Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor of animal sciences, was the keynote speaker Wednesday at the start of a two-day symposium in Fort Collins that focuses on meeting the unique needs of college students with autism and similar disorders. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post )
FORT COLLINS — Temple Grandin — perhaps the most famous autistic person in the world — bristles when a young person with autism dwells on the disorder and not on plans for the future.
"It bothers me when a teen or someone just talks to me about their autism," Grandin said Wednesday. "Talk to me about dinosaurs . . . or your vacation. Too many kids get fixated on autism and not their career."
Grandin, 64, offered typically blunt advice during a 45-minute talk to parents, teachers and autism experts at Colorado State University.
The school is hosting a two-day symposium — "Transition and Transformation: Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders in the College Environment" — to offer clues on how colleges can help autistic students succeed.
Autistic youths — as well as those with the associated Asperger syndrome — are emerging populations on campuses throughout the country, said CSU provost Rick Miranda.
"We are seeing more of these students coming here, and that is part of our mission is to embrace this community," Miranda said.
Grandin's early school years were marked by derision from teachers and merciless teasing from her peers.
But, she said, she got help from mentors and learned to harness her unique ability as a visual thinker to gain respect and professional acceptance.
"When you are weird, you learn to sell your work," Grandin said.
National attention shined on Grandin, a CSU professor who is a leading designer of humane slaughterhouses and livestock holding pens, as autism experts began writing about her. The HBO movie "Temple Grandin" won seven Emmy awards in August.
Before a huge crowd at the Lory Student Center, Grandin showed why she remains a highly sought-after speaker.
Wearing her trademark Western-style blouse, Grandin launched into the subject of accommodating autistic people while also criticizing some families of autistic people for being too permissive.
"I am a child of the 1950s, where we were expected to do things," Grandin said. "I didn't want to go to church or wear funny clothes, but I had to because my parents expected it of me."
Many autistic children today, she said, are not asked to do their work on time or be polite. "So many of these kids come to college, and they are taught things that should have been taught at home."
Many middle and high schools are also losing potentially good students with autism because they are not offering courses that emphasize visual thinking, she said. Because her mind is visually focused, Grandin said, she struggled to grasp algebra while she thrived in her more-visual geometry courses.
Still, the biggest obstacle for most autistic students is to learn to do well in social situations. Grandin said she learned that it was OK to cry if she was frustrated rather than lash out physically.
"It's all right for geeks to cry," she said. "A high-tech company will not fire you for crying, but they will if you throw things or hit. You can never hit.