September 22 to 28.
“This was a great opportunity for our students to hear one of the leaders in the field,” said Raymond DiGiuseppe, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Psychology. “Dr. Grandin has both theoretical and, above all, practical knowledge about what it is like to have autism.”
According to Grandin, one of the keys to success for autistic children is early intervention. “If you see speech delay after two years of age, you need to address it right away,” she said. “There are so many talented kids out there who are going nowhere because they have no mentor to channel their abilities.”
A basic challenge for those with autism is socialization, which is something that can be taught, according to Grandin. “When your social circuits aren’t working, you’ve got to learn how to interact with others,” she said. “My mom made me greet every guest at her dinner parties. It gave me a level of comfort with people.”
A key to Grandin’s success in livestock handling was her ability to sell her work, since ingratiating herself with others did not come easily. “You have to learn to do the things that people want,” she said. “When I started in livestock handling, there weren’t a lot of people doing it, but there was a need—and I was good at it.”
Sarah Taormino ’14C, one of the many psychology majors in attendance, found Grandin’s words inspiring. “This was a remarkable experience,” she said. “Dr. Grandin gave me a fresh perspective on autism and great insight into how to educate autistic children. This is something I’ll carry with me throughout my professional career."
Grandin didn’t speak until she was three and was diagnosed with autism that year. Fortunately, she was paired with a gifted mentor who uncovered her unique ability to see the world differently. From an early age, Grandin had an affinity for animals, so her mother sent her to spend summers on a relative’s ranch. Thus, her fascination with livestock began. After earning her master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University, she turned her talents into a career as one of the world’s only livestock-handling equipment designers. Today, Grandin is a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and has authored a bestselling book on autism, The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's.
At the conclusion of her presentation, Grandin fielded questions from the audience before attending a special dinner reception with faculty and student leaders.
“It was an absolute pleasure to welcome Dr. Grandin to campus,” said Mary H. Pelkowski, Associate Dean for Student Engagement. “Scholar and servant, she has motivated countless people with her story and journey. It’s only fitting that she served as this year’s Founder’s Week speaker.”
Founder’s Week is dedicated to deepening the University community’s knowledge and understanding of St. John’s Vincentian heritage.