Autism isn't everything

Temple Grandin has written nine books and more than 400 articles on animal welfare and human potential. She is a doctor of animal science, a professor at Colorado State University and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

She prefers fresh fruit to juice, loves satiric comedy and does 100 sit-ups every night.

Oh, and she has autism.

"I have a problem with autism being a primary identity," Grandin told a crowd of about 50 children, parents and educators at Heartspring. "I consider myself a college professor first, someone with autism second."

Grandin, in Wichita for book-signing and speaking engagements, spent about an hour Wednesday answering questions and offering advice at Heartspring, a center for children with special needs.

"For people on the autism spectrum and people who work in the field, this is like meeting a rock star," said Connie Erbert, director of autism outreach for Heartspring. "When you hear her story and you understand what she's been through . . . it gives you so much hope."

Grandin, 62, was diagnosed as autistic in 1950. Speech therapy and hours of "taking-turn games" with her mother and nanny helped her learn to talk around age 4, she said.

She later turned a passion for animals, art and mechanical problem-solving into a career in the livestock industry. Grandin designed curved corrals intended to reduce stress in cattle being led to slaughter, and promotes a variety of humane livestock handling practices. She has written several books about growing up with autism, including "The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's."

Her Wichita visit was sponsored by Cargill.

Fourteen-year-old Barry Ketcham admires Grandin's accomplishments. But on Wednesday he wanted to know how she handles simpler things like a trip to the mall.

"I have trouble dealing with sounds in confined spaces," said Barry, who has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. "I feel really tense, really nervous, and sometimes it just drives me to tears."

Grandin suggested headphones to block out noise in certain situations. "As long as you don't do it all the time," she said.

Grandin's talk was casual and matter-of-fact but peppered with stern comments, particularly regarding children's manners. When a young boy made noise and ran out of the room during her talk, Grandin said, "I would have gotten in trouble for that."

The trick for parents of children with autism, she said, is distinguishing between sensory problems or physical ailments and bad behavior.

"Sometimes, you just have bad behavior," she said. "I was expected to sit still at the table for 20 minutes, and I did. There were boundaries.... Sometimes you just have to do things you don't want to do."

Grandin said she began having severe panic attacks and anxiety as a teen. She controls them with medication, but also diet, exercise and hard work. "You get better at anything by just practicing, practicing, practicing."

Scientific and technology conferences are "full of smart Aspies," Grandin said, referring to people with Asperger's syndrome. Parents' and teachers' main focus for children with autism, she said, should be, "What is this kid going to be doing when he grows up?"

"I see smart Aspies who ought to be going to Silicon Valley, and they're being trained to clean toilets," she said. "That drives me up the wall."

Asked about research aimed at identifying an "autism gene," Grandin said she doesn't like to envision a world without autism.

"Someone is less social — that's a personality variant," she said. "If we got rid of Asperger traits, we'd have a world of social yackety-yacks that wouldn't get anything done."

Barry, the 14-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, said he appreciated Grandin's visit.

"All that stuff she's speaking about I have dealt with before," he said. "It was extremely meaningful."