Albert Einstein was probably autistic and the same was likely true of Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and legions of engineers — including those who manage space missions at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speculated author and professor of animal science Temple Grandin, officially diagnosed as autistic in her 40s.
She urged about 1,000 parents and those who specialize in the education and social development of youngsters on the autism spectrum who attended her talk Tuesday night to dismiss the “medical model” of the condition and embrace the concept of “different kinds of minds.”
Grandin’s presentation was sponsored by the Variety Child Learning Center in Syosset to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The nonprofit provides special education programs and support services for families in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Dressed in an Annie Oakley-style shirt with a handkerchief tie, Grandin produced a laundry list of dos and don’ts based on her own experience of growing up — and growing older — with autism.
“Never say ‘no’ or ‘stop it.’ Calmly give the instruction and tell the child what to do. That’s a teachable moment from my generation,” Grandin said.
Much of what she recommended during her hourlong talk Tuesday night at the Hilton Hotel in Melville stemmed from principles developed by her mother, Eustacia Cutler, who doggedly sought ways to help her daughter in an era when institutionalizing children was the preferred method of dealing with autism.
Cutler stressed reading, games, discipline and limiting time spent watching television. Today, Grandin’s recommendations to parents rely on many of the same rules she recalls from the 1950s that have apparently paid dividends throughout her life. Grandin went on to earn a doctorate in animal science from the University of Illinois and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.
“We need to limit video games and video watching,” said Grandin, who recommended that parents have magazines on hand that stress careers. She is an advocate of helping young people on the autism spectrum to “stretch” their minds — expand their thinking — through exposure to new ideas.
“People tell me my talks were better at age 60 than they were at age 50,” Grandin, 69, said, underscoring that the human brain changes and expands throughout life.
Autism generally is referred to as a spectrum of brain developmental disorders that can range from mild to severe. These disorders may be characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy organization.
Three years ago, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders merged all autism conditions under one umbrella — autism spectrum disorder. Before the change, each distinct subtype was listed, such as Asperger syndrome, autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).
Some children on the autism spectrum do not speak, others tend to rivet their attention on a specific subject and focus on it relentlessly. If, for example, a child’s focus is trains, then find everything possible about them and develop the child’s strength, Grandin said.
Donna Cantrell Gerzof, a trustee of Variety Child Learning Center, who invited Grandin to speak, said the presentation, which included slides on the human brain and sketches of cattle corrals Grandin developed to reduce fear among the animals, went beyond expectations.
“She really hit her groove,” said Gerzof, whose son, 23, has autism and graduated cum laude in May from Georgetown University. He’s now a congressional aide on Capitol Hill.
Gerzof says Grandin is a role model for many on the autism spectrum.
“You can only imagine the challenge that Temple’s mom faced in the late 1940s,” Gerzof said, noting that autism at the time was largely known as childhood schizophrenia.
Andrea Rieger, also of Variety Child Learning Center, said so many people signed up to attend Tuesday’s talk, there weren’t enough seats to accommodate them.
“We literally had to turn people away,” Rieger said.