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The 2e Center, located on the campus of Bridges Academy in Studio City, California, was developed to create and sustain an innovative, multi-disciplinary hub where professionals, scholars, and practitioners combine efforts. In this column, we’ll share what’s happening at our center and report research findings, teaching ideas, and parenting suggestions we have found to be successful in helping 2e kids thrive. We hope you’ll find the information useful and relevant.
As part of our mission to create an awareness of the promise and challenges of the 2e population, the 2e Center hosted “A Morning with Temple Grandin” on Friday, January 16, in Pasadena. As people in the field have come to appreciate, Temple Grandin, autistic herself, has emerged as a strong voice and advocate for students with learning differences, especially those on the autism spectrum. Her own journey, described poignantly through her books and the HBO film of her life, provides strong evidence and hope that autistic people can lead fulfilling, productive lives in spite of their personal challenges.
Grandin’s talk, entitled “Different Kinds of Minds,” was riveting. Replete with research, statistics, and personal anecdotes, it left us with guidelines for helping meet the needs of twice-exceptional students, especially those on the spectrum. Here’s a recap of the topics she covered.
Grandin discussed the challenges of finding appropriate research on what works for students with autism. She explained that the autism spectrum represents wide variation of types and severity of issues faced by autistic individuals; and she warned that too much of the research is general rather than focused on specific types of autism. Grandin called for researchers to concentrate on subgroups because interventions and strategies will depend on the neurology and individual profiles of strengths and learning differences.
Grandin discussed the seemingly narrow interests of bright students with autism. It’s a grave mistake, she stated, to ignore these interests. Instead, she argues, if we want these students to expand and develop their interests and passions, we need to expose them to fascinating things. It’s precisely from their interests and passions that students will discover future careers and the means to be self-supporting and fulfilled. Grandin also spoke of the therapeutic value of knowing you’re good at something, especially when other doors close.
Related to this idea is her assertion of the need to help 2e students develop specialized interests rather than broad-based understandings. Once these specialties are identified, it’s critical, she believes, to provide opportunities for practical skill development, allowing these students to grow from novice to expert within their interest area. A focus on individual interests and strengths will not only result in career opportunities but also suggest educational strategies that will benefit the autistic brain. To back up her assertions, Grandin, who has an avid interest in airplanes, gave an example from her own life. She explained that if she could have learned algebra within the context of airplane mechanics, her experience would have been much more positive and would have given her a way to understand complex equations and formulas.
Another theme addressed during the lecture was bottom-up teaching and learning. For Grandin, learning occurs best when concrete examples are taught first. Over the course of many examples, schema (mental file folders) are enriched and reinforced. She directed audience members to an entry posted on the autism blog that she felt was well worth reading: http://thelittleblackduck.com.au/lbd/life-experience. In it, blogger Melanie provides an excellent example of the idea of contextualization and broadening of concepts.
A theme woven throughout Grandin’s talk was the need for kids to have jobs. She spoke of the great disparity between individuals on the spectrum finding satisfying and meaningful jobs within the technology industry, while others with similar skill sets are sitting in the basement, collecting social security checks and playing video games. As she explained, many of these individuals want to work, but do not fit in and are at a loss as how to get and keep a job.
In response to this situation, Grandin co-authored a book with Kate Duffy in 2008 titled Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. Because of the need for students on the spectrum to find fulfilling work, she strongly suggests that they all have a “childhood neighborhood job” where they learn how to be responsible, develop appropriate social skills, and earn money, which they can then spend or save.
A few of us attending the talk have seen amazing growth in Grandin’s social skills over the years. She has become much more people-oriented, asking others to join her for a meal, engaging in conversation both with questions and answers, and even providing a hug when leaving, behaviors rarely witnessed 10 years ago. Grandin is aware of her social growth. During the question and answer segment of her talk, she was asked what had happened with her “squeeze box,” a device she invented to reduce anxiety for herself. She replied, “The box broke about five years ago, and I haven’t had time to fix it. I’m now getting real hugs from people.” The audience smiled and burst into applause.
Finally, Grandin urged all adults raising and working with students on the spectrum — parents and educators alike — to raise their expectations for these children. Both social and academic skills can be taught. Specific feedback and opportunities to practice skills in real contexts are critical. Grandin credits her mother for early intervention and for believing in her. She stated that her 1950s upbringing included: having to serve as a hostess at family parties (to interact with people); having chores; participating in clubs and not being allowed to be reclusive. Grandin remembers that learning basic skills, proper behavior, table manners, good hygiene, and performing chores was not easy. In fact, she resisted doing it. Her mother, Eustacia Cutler, guided her without critical judgment. Rather than just admonishing her behavior with a “No, don’t eat with your hands,” her mother would simply state the preferred behavior, “Use your fork.”
Photo, first row, from left to right
Dewey Rosett, Parents Educational Network
Ellen Rosen, Board of Trustees, Bridges Academy
Robin Schader, Board of Trustees, Bridges Academy
Susan Baum, 2e Center for Research and Professional Development at Bridges Academy
Jann Leppein, 2e Center Executive Board and Whitworth University
Kim Vargas, Bridges Academy and 2e Center Executive Board
Carl Sabatino, Bridges Academy
Doug Lenzini, Bridges Academy