In order to teach tolerance, a teacher must proactively bring in those who are typically left out of the mainstream. With the 2010 release of the HBO movie about her life, Temple Grandin may be going mainstream. But autism still remains an enigma to most people. So I was thrilled when my student teacher, Eva Oliver, prepared a lesson about Temple Grandin and her work as a livestock equipment designer at the beginning of National Autism Awareness Month.
Grandin was able to surpass the medical community’s prognosis for her life and to solve a problem in slaughterhouses that resulted in more humane treatment of animals. To Oliver, Grandin is a hero on many levels. A devoted vegetarian since the age of eight, Oliver recognizes that vegetarianism won’t work for everyone. At the same time, she knows that our students have read Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson’s Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food, a book that is not complimentary about the way food is prepared. So they will be looking for middle ground.
In one chapter of Chew On This, the authors address how animals are led to be slaughtered. “The latest slaughterhouses are designed to keep cattle quiet and relaxed as they march up the ramp to their doom,” the book says. “The ramps curve and have walls on either side to prevent the cattle from seeing what’s ahead.”
The book’s authors point out that these new slaughterhouse designs are vastly more humane than earlier ones. But they don’t attribute the designs to the work of Temple Grandin. Discussing her life introduces students to a field of study they may not have heard of before—animal science. They also get to know an influential woman who happens to be on the autism spectrum. Too often the disabilities of important people in history are ignored. By making Grandin’s known, students can begin to see the special strengths born out of difference.
Quite the opposite of asking a child not to stare at someone in a wheelchair, Oliver asked our students to notice and describe the differences they saw in Grandin during a two-minute clip of her Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk on humane slaughterhouses. In this way, Oliver hoped they would see the truth rather than the stereotypes of difference.
At first they noticed the outer markers of autism. They said things like, “She doesn’t make eye contact.” “She talks a lot, and fast.” “She uses her hands.” Of course, these initial differences could easily be attributed to anyone who is nervous when making a presentation. By inviting students to verbalize the differences, they were more open to hearing what Grandin had to say.
In the TED clip, Grandin explains how her autistic brain works as opposed to a “normal brain.” And students, too, could see the strength in her autistic mind. They said, “She sees the little things … more than we do,” followed by “more quickly. Not with words, in pictures.” It was her visual thinking as well as her anxiety around humans that allowed Grandin to design slaughterhouses in which cows can be calm and comfortable, thus ending with the most humane death possible.
“I think that our students learned that one person does have the power to change the injustices in the world,” Oliver said. She noted that the students really seemed to be impressed by how Grandin sees the world. Many of them couldn’t believe that she’s been able to do so much despite being autistic. The bottom line is that disabilities do not necessary equal limitations. Sometimes, they are great strengths. As Oliver said, “There are niches in the world for everyone if you’re willing to find them.”
Thomas is an English teacher in California.