Changing Attitudes by Demonstrating Abilities | Organization for Autism Research

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This month’s Perspective columnist is Dr. Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin is a designer of livestock handling facilities and an Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Facilities she has designed are located in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. In North America, almost half of the cattle are handled in a center track restrainer system that she designed for meat plants. Curved chute and race systems she has designed for cattle are used worldwide and her writings on the flight zone and other principles of grazing animal behavior have helped many people to reduce stress on their animals during handling. She has also developed an objective scoring system for assessing handling of cattle and pigs at meat plants. This scoring system is being used by many large corporations to improve animal welfare.

In addition, Dr. Grandin teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design at Colorado State University and consults with the livestock industry on facility design, livestock handling, and animal welfare. She has appeared on television shows such as 20/20, 48 Hours, CNN Larry King Live, PrimeTime Live, the Today Show, and many shows in other countries. She has been featured in People Magazine, the New York Times, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Time Magazine, the New York Times book review, and Discover magazine. Interviews with Dr. Grandin have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has also authored over 300 articles in both scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare, and facility design. She is the author of “Thinking in Pictures”, “Livestock Handling and Transport,” and “Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals.” Her book “Animals in Translation” was a New York Times best seller.

One of the best ways to promote positive attitudes towards people on the autism spectrum is to emphasize the areas where the person excels. When I first started my career it was the early 1970’s when there were no support groups for people with autism. At that time many professionals thought that autism was an emotional disorder. And whether I was in school or in the job market, I quickly learned that I had to sell my work instead of myself.
My first part time job was writing a column for an Arizona state farm magazine. The readers and feedlot managers thought I was weird but soon I gained a reputation for writing really good, accurate articles. When I covered the Arizona cattle feeders meeting they knew that my reporting would be unbiased and I would not misquote anybody. I became known throughout Arizona as being really odd, but people respected my ability.

The first professional organization that I joined was the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. I remember one day when a group of engineers was avoiding me; but their attitude totally changed after I showed them one of my drawings. They said “you drew that?!” People were impressed by my engineering drawings and photos of finished projects I had designed. When I started my livestock equipment design business it was done freelance. I am still a freelance consultant today. Freelance work avoided a lot of dangerous office politics. I came in, I designed the project, and I left.

Selling yourself through Portfolios

Later I learned the importance of making great portfolios to show my work and used them to attract design clients. The first step was that it had to be very neat and professional looking. My first item was a brochure with pictures of finished projects that I had made at a commercial printing company. I often included one of my engineering drawings. It is a big mistake to put too much stuff in it. You want the customers to open it and in 15 to 30 seconds say “wow!”

The materials you put in your portfolio must also be appropriate for the particular customer. A small rancher should not be sent drawings for a giant feedlot. I obtained one of my most important meat industry clients by sending him a portfolio. Today there are five large beef processing plants where I have designed all of the animal handling systems. A well designed portfolio sent to the company president sold all of those projects.

The biggest mistake I see in portfolios sent to me is incomplete contact information. If the address is only on the envelope and the envelope gets lost, then the client has no way to answer. You need to send postal addresses, email addresses, and all phone numbers. You have to make it easy for a busy person to contact you. Since most people are afraid to open email attachments from strangers, sometimes it is best to use old fashioned mail unless the client has been contacted in advance and knows that it is safe to open the attachment. A web page is also recommended as a place to show off your portfolio. Portfolios should be in both electronic and paper formats. If you use the mail, send both formats. People are afraid of viruses and will not play strange disks on their computers.


Getting in the Backdoor

People on the Autism Spectrum have uneven skills. They are good at one thing and poor at something else. I was a visual thinker; consequently, algebra was impossible. Some students on the autism spectrum have used a portfolio to get accepted to universities. A student in New York who did poorly on the State exams sent an English professor some of her poems. He was so impressed with the poems that he got her into the university. In my own case I failed the SAT (which was then called the Graduate Record Exam) in Math. I am thankful for Franklin Pierce College for taking me on probation. I needed lots of tutoring from my teacher to get through two required math classes, but in the end I wound up with A’s and B’s in all my classes except for foreign language.

The bottom line is that people respect talent. Even though people in the 1970’s thought I was a “weird nerd,” I gained their respect and changed their attitudes when they saw my work. I later used my visual thinking abilities to design livestock facilities. I guess the message in the end is that one’s abilities can outshine what others perceive to be his or her disabilities or shortcomings, especially for those of us on the autism spectrum. So let’s show the world what we can do.

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