Temple Grandin, Ph.D ., had a central message when she presented her 90-minute "The Autism Experience" in Havre Friday: People need to help people with autism work on their strengths and find ways to be productive.
"I can't emphasize enough that a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old with no speech, the absolute worst thing you can do with that kid is to do nothing," Grandin said. "Don't wait for two years getting a diagnosis ... you've got to start working with that kid."
Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, is known worldwide for her work in low-stress animal handling and on autism spectrum disorder.
Grandin has published several books on autism - she autographed copies and talked with people who attended the lecture afterward - and travels the world giving lectures about autism. About 175 people braved the wintry weather to attend the Havre talk, held in the Fifth Avenue Christian Church at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Grandin said part of the problem is in diagnosing autism. She recently had to answer a question about whether she had had tuberculosis when she was traveling to Australia, and that is a black-and-white question. People either have had tuberculosis or not, she said.
Diagnosing autism is not precise, she said.
"And, I'm going to be ripping apart the way it's diagnosed pretty badly," Grandin said.
The diagnosis - and treatment - of autism has changed drastically in the last 60 years. Part of that is what is considered autism - Grandin noted that Asperger syndrome, characterized by difficulties in social and nonverbal communication, was introduced as a diagnosis in the 1990s then was folded into the new term Autism Spectrum Disorder last year.
The problem is in labeling people, she said.
"I can't emphasize that enough. Do not get locked into these labels. Because I'll go to a gifted conference, and I'll see the same quirky little nerdy kids, and they are going down a really good path," she said. "And then, I see some kids who are quirky and nerdy get an autism label and get in kind of a handicap mentality.
"You go, 'Poor little Tommy's got autism, so we'll order his hamburger for him,'" Grandin said. "No, he has to go to the counter at McDonalds and order his hamburger himself."
She said of the people who work in the computer industry in California's Silicon Valley, half could be labeled autistic.
"They avoid labels like the plague," Grandin said.
She gave two examples of people who could have been labeled autistic. One was Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs - who brought snakes to school and was bullied, as she was, Grandin said - and the other was Albert Einstein.
"Little Albert here had no language until age 3," she said. "He would probably have been labeled autistic in a lot of school systems.
"And what would have happened to little Albert today? How many drugs would he have been loaded up on?" Grandin asked. "And there's way too many medications given out to way too many kids way too casually."
She said low doses of medication can be helpful - she uses low doses of antidepressants, for example - but casually prescribing medication should be avoided.
She said avoiding using computers and electronic devices also is crucial.
"The research is very, very clear," Grandin said. "Those little kids that aren't talking need 20 hours a week, 30 hours a week, of one-on-one face time. Not a computer or something, facetime, not on Facebook, real live people interacting with them.
"That was done with me," she added.
Grandin said the diagnosis of autism takes a wide variety both in what is the problem and in its severity.
"(A person with) autism may be a little bit depressed, maybe a little bit ADHD, it's a continuum," she said. "There's no black and white dividing line between kind of quirky and nerdy and very, very mild autism,"
And the impacts can be different. Grandin said she is a visual thinker - she sees what she is thinking, and doesn't think in words - and also is a bottom-up thinker. She said she takes a bunch of examples and groups them into a category, rather than conceiving a category and then thinking of examples.
The way people think can change what they can do, and how they should be treated, Grandin said. Some people find geometry easy but can't comprehend algebra, and vice versa.
Grandin said those people should focus on what they can comprehend, whether in math, language, art, animals, whatever they can do, and find something they can use in the world.
Their families and teachers need to help strengthen what they are good at - rather than focusing on their deficits - and push them to become good at more things.
"If you don't stretch them, they don't grow," Grandin said.
And that has to include not putting on labels, she said.
Labeling people often focuses on the deficit, locks people in and prevents them from growing and learning, she said. She wants to hear people talk about - and to see them focus on - their science project or their art or their animals rather than their autism, Grandin said.
"We've got to bust them out of these silos," she said.
Temple Grandin official autism website: http://templegrandin.com/