As a child with autism, Temple Grandin struggled to understand why her body went into sensory overload over the simplest of things — bright lights, loud noises and certain touches to her skin.
The noted author and animal science professor at Colorado State University said she considers herself lucky that she was diagnosed early and was taught the importance of basic skills, such as table manners and how to greet people. It’s something she tries to pass on to others who might be in the same situation.
Those like Ricco Romero. Meeting the author at a recent gathering at Arroyo Hondo Ranch, Ricco, 8, who is autistic, was hesitant about shaking Grandin’s hand. But she wouldn’t give in to his shyness.
“Come on,” Grandin said, grabbing his hand firmly. “You’ve got to learn to shake hands. Good. Now let’s try it again.”
Ricco’s mother, Rachel Flores, beamed at her son and thanked the author.
“He’s doing really good,” Flores said. “He has some trouble with crowds but he’s doing great today; I think it’s because we’re outside. He has a lot of issues like that — he can speak but most people can’t understand him.”
Ricco was among a group of students from Las Campanas Compadres — a therapeutic program for those with physical, emotional or learning disabilities — that met with the author early Friday at the private ranch. Grandin, who was in town to talk that evening at St. John’s College as part of the Steiner Lecture Series, is a hero to many of the parents whose own children struggle with various challenges.
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Liz Herrera, whose daughter, Caitlin, 9, has autism. “At least in my world. I’ve read a lot of her books and watched her movie. I know that Caitlin is a visual thinker — her issues are mostly oral, and lights and noise.”
Like many of those in the Compadres program, Caitlin does both the therapeutic riding and swimming classes offered free of charge with the program. She now swims under water and rides horses with the help of instructor Georgia Smith.
“She loves riding, talking and laughing with Georgia,” Herrera said. “She doesn’t have any fear of animals.”
The program, which has more than 20 participants of all ages, was founded in May 2007 by Lawrence and Suzanna Beccerra. The group uses the community’s equestrian and swimming facilities, and is supported through donations.
Grandin, whose best-selling books on animals include Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation, said she can get inside the mind of animals because she thinks like them. Like animals, Grandin is a visual thinker and uses her senses instead of words to understand complex problems.
Grandin said the world needs many kinds of thinkers — those who think visually and those who think mathematically, for example. Well-known for creating humane animal-processing systems, Grandin said she could figure out how to make things easier for cattle, but she still needed engineering people to work on mechanical aspects.
“When you’re doing a lot of things, you need both kinds of thinking,” she said. “Take something like the iPod music player. An arts major designed the work and feel of it, but engineers had to make it work. You need both kinds of minds, then you really get something good.”
While Grandin’s form of autism created challenges for her growing up, she found encouragement from teachers and family, especially her aunt, who lived on a ranch in Arizona. Grandin loved animals as a child, she said, and became especially fond of horses and cows as a teenager.
“Some kids (with autism) really, really relate to animals,” she said. “And some don’t like animals because they have sensitive hearing and don’t like it when dogs bark. But there are a number of kids that when they ride a horse, they’ll say their first words. You’re doing an activity where you are balancing and doing rhythm at the same time and that seems to have an effect on some kids. Sometimes for kids, animals are the best thing you can do for them.”
Those with learning and other challenges like autism run the spectrum, Grandin said. She considers what the people are capable of and urges them to get involved in an activity. Some nonverbal people have learned to type independently, for example.
“Even though they look dysfunctional, they’ve got a good brain track in there,” she said. “And then there are some who ought to be working in Silicon Valley.”
Animals have always been an important part of her life, Grandin said. On a recent book tour, Grandin said she was surprised to find that many young families don’t have pets — not even a gerbil. That leaves a hole in many lives.
“A life without animals, I don’t think that’s good,” she said. “I think kids and animals need each other.”
Those in the Compadres program have learned to trust animals and in turn trust themselves. John “Mad Dog” Romero, who relies on a wheelchair for mobility, said riding a horse gives him a sense of independence. He likes to ride alone, without the help of instructor Smith.
“I just like it,” Mad Dog, 21, said. “I just like the freedom.”
His mother, Darlene Romero, said those in the program and their friends and family find inspiration in Grandin. Romero’s husband, John, a veterinarian who is also on the board of the Compadres
program, once worked in a Grandin-designed Colorado slaughterhouse many years ago.
“He said it was like being inside of a watch,” she said. “The way she designed it was impressive — everything was so calibrated and calculated.”
While Grandin might be famous for many of those who met with her on Friday, Romero said the children might not make the connection, but are still awed by her. “They know that they’re here because she’s here and that’s it,” she said. “That’s the blessing in it. They just absorb it. They don’t need to be impressed with famous people, they’re just — ‘this is good.’ “