University Park, IL,
15:14 PM

Temple Grandin at Governors State Conference: 'Think Differently'

Best-selling author and autism spokesperson Temple Grandin shared personal insights from her journey with the developmental disability as an entryway into the topic during a recent conference at Governors State University.

Her central message to the more than 700 people who gathered at the Center for Performing Arts was as pointed as it was poignant, and as candid as it was humorous.

“I want to bust you out of your silos and get you to think differently. I’m worried people are seeing labels first. Autism is important, but it’s not primary. You need to put emphasis on what the kid is good at,” she said.

Dr. Grandin delivered the keynote speech at the GSU College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) 50th Anniversary Conference: Fostering Educational and Vocational Success for Young Adults with Disabilities.

A professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, Grandin was one of the first on the autism spectrum to publicly share her personal experiences with autism. Her 75-minute presentation often drew applause and laughter from the crowd.

Pointing to a string of success stories from Apple founder Steve Jobs to Beethoven—both of whom she said were likely on the spectrum—Grandin outlined ways parents and professionals can help young people with autism create fulfilling adult lives: build on what interests them, give them a chance to work with their hands, teach them fundamental life skills like shopping and banking, and, above all, ensure they get the opportunity to work she said.

Though not all young people with autism are able to work, those who can hold jobs benefit greatly and are build credibility with the outside world, Grandin said.

“I tell kids who want to be autism advocates, ‘You’ll be a better advocate if you can tell people you’ve got a job,’” she said.

CHHS Dean and veteran speech-language pathologist, Catherine Balthazar, noted earlier in the day that for young people with disabilities, employment levels are distressingly low.

“While our Illinois unemployment rate is under 4 percent, for high school graduates with disabilities, that rate is over 60 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71.5 percent of college graduates with disabilities are unemployed.”

The situation also impacts their families and communities, she said.

Grandin’s message dovetailed perfectly with the concerns and hopes of more than 150 attendees at the day’s conference, the first event of a three-year effort by GSU to forge community partnerships to address health and education disparities in the region.

“We need to coordinate resources,” said Dr. Balthazar. “We need to learn from all the different people, groups, and organizations that touch their lives. We need to understand the strengths in the community and build on them.”

The daylong conference that preceded Grandin’s speech gave educators, health professionals, students, and all other supporters of young adults with disabilities a chance to learn about and network on topics such as promoting self-regulation in the classroom, supporting high school transitions to college, facilitating success for students with autism, teaching students about self-care and risk management, and strengthening transitional programs for college-bound students.

While significant support comes during the elementary and high school years for young people with disabilities, too few go on to post-secondary education, and even fewer earn college degrees, Balthazar said.

“Fewer than 35 percent of students with disabilities at four-year institutions graduate within eight years. I think we must do better than that. We owe it to our students and to the community to improve these outcomes.”

Employment was a significant concern among conference attendees. “My students with autism have phenomenal skills, but the community, including local businesses, doesn’t know that. They hear ‘people with disabilities’ and they don’t want to hire them,” said Christopher Spiel, a speech pathologist at Andrew High School in Tinley Park, where about 10 percent of students have a disability. “It would be great to get businesses to switch from traditional job interviews to seeing how someone problem-solves in groups, which is what my kids do.”

Among other challenges, funding for additional programs and support emerged as a stumbling block. That is where support from state legislators can come in, said state Rep. Will Davis, a Democrat who represents the 30th district and GSU alumnus.

“Public policy happens in places like this, but it doesn’t always make its way to the legislature,” he said, recommending that next year’s conference end with a legislative panel.

“You have to bring the conversation to them so they know what changes need to be made. This would be a great place for it,” Davis said. “Next year, share your ideas and information with us.”