Autism: All Kinds of Minds

This week, I was given the pleasure of watching Temple Grandin’s TED talk titled The World Needs All Kinds of Minds. I had previously heard Grandin’s name come up in discussions about children with autism. However, I had never had the chance to hear her personal thoughts about children on the spectrum until now. I hope you can take away something from this video because I sure did. Here is the video:

To open her talk, Grandin defines autism as a “continuum that goes from very severe – the child remains nonverbal – all the way up to brilliant scientists and engineers.” What is important about this sentence is that autism is a continuum of traits. This means there is a very broad spectrum that a child with autism can land on. As a becoming teacher, this resonates with me as I will have to be mindful of where my students lie on the spectrum. Where they are on the spectrum affects how well they can communicate, their level of functioning, and how they learn.

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Figure 1. Details vs. Gestalts. The World Needs All Kinds of Thinkers. (Grandin, T.)

Grandin described the different in thinking between a person with autism and a person without. The way she demonstrated this was with Figure 1. People without autism tend to see the whole gestalts (big letters) before seeing the details (smaller letters making up the big letters). Therefore, they might not realize initially that the letters on the right are inconsistent. However, people with autism have a faster response to the details (smaller letters). Their brains pick up on detains while the “normal brain” ignores the details.

Grandin believes most people fail to see the main problem, and the way to fix it is to put yourself in a different position. She gave the example of how she figured out what cattle were getting distracted by. To figure it out, she put herself in the position of the cattle; she crawled into their corral and found different items (chains hanging down, people walking by, etc.). She was then able to remove the distractions to solve the problem.

According to Grandin, there are three main types of thinking people on the autism spectrum fall into: visual, pattern, and verbal. Grandin describes herself as a visual thinker; her thinking involves being able to picture and model anything in her mind, yet she has always been poor at mathematics and science. The pattern thinker tends to excel at music and math, yet has trouble in reading. And the verbal mind is usually poor at drawing but knows countless numbers of facts. In my classroom, it is likely I will have a wide range of students with autism. However, it is extremely unlikely that every student of mine will learn the same. Keeping these types of learners in mind, I can adjust my teaching to fit the individual needs of my students.

This week I read and learned about Universal Design Learning (Article: UDL_Technology). Universal Design Learning (UDL) is an “instructional planning framework for proactively addressing barriers in the curriculum to support students with diverse learning needs and benefit a broad range of students (Billingsley, Brownell, Israel, & Kamman 2013).” Looking at what Grandin was saying about there being three different main types of learners, UDL will help me reach all of my students. UDL is based off of three principles: multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement. I can implement these principles in my teaching by representing material in different ways, offering choices to students on how they can demonstrate their knowledge, and giving my students options that motivate, interest, and challenge students.

Although Grandin’s believes the world needs all kinds of minds, there is an evident problem in the way these brilliant minds with autism are being taught in schools. Teachers do not know how to teach children with autism. UDL can help to increase learning in all students, but more actions need to be taken for children with brilliant minds. The children with autism on the spectrum that are these brilliant visual, pattern, and verbal thinkers are the people we need in the future. Brilliant thinkers in the past tended to be specialists, where they were great at something and bad at something else. Van Gogh, Einstein, and Tesla are just a few examples of specialists with great minds who created great things. And what else do they all have in common? Autism. However, in children, these great minds tend to be fixated minds. Their intelligence needs to be redirected to make use of it.

This is where my job as a teacher will be critical. Instead of a teacher, I should serve as a mentor to my students with autism. Younger children with autism are not getting to where they should anymore. Following her advice, I will do my best to motivate my students with autism. By giving them a specific task to complete, rather than a broad task, they can use and develop their minds to create great things.

And with that, I will leave you with a quote by Grandin: “If by some magic, autism be irradiated from the Earth, then men would still be socializing by a wood fire at the entrance to a cave.”

The world truly does need all kinds of types, autistic, brilliant, minds.


(Click HERE to go to Grandin’s official website to learn more!)


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