Friday night I had the honor of meeting Dr. Temple Grandin – the noted cattle expert, autism authority, and one of the most famous and successful people on the autism spectrum. We were both speaking at the US Autism & Asperger Association Conference in Denver and when we met at the speaker’s dinner I told Temple, “I am the co-founder of MyAutismTeam – a social network for parents of kids with autism.”
“Ohhhh” she said. “Do you know what worries me most about parents of kids with autism these days? They’re not making their children learn enough important job skills!” And with that, she launched into her case, elaborating on what she means. “I’m seeing more and more kids, a lot less severe than I was, graduating college without any job skills – and they are ending up living on social security!”
Other speakers started gathering around us to listen as she held forth. She attributes a lot of her own success to what she calls a “50’s Upbringing” from her mother – a parenting style invoking teachable moments, stretching your kids, and inculcating manners, basic social skills and independence early. It’s a parenting style she wishes would make a return today – particularly among parents of kids with autism. I should say that on this particular topic Dr. Grandin is focusing in on kids from the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum and although she refers to herself as an “Aspie” she is quick to point out that she’s come a long way from where she was developmentally as a little girl.
What is a 50’s Upbringing?
Dr. Grandin summarized a “50’s upbringing” as learning the following:
- Turn taking in conversation and activities (such as board games)
- Being on time
- Doing family activities (even ones she disliked)
- Doing things that pleased other people
- Manners (saying please and thank you)
- Rules (particularly learning why her social mistakes were inappropriate)
- That there is consistency between parents and school – e.g. a tantrum at school translates into no TV at night
- Basic social skills
- Shaking hands
- Eye contact
- Ordering food in restaurants
- How to shop
- “Eccentric is ok, dirty and rude is not”
Examples from Her Own Life
Dr. Grandin shared several examples from her own life to try to clarify. I’ve tried to capture those here to share with you (all paraphrased so I won’t put them in quotes.)
- Learning job skill needs to start early and the transition from learning to working full-time needs to be gradual. The best way to do that is to always be doing some kind of work where you can learn a job skill. For me that started as a girl.
- Mother made us properly shake hands with everyone we met, and look them in the eye. I’m appalled at how many kids I meet at book signings who don’t know how to shake hands. You either get the “vice grip or the dead fish”. Kids need to be taught how to shake hands, and how much pressure to apply when they shake hands. That’s a teachable moment. When I was six, Mother made me put on my church dress and serve hors d’oeuvres to our guests – she taught me how to look people in the eye and do something nice for others.
- When I made a social mistake, was rude, or misbehaved – mother would teach me why (teach me the rule) rather than scold me or say, “No, no, no.” If I pointed and made a rude comment about an overweight person at the story mother would say, “Temple, it is rude to point at people and make fun of their appearance.” If your child goes behind the cashier’s counter at the store, replace “No! Johnny come back here right this instant!” with “Johnny, only the clerks can go behind the counter.” Use the teachable moment.
- Mother always made us try new things. At age 13 she got me a job sewing. I was learning a skill and earning money. Later, when I was in high school I got my own job cleaning horse stalls and working with horses. I was learning a skill and becoming very familiar with working with animals.
- When I was in college I had to rent a house, negotiate rent and live with a roommate.
- I learned you have to build up and carry with you a portfolio of work. You never know when you are going to get a job opportunity. In my first job I used to paint signs. With each completed sign I could show it to the next potential customer to get another sign to paint. Later, (as I was getting my consulting practice to the cattle industry off the ground) I used to do tiny consulting projects with the smallest cattle ranches. I was learning on each one and then I could show that work to the next person. People thought I was weird, but they respected my designs. Today you can carry your portfolio on your phone. (Reader Note: Incidentally, half the cattle in North America now are handled in a facility using one of Temple Grandin’s designs).
Dr. Grandin elaborates with more examples in her own post and her many books, which are well worth the read.
A Challenge to Parents
This was not a light conversation. When Dr. Grandin talks in person she doesn’t mince words and she speaks about this topic with the genuine fire in the belly of someone trying to jumpstart a movement. To be clear, she does not like what she’s seeing. She wants to encourage parents of kids on the spectrum to make sure they stretch and teach their kids more, get them to try new things and learn new skills (even if the kids don’t want to do it at the time, and even though they may fail at it initially). She passionately believes it’s never to late to start.
My meeting with Dr. Grandin left me inspired and is causing me to seriously examine how I’m raising my own two neuro-typical children. I know I could utilize a lot more teachable moments with them than I do currently, and I’m not so sure I stretch my kids and let them safely “fail” enough. You can weigh in on this topic. To learn what other parents of children with autism are doing to teach job skills, or to share some of your own teachable moments, please join MyAutismTeam. It’s free and this invitation is open to parents of “children” of all ages. Of the 28,000 parents on MyAutismTeam about 35% are parents of teenagers or adults on the spectrum.