Temple Grandin on the Importance of Giving Kids with Autism a “50’s Upbringing”

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

Temple Grandin speaking at USAAA

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.

19 thoughts on “Temple Grandin on the Importance of Giving Kids with Autism a “50’s Upbringing”

  1. This is very important because my son who is now 20 with aspergers and a lot bigger then I am. has no skills when I try to teach or get him to do anything he just ignores me he won’t even make a peanut butter sandwich

  2. Our son Michael is 16 now , he has 2 older brothers 1 sister and a younger brother , we have always treated him as though he was just like everyone else and his siblings are always on his case when he does wrong and correct him accordingly , as like any normal teenager he tries to get over and has some sneaky normal kid characteristics ….he has come along way from not speaking till he was 6 yrs of age , now he speaks more articulate then most adults !…he still has a long way to go to being totally independent but patience , understanding and love are equally important in all these children’s lives to help them advance in society ….so yes the term a 50’s upbringing is definitely a good approach ( lol and I was born in the mid sixties !)

  3. When I was a kid, they didn’t have the diagnosis of “Aspergers” yet, so I was just this really eccentric kid with very limited social skills, though I was always trying to be part of my peer group. I really believe it had not been for my mom doing the things Dr Grandin speaks of above (much of which could also be considered an old fashioned Texan or Southern upbringing), I would not be as well adjusted as I am today. Yes, I still have my issues, but I’m very aware of them and that is hugely due to how I was raised.

  4. We’ve always tried to explain why the things our son says or the tone he uses maybe inappropriate and to give eye contact and shake hands especially when meeting someone for the first time. I wanted to make sure he had a skill even if in the future he would still have to live with us and because his interest has always been in cars whenever my father is working on his car I send him over. He’s in high school now and he started taking auto classes. My dad is also teaching him about gardening and landscaping, he now makes money during the summer cutting and landscaping yards. I realized, probably a little later than I would’ve liked, that no matter how much we try to teach him responsibility around the house when he’s “working” he definitely takes pride in what he’s doing, he’s also taking an interest in cooking so he has some culinary classes this year. I’m sure there are more things we probably should be doing to prepare him for the future but like anything else one step @ a time and we learn as we go along.

  5. I like the “50s upbringing”–for ALL children. I was brought up in like manner in the 80s, and am bringing up my neurotypical toddler daughter that way. But I’m still working on teaching our autistic daughter to talk, or to initiate and receive communicate communication in whatever form; I confess that it’s a great challenge for me to teach “skills” beyond those.

  6. Great post … I adore hearing about things like this from Temple Grandin’s perspective almost as much as I like to hear from anyone on the spectrum. I worry about how my guys will do as they get older, though we’ve tried hard to instill so many teachable moments in their daily lives. This gives me new determination, though, to keep trying. Thanks for the post!

  7. I agree with Dr. Grandin’s approach. In fact, all children deserve this type of parenting. I found that giving my daughter responsibilty early and letting her make age appropriate decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions has given her the life skills to be a successful adult. She is now in her last year of grad school, financially independant and very happy.

  8. I have autism. Please remember that Temple, as much as I adore here and thank her for what she has done, SPECIALISES IN THE BEHAVIOUR OF COWS. She also had the advantage of been raised with a loving, caring, highly educated and properly funded mother who made sure she got the nuturing she needed. Not every one was or is that lucky. Do remember that in most Western countries a 50s upbrining also included subservence to the husband, rape in marriage (outlawed in the 60s in my country), women not owning property, women having to get their husband’s permission for operations on reproductive organs-and I am referring to the early 70s. Looking back on the 50s as the romantic notion of how to do things is perhaps not at all apt. There was just as much crime and badly behaved people then (and I do not include my fellow autistic brothers and sisters in that group)-but we did not hear about it because we did not have the scope and the media reach we have now. It is NOT the 1950s – things have changed dramatically. While basic manners belong in every era believing that if you revert to the way things were in the 1950s is fraught with the danger and likely to cause children with autism considerable confusion-which they do not need. The 50s is seen by sociologists as a time of father is the boss and mother submits, women are of lower intellect and skill – men know everything – men are boss. Live in the here and now; remember Temple enjoyed living in the 1950s and was not in the real world, she was somewhat forunately protected by her mum-God Bless her mother! To the lady who says she has a 20 year old son who will not make his own peanut butter sandwich and he is considerably bigger than her – (a) unfortunately this is unlikely to change as he appears to have grown up getting away with it (b) do not push the point – Asperger’s anger! For younger kids if you have to tell them a thousand times to do something in a pleasant, firm (but not rude) voice-you have to tell them a thousand times. However, I have seen autistic kids taught to ‘do the right thing at home’ only to leave home or go to work and to revert back to the way they want things. It is a bit more involved.

    1. All very good points Casey. I don’t think Dr. Grandin was espousing that everything should return to the way it was in the 1950’s. She specifically referred to the the bullet point list in my blog as what she meant by a “50’s upbringing.” Things like learning to take turns, being on time, basic social skills, and the like. My apologies if that was not clear in my post. Thank you!

  9. While this is a great article with which I heartily agree, I’m stuck on an irrelevant detail: Cattle expert AND autism authority? I can’t help but picture a Venn diagram of their shared skillsets and feel a little offended, as if autistic children are nothing more than cattle. Do you think I should get branded with the Asperger’s prod or should I go with the classier Williams’?

    1. Hi Amy,
      Sorry if my wording was poor. While Dr. Grandin is an autism expert – it has not completely defined her. She has developed quite a successful career as a consultant and designer of cattle processing farms. Her research, creativity and design skills redefined the way cattle are treated. My point in listing that was to give her credit for her professional accomplishments outside of autism. My point was not to link the two per se.
      Sorry for the confusion!

    2. If you ever get the chance to read Temple Grandin’s Thinking In Pictures, you’ll get a better idea of re: animals think, and maybe will not be as offended by such a comparison (which wasn’t even being made to begin with, but does explain her expertise in two seemingly different fields). Different does not equal less, whether we’re talking about thinking patterns of people, primates, cattle, dogs. To be offended is to assume one style is “right”, presumably the neurotypical human style. She does assert, with a lot of scientific studies as evidence, that the visual thinking patterns of animals are very similar to humans with highly visual thinking patterns, particularly highly visual autistic individuals. Her similarities and ability to relate and think like her cattle (ie how to keep them calm) are why she had been so successful in making slaughterhouses more humane.

  10. My wife and I have been very active in teaching our 16 year old autistic son how to work. He helps us split and stack fire wood; he helps the neighbors with their wood. He works one day a week with a coach at a local Dairy Queen learning how to work and function in a highly public space. We met with the DQ manager and asked if he could work for free with a coach in order to learn. They were pleased to help and have enjoyed seeing him grow. Our son also helps me on other projects building things like a green house. Granted it helps it there is someone around that can guide the individual, but even learning how to make their own lunch is a teachable moment. Temple is absolutely correct and she has been pivotal in providing my wife insight on how to reach our son.

  11. Totally agree with her points – I had a 50’s uprbringing and passed it on to my son on the spectrum (all kids should have this–clean up after themselves, please and thank you, be gracious). He is not as high functioning as Aspergers but he can certainly make his own breakfast, lunch, help with dinner, empty the dishwasher, dust, vacuum, etc. started from early childhood. Just like we learned the timestable as kids, repetition, do-overs, praise

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