Dr. Temple Grandin wowed her large audience at the Calvin College January series yesterday. My wife and I were at a satellite location with 570 other people. Between the people who listened to her live, those who joined via closed circuit TV, and all those who joined on the Internet, thousands and thousands of us heard her. She richly rewarded us for our time.Temple Grandin has authored a number of books, teaches at a university, and has distinguished herself as an expert in animal behavior and handling.
When she was three years old, no one could have predicted that she would author books such as Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, and Humane Livestock Handling: Understanding Livestock Behavior and Building Facilities for Healthier Animals. No one would have predicted that she would have accomplished anything at all. In her speech yesterday, she said, “I would have ended up in an institution if mother hadn’t fought for me.” At the age of three she was non-verbal, and spent much of her day rocking back and forth and having tantrums, “full-blown symptoms of autism,” in her words.
People believed in her
In her talk, Grandin highlighted people in her life that made the difference for her between institutionalization and international acclaim. Among others, her mother, a nanny, a high school science teacher, a college professor, an engineer on a job site all believed in her, encouraged her in her gifts, and helped her navigate the challenging matter of understanding the mysterious world, to her, of human relationships.
For example, one day on a job site she told a welder that he did a poor job, and that his weld looked like “pigeon doo-doo.” The welder, understandably, was upset and told her supervisor about the incident. The supervisor went to Grandin and explained that such a blunt comment on someone else’s work was not appropriate. Instead of firing her or writing her off as stupid, crude, or hopeless, he told her that she needed to tell the welder that her words were rude and to apologize to him, which she did.
Because people like this supervisor believed in Temple Grandin and called out the best in her, the whole world is a better place. She looks at the world, and animals in particular, from a different perspective than most human beings. Thanks to Temple Grandin, animal handling and slaughter operations are much more humane than they used to be.
In her lecture, Grandin said that unlike most people, she thinks primarily in pictures and secondarily in words. She uses words to describe the pictures that are her preferred tool for thought. As a result, she has been able to provide extraordinary insight into animal thinking and behavior, so that she was able to articulate likely causes behind animal behavior in a way that no one had done before. She published her insights five years ago in her book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour.
She applied her same unusual thinking style to herself and other people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and produced several other books about and for people including The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's, The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism, and Developing Talents: Careers For Individuals With Asperger Syndrome And High-functioning Autism.
What if . . .
Let’s do a little thought experiment. What if her mother, her science teacher, the engineer and all the others had not believed in her? What if these people had seen her odd behaviors (as others surely did) and concluded that she was intellectually impaired ? What if they assumed that she would not be able to make any contribution to society and that she would need to be cared for by others throughout her life?
What if . . . ? The answer seems easy. Grandin would have been one very frustrated woman. She would be unemployed or underemployed like the majority of people living with disabilities throughout the world. Furthermore, the world would be bereft of insights that she has given to us about animals and humans. Anyone who appreciates animals must acknowledge Temple Grandin’s contributions to humane treatment of our fellow mammals. Anyone who wants to know more about autism can look to her for insight.
Let’s do one more “what if . . . ” What if the young man with Down syndrome who goes to your church has no one who pays attention to him, encourages him, helps him find his gifts and use them well? What if the older woman who is now blind has no one to come along side her to find out what she can still do and loves to do?
The answer to these questions seems easy as well, because these “hypothetical” situations happen regularly. The result is that many, many people end up alone, isolated, frustrated, unemployed or underemployed, and often depressed.
I’m not saying that anyone with a disability is a Temple Grandin in the rough and will make contributions to life and society on a par with her. Almost no one in the world does that, disabled or not. What I’m saying is that each human being is uniquely gifted for the callings that God has given to them. People with disabilities, more than any other group of people in the world, are assumed to have nothing to contribute to life, society, or the church. They are most likely to be written off before they are given a chance. They are most likely to have all their abilities and gifts colored, in other people’s minds, by the disability.
As we wonder what might have been with Temple Grandin, we also need to wonder, what might God do in the lives of people with disabilities that we know if we give them some encouragement and appreciation? It's good to think about ramps and elevators and large print bulletins, but hospitality, welcome, and inclusion are mainly about relationships.