Different, Not Less

The spoken motto of the made-for-TV movie and true-life story “Temple Grandin” is different, not less. And Temple certainly proves herself that. She speaks too loudly and too fast; she does not understand body language; she spins around and around for longer than normal; and she experiences tantrums as a teenager — to name a few of the qualities that label her as different. Those of us with children with neurodevelopmental disorders are all too familiar with these and other “non-typical” behaviors. Our children are mocked, shunned, and left out of “normal” childhood life.

Those were not, however, the Temple qualities that I saw. Temple is certainly not less, as her mother believed; she is more. So much more. She excelled in science, going on to college and a very successful career in animal behavior. Temple’s innovations in animal farming, which encourage the humane treatment of cattle, are currently used in more than half the US beef farms. She is a professor at a university, has a consulting business, has written eight books (so far), and lectures about autism. And, perhaps most important to parents of children with neurodevelopment disorders, Temple lives a totally independent life. Temple is clearly a productive member of society, who happens to have autism. How did that happen? After watching the HBO movie and throwing out all my tissues, I searched for presentations about autism by Temple. Here are the keys that  Temple believes contributed to her success while living with, not suffering from, autism.

  • Turn-taking. To encourage sharing and living in the real world, Temple’s mother hired a nanny who played turn-taking games with her and her sister as a young child.
  • Speech therapy. Though a medical doctor said that Temple would never speak, her mother refused to believe that sentence. Like Helen Keller’s Annie Sullivan, Temple praises her wonderful speech teacher.
  • Nutrition. In her book Developing Talents, Temple says that she has noticed that people on the autism spectrum who are successful at work followed special diets, took nutritional supplements or medication, or used other treatments.
  • Manners. Temple was taught table manners. Bad behavior was not allowed at the table. No stimming. No eating with your hands. No talking with your mouth full.
  • Respect. Temple was taught to greet people. No rude comments. She was expected to adhere to the rules of  genteel society.
  • Responsibility. Temple had chores that she had to do every day. This was required because she was part of a household. Everyone in the family pitches in to help one another.
  • Outdoor time. Temple was encouraged to play and explore outside. Temple bemoans the amount of time that today’s youth spend inside watching television or using computers.
  • Self-care. Temple was required to take care of her personal appearance. No dirty clothes, unkempt hair, or unbrushed teeth.
  • Independence. First, Temple’s mother arranged for her daughter to spend two weeks, which turned into a summer, at her aunt’s ranch. Then, though it was difficult for both of them, Temple attended boarding school.
  • Skill building. Temple took classes like shop and home economics in school. Her mother bought her a play sewing machine on which she made costumes for her school play.
  • Job preparation. Temple’s mother arranged for her to work (for money) for a friend who was a seamstress when she was 13.
  • Mentors. Temple learned to sell her skills and ability before she sold herself, garnering mentors at crucial points in her life. Temple’s most important mentor was her high school science teacher, who encouraged her to attend college. Along the way, Temple found people who saw her strengths.

These are guidelines that parents should apply to all children, not only those with special needs. Neurotypical children usually learn turn-taking by osmosis in kindergarten. They often learn manners by mimicking the adults around them. At about puberty or sometimes earlier, they care about their personal appearance. Children with ASD (autism spectrum disorders), however, need direct instruction for many things that happen naturally for other children. Turn-taking, speech therapy, nutrition, manners, respect — Isabella is okay on all those fronts. Responsibility, outdoor time, and self-care definitely require more work.

Temple has reminded me that I need to raise my expectations for Isabella. She needs to clean up after herself and keep her half of the girls’ bedroom clean (her sister would be much happier). This will require me to make sure that it happens, breaking down cleaning into doable tasks. That means daily monitoring by me. She needs to spend more time outdoors or engage in more energy-expending activities, which means that I have to do this with her. Self-care, well, that’s not so easy. Isabella often uses too much shampoo, doesn’t rinse out the conditioner thoroughly, forgets deodorant, hates to brush her hair, and puts on clothing backwards. We’re working on the self-care portion and have a long way to go. I’m open to suggestions.

The next three keys to Temple’s success (and probably all children) are much more elusive for Isabella. We’re working on independence. She has walked to the store and the mailbox, crossing one street with a stop sign, by herself several times. Isabella has friends who go away to sleep away camp. I have rationalized that I never even sent my other, non-ASD kids to camp. A wise school director pointed out that my other children don’t need the experience that time away from the family garners. I get it, but I’m just not there yet. Funny thing, Isabella is begging us to go to sleep away camp this summer. There’s one not far from my father’s country home. I could move up there for the summer to be closer to Isabella…just in case.

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